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Last Updated: Friday, 8 October, 2004, 14:48 GMT 15:48 UK
Bringing creativity to the classroom
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Karen Fowler
Mrs Fowler wants pupils to be more confident
Can we teach children to think?

For several years the government has set numeracy and literacy targets.

Pupils in England, according to international figures, are getting better at the "core skills" promoted within the curriculum. They are improving at reading, writing and maths.

Now attention is being focused too on the need to bring creativity into the classroom to inspire children and fire their interest in learning.

But what does this mean? More artwork, playing games or music, perhaps? More in-depth analysis of the world? More visits to museums and galleries?

What does a school deemed to be creative do differently?

Karen Fowler is head teacher of a school in Southwark, south London, which has been praised by government bodies for having a creative approach.

At Michael Faraday Primary School, she wants more from her staff. She demands "passion".

Teachers need to be given the freedom to "question" children, to "challenge" them.

The school is in what Mrs Fowler calls a "challenging area".

It is surrounded by medium-rise, grey flats. The children speak 19 different languages. Southwark is the joint worst-performing local authority in England in tests at age 11.

Mrs Fowler said: "We have got to raise aspirations. In an area like this we've got to have not just a good education but an outstanding one, to make sure the children have a choice in life, to show they can be anyone they want to be.

"I want teachers who aren't just good teachers but who are outstanding, inspirational, challenging people.

Pupils playing recorders
Every child in the school learns to play the recorder
"The teachers have regular meetings about education. It's important that everyone thinks and has opinions and passion."

Mrs Fowler describes herself as a "rebel" since her teacher-training days. She is not the sort of person who likes being told how to do her job.

"It's really important for schools to decide for themselves what they want their children to learn.

"Of course, literacy and numeracy are fundamental, but teachers are professionals and it's important they feel able to take risks by providing exciting, stimulating lessons."

Staff at Michael Faraday seem to be living Mrs Fowler's dream.

In every one of its 1970s-built, open-plan classrooms something innovative or creative is going on.

In one, children, being visited by a dental health officer, are creating paper models of mouths.

In another, they are writing stories about their trip to a city zoo. The children - some of whom never see the countryside - seem to find the pigs and the turkey, with its "soft, red top", particularly funny.

Elsewhere they are comparing two poems, or learning to play the recorder.

Staff are given more freedom than normal to experiment.

Letter from a wolf

In one corner of the entrance hall is a cardboard model of a forest, with the Big Bad Wolf and Red Riding Hood.

In the modern spirit of celebrity self-questioning, all 350 pupils have been sent a letter "from the wolf", asking: "Why do you think I'm so bad?"

Mrs Fowler is "delighted" by the responses.

She said: "The children were absolutely thrilled to receive a letter in the first place. Their responses were great, very imaginative."

Wary as she is of government-inspired clichés, one of her favourite words is "empowerment".

City of London skyline
City of London: near the school but previously beyond pupils' ambitions

Each class is asked to elect two representatives to a school council. They ask other pupils' opinions and put them to teachers.

Their voice carries real power. Following a campaign by the children, the school changed the company providing its dinners.

They are also being consulted on plans to improve the playground. A delegation has met local architects to discuss ideas.

First names

In the classroom, children address the teachers by their first names.

As Mrs Fowler walks around, many spontaneously say: "Hello Karen."

There is genuine affection.

But Mrs Fowler is far from being "right-on", or allowing the children complete freedom.
Creativity is about developing pupils' creative thinking and behaviour
National College for School Leadership

She said: "I think the National Curriculum was a good idea. Before that there was often no structure, with teachers doing whatever they liked.

"Giving some central direction meant the children had an entitlement to learn certain things.

"But some heads just take everything the government says and put it into action without question. They need to take the best bits and not the rest."

The Department for Education and Skills recommends children take part in a "literacy hour" every day.

It is not, however, required by law. Michael Faraday school spends as much time as others on reading but not in so rigid a way.

'Aspiration, aspiration, aspiration'

It seems to work. The school has received excellent reports from inspectors.

Test results at age 11 have also been well above the national average in literacy, maths and science.

The school's budget has been worked out to ensure no class has more than 23 pupils.

The children themselves show guests, such as MPs and councillors, around.

A merchant bank in the nearby City of London paid for a journey to its offices, where pupils spoke to graduate trainees and sat in the boardroom.

Some had never been in a black cab before.

Aspiration, aspiration, aspiration, as Tony Blair might say.

Michael Faraday school has been chosen by the National College for School Leadership as one of 33 across England which set an example to others through their creative approach.

'A one-off'

"Creativity for learning is much more than allocating more time for humanities and the arts. It's about developing pupils' creative thinking and behaviour through a broad and rich curriculum," the college says.

"Creativity flourishes where it is rooted in learning and teaching, the planned curriculum and throughout the school environment.

"It may be evident, for example, in a welcoming school that has a strong sense of community, where confident pupils show enjoyment, excitement and enthusiasm in a climate of respect and trust."

Lots of people say they were "inspired" by a single teacher.

As a girl in Newcastle, Mrs Fowler found most of the learning rather dry. But Miss Sturt, the French teacher, was different.

"She allowed us to talk about things. She used to give us stars when we did good work.

"She really was a one-off at that time and a true inspiration. No one else in school was like her.

"But there's no reason why other teachers shouldn't be like her. We need to create a system where it's possible."

The dawn of creativity?
24 Jun 03  |  Education
Music 'vital' to school standards
03 Mar 04  |  Education

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