The fruits of a creative child-centred approach
At the end of the summer term this year I was standing in front of 200 parents after a spectacular show of ‘The Lion King’, performed by ninety 9 to 11 year olds. I was almost lost for words and, I must admit, a little wet around the eyes, as I spoke to the audience. This wasn’t because it was one of the most stunning performance of singing, dancing and acting that I have seen at our school and it wasn’t because I love the beautiful music of ‘The Lion King’: it was because, behind every shining, joyful face on stage, there was a young person who had grown enormously in confidence and skill by being part of a big show like this. The pupils standing on stage had astounded me with their musical, dancing and acting abilities and I felt really proud to be their Headteacher and really proud to be part of a school that is able to provide such wonderful life changing opportunities for pupils. There were many surprises; pupils who had never sung in public before, pupils who were previously really shy but who were somehow able to climb on to that stage and project their voices to fill the hall. Every child had their story to tell and every child, I am certain, will never forget being part of that community of performers. Being a Headteacher in 2015 can be very challenging, the responsibilities daunting. However, at the end of that Lion King performance, all the difficult moments of the year were put in to perspective as I surveyed the cast, comprised of children who were fulfilling their ambitions, expanding their horizons and achieving in ways that many had not thought possible before.
And there were others in the audience who felt the same way:
‘The children of Bradway did themselves, their parents, their school staff and their community proud – to see such energy, talent, confidence, and sheer enthusiasm was a sight to behold. It was an education in itself’. (Antony Hughes; Children’s Commissioner and Director of Teaching and Learning for Sheffield)
Schools have a duty to give children a wide range of experiences
Then a week later I watched a performance of Les Miserables at High Storrs secondary school in Sheffield. It was an absolute privilege to see young people, ranging in age from 12 to 18, performing a challenging musical to such an incredibly high standard. The confidence of the cast shone through, just as it had at Bradway, and I know from my own daughter, who was involved, that the show had had a profound effect on those taking part. In my opinion these sorts of experiences are just as important as other parts of the curriculum, as they can change lives by enabling children to discover what they are good at. Children learn in different ways and whilst the stage is a perfect way for some children to express themselves, and to achieve, for others it is the sports field, while for others it may be through drawing or through mathematics, science and creative writing. I think that schools have a duty to give children the broadest possible range of experiences so that every young person is able to succeed at something. This experience of success is at the heart of motivation and without at least some success in their lives, children often give up trying.
Success breeds success
Unfortunately external bodies such as Ofsted and the Department for Education inadvertently make a broad curriculum more difficult for school leaders to justify by judging schools, and children, according to their success in just a few subjects and activities. There is a perverse incentive in our current system to do more of what is measured and less of what is not measured and, understandably, some Headteachers, who rightly fear that they could lose their jobs if their school does not perform highly enough, resort to a narrow range of activities, designed to raise achievement in tests. The overemphasis on tests is therefore distorting the educational experiences of many children and I fear that the result is that some young people will, and do, go through school without experiencing success, because they do not do well in the measured subjects. There is a risk that these children will become disenchanted and demotivated as a result. By narrowing the curriculum, as we have been doing through successive governments, we deny many children and young people, often the most vulnerable ones, the opportunity to shine. It often seems that we are so busy as an education system, measuring and evaluating the visible aspects of children’s academic performance, that we sometimes miss the vitally important but much more difficult challenges of preparing children for their part in society. We must ensure that we value and promote the less academic parts of the curriculum, as well as the academic elements, if we are to develop the whole child, prevent excessive stress and enable all children to reach their full potential.
Headlines like the one in the Guardian in May 2015 ‘Surge in young people seeking help for exam stress’ will become more common unless the damage being done is recognised and changes made. According to the child protection campaigners NSPCC, the number of young people in Britain seeking counselling over exam stress has increased by 200% in recent years, with worry over education one of the leading causes of concern for children.
The NSPCC said last year (2014) that its ChildLine service received record numbers of approaches from students worried about exams, with a tripling in the number of those receiving counselling over exam stress specifically.
What happens when PISA rankings are more important than children’s mental health
The current situation is not very encouraging with the UK government increasingly looking at school systems from other countries, for example China, for inspiration, despite the evidence that many of these high performing countries are achieving their top results at the expense of young people’s well-being. The result is that the international PISA league tables of educational performance have become a significant driver of government policy. In China for example, many young people kill themselves because they cannot bear the heavy pressure of the test-oriented education system, according to findings of the 2014 Report on China’s Education. In China, the school day can last as long as 12 hours. In many cases, Chinese students return to two to four hours of homework after finishing school. Do we really want to import this sort of educational culture into the UK?
We need leaders who are risk takers and non-conformists.
Enabling children to shine and succeed through drama, music or dance, like the cast of The Lion King or Les Miserables, and giving them confidence and belief in their own abilities, is one of the most precious gifts that our education system can give. However we need leaders with clear child centred educational principles who are willing to resist the pressure to conform to ever changing government priorities and definitions of success, if we are to achieve the rich, high quality, inclusive education for our children that is needed to prepare them for the world of tomorrow. As the composer Pablo Casals said:
‘Each moment we live never was before and will never be again. And yet what we teach children in school is 2 + 2 = 4 and Paris is the capital of France. What we should be teaching them is what they are. We should be saying: “Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel.’
Times Educational Supplement 23rd May 2014. When school stress becomes a matter of life and death.
Annual Report on China’s Education (2014), or the Blue Book of Education,
NSPCC 14th May 2015 news bulletin