Case study: Arts, creativity and the curriculum

Written by: Amanda Hall-Davis | Published:
Creative focus: Presenter and author David Walliams visited St Stephen’s recently to take assembly, open the new library and read to pupils, who had come to school dressed up as characters from his books. He is pictured with headteacher Michael Schumm

Headteacher Michael Schumm speaks to Amanda Hall-Davis about the innovative curriculum at his school and its basis in creativity and the arts

The question of what makes a successful school is one that has been long asked. St Stephen’s CE Primary School in west London is in the top five per cent of primary schools in terms of attainment and is rated outstanding by Ofsted. A key part of this success has been a focus on creativity and the arts.

Headteacher Michael Schumm explained: “The curriculum at St Stephen’s is a really creative curriculum. In the ethos of St Stephen’s, every child is good at something, so it is really important to have a rich and diverse curriculum.

“By fostering creative skills, be it in visual arts, music, dance or drama, we allow children to build greater confidence in their abilities, both as individual learners and as a performers. If you have a rich curriculum where they all feel valued and they all have an opportunity to excel in different areas, it gives them the confidence to spread it over the rest of the curriculum.

“We have seen time and time again not only that it doesn’t detract from their academic progress, but actually serves to bolster the more traditional aspects of their education. Accountability is a factor in all aspects of school life but we stand by the importance of the arts and I am sure anyone who has been to one of our performances or exhibitions would agree that they are a key ingredient to what makes our school so special.”

He continued: “By ensuring the pupils are all given a wide range of opportunities to flourish outside of purely academic pursuits – and by this I mean not simply creative arts but sports, communications and entrepreneurial areas as well – we can guide them towards their natural path as they grow older.

“I think that confidence is really important and I think it comes when pupils excel at something – their self-worth grows.”

The foundation of St Stephen’s curriculum is based on three so-called Characteristics of Effective Learning. These are:

  • Playing and exploring – engagement: namely finding out and exploring, playing with what they know, and being willing to “have a go”.
  • Active learning – motivation: namely being involved and concentrating, to keep trying, and enjoying achieving what they set out to do.
  • Creating and thinking critically – thinking: namely, having their own ideas, making links, and choosing ways to do things.

The St Stephen’s curriculum, meanwhile, consists of seven areas of learning:

  • Personal, social and emotional development: developing confidence and independence as part of a group, learning to take turns and show awareness of their own abilities, developing perseverance and empathy.
  • Communication and language: communicating with one another through speaking and listening skills, taking turns when speaking, speaking in front of a group, using language to retell or make up stories.
  • Physical development: improving control and coordination of the body and learning to move and handle equipment efficiently, developing gross and fine motor skills, learning to move in different ways, learning how to keep healthy, developing fine motor control for handwriting and letter formation, taking care of their own physical needs (e.g. using the toilet and managing own clothing).
  • Literacy: developing early skills in reading and writing, using phonics to read and write words and sentences.
  • Maths: learning about number, counting, quantity, measurement, shape and space.
  • Understanding the world: investigating and beginning to understand the things, places and people around the local community; showing an awareness of other cultures and religions.
  • Expressive arts and design: finding ways to communicate by using colour, shape, sound, texture, dance, movement, role play and stories.

To ensure the ideas, implementation and the smooth execution of the curriculum, the community plays a key role. This consists of the teaching staff, parents and the school governors. So how does the curriculum get implemented successfully?

“It is thinking outside of the box, drawing people in, keeping your eye on the ball,” Mr Schumm continued. “I have an amazing staff, but it is also getting other outside members of the community to share their skills. It is giving children the opportunity to learn from those who excel in their field. You’ve got people who are specialist music teachers, an artist in residence or a scientist, so they are learning from the best teachers in their field, imparting their knowledge and I think that is really important.”

One example of this approach is the school’s use of the escape game craze to engage pupils: “We had two actors come in with boxes all to do with the Battle of Britain and the children had to break the enigma code to get into the boxes. They are using maths and literacy skills and I would like to develop that,” Mr Schumm explained.

“It is about giving children the opportunities to learn in different ways, it is not necessarily your traditional maths and English, but it is also learning about so many wider things.”

With a background within the arts, has that has helped Mr Schumm with the formation of the curriculum at St Stephen’s? Mr Schumm explained: “I am sure it has. When I was growing up I was a shy boy and (getting into the arts helped me). I loved that and I learnt that at primary school, I was encouraged.

“So, I know the importance of the arts, of drama, music and dance, and how important they are in developing children, in giving them confidence.

“We do a whole-school production with all the children together and one common goal – entertaining the parents, growing, learning from each other and, being on stage as a group.”

So, with the sea of changes to the curriculum in recent times, and with primary schools having to adopt a more rigorous curriculum and with exams toughening up, what practices, leadership skills and processes are required when maintaining an innovative and creative curriculum?

Mr Schumm explained: “It is to always be open to new ideas, it is not to be scared of change, it is not to be scared of doing things differently, to have the confidence to go with it and to make well-thought-out choices about your curriculum.

“With new approaches, you have got to get everyone on board with it. I want the staff to come along on that journey with me, I want them to feel part of that. When we went from single to two-form entry, that was very important – I wanted to retain my staff and give them opportunities to be part of that process. So every year, we have to review practices because we are growing every year.

“It is building upon people’s expertise and having a really good knowledge of your staff and knowing who is good at what. I am a good listener and I want to be there for them, to be approachable. Also to listen to parents who often come up with really good ideas.”

The coming year also holds some new plans for St Stephen’s: “One of the things that I would like to do is to introduce a Founders’ Day this September, because this school was built in 1851 and was opened in September. So, I would like us to have a massive celebration where we get everybody together in the hall, new parents, older parents, the governors, members of the FOSS (Friends of St Stephen’s) team and myself to talk about the school, discuss ideas, go through our achievements.

“I would like to get the whole parent community together, share and discuss new thoughts with the governors and FOSS members and we jot down ideas for changing and enriching things.”

  • Amanda Hall-Davis is a freelance editor and journalist.

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