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St Wilfrid’s Head: The strain on creativity in schools

Michael Ferry, Headteacher at St Wilfrid’s School, on the importance of creative projects such as their recent production of “Grease”.

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A couple of weeks ago, St Wilfrid’s put on the show to end all shows – Grease! It really was the hottest ticket in town, seeing us sell out in four out of the five public performances with only a few seats spare on the back row on our opening night. Yes, I’m biased but this was an amazing effort from all concerned and it was, yet again, our “best ever” show!

So, what is my point? I could go on and wax lyrical about the choreography and the dancing, about the singing and the acting, about the behind the scenes crew and the band, and yes, I am biased, I am the Headteacher and I am so proud of everyone involved but, what if it never actually happened? What if over 1300 people didn’t pay to see this show over the course of the week?

What do you mean I hear you say? Well, let’s imagine that it never actually happened and that over 100 students never had the experience of not just the performances themselves but the experience of committing to a project and seeing it develop over 5 months, of showing resilience when things went wrong, of striving to achieve a standard of excellence and of never feeling that level of fulfilment and self-confidence. In fact, let’s imagine that not only did it not happen this year but that it didn’t happen in previous years either.

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Every single student involved in the production, whether it be behind the scenes or on stage has a talent and boy, if you’d seen the show, you’d realise that it is in abundance. If it hadn’t taken place then their talents wouldn’t have had the opportunity to shine, they would not have felt the massive highs of performance as well as the massive lows of it being all over. They would not have come together as strangers across Years 7 – 13 and then parted as friends. They would not have produced performance after performance, which transported every member of the audience out of their day-to-day living into a world of unbridled joy and happiness; their work got inside people’s heads and kept them awake to the songs of “Freddie My Love”, “Those Magic Changes” and “Greased Lightnin” to name just a few.

For more on St Wilfrid’s production of “Grease”, click here.

Yes, now to the point; let’s imagine that it never happened and that the creative talents of those involved were left hidden. Let’s imagine that not only did extra-curricular productions like this not take place but that the creative side of the curriculum in school was reduced possibility to the point of paying only lip service.

“That would never happen surely” you say. Well, that is the world, if we are not careful, that schools will sleep walk into. We live at a time when there is a hierarchy of subjects within the curriculum. Perhaps it was always thus but now we have schools being made more and more accountable for results, for “performance data” and “league table” positioning. The only place where league tables should be used is in football!

St Wilfrid’s production of “Grease” was a huge success

Within this environment the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) has emerged. From there we have the EBacc “bucket” which is part of the process of measuring schools; put simply, a child needs to choose to take a humanity subject (History or Geography) or a Modern Foreign Language otherwise the school will be penalised in the way that it is deemed to be performing from a data point of view. Now, don’t get me wrong, the study of History and Geography and languages is great; I myself gained GCSEs in History and Geography and still have a passion for them but what about the child who has a passion for Drama, Dance and Music? In a 3 option system, that leaves the school in a difficult position. If it allows the child to choose these three subjects then the school will be disadvantaged. The more students who don’t fill the EBacc bucket, the more the disadvantage.

I was recently challenged by an Ofsted Inspector as to the academic rigour of the curriculum at St Wilfrid’s. We exchanged some frank views and although I don’t believe that we now share the same views, she accepted my reasoning around the importance of offering a broad and balanced curriculum which allowed all students to flourish in a personalised curriculum and that to make it so called “more academic” would put the creative side of the curriculum at risk. Ofsted, to their credit do talk publicly about the development of the whole child but in our most recent inspection, there was a significant amount of time spent looking at the data of the school.

“West Sussex schools are chronically underfunded”

So, are Creative Arts subjects in schools at risk? Absolutely! In a system preoccupied with academia and in a local authority which is critically underfunded compared to other areas (if St Wilfrid’s were in Greenwich I could afford to employ an extra 40 teachers as I’d have an extra £1m) and where there is a teaching recruitment crisis, which subjects would you expect to see remain in the curriculum and which would you expect to see cut when schools can’t set balanced budgets? It’s not rocket science!

Let’s be very clear, West Sussex schools are chronically underfunded when compared to similar schools in other areas across England. Much has been made of this through the WorthLess? Campaign which many of you will be aware of. Let’s also be clear that the recruitment of teachers into the profession is at crisis point. So, what is my point regarding the Arts? Well, put simply, if a school like St Wilfrid’s was to reduce the arts side of the curriculum and reduce the opportunities for students to take part in extra-curricular activities then, ultimately, those staff would leave. This would leave the possibility of those staff not being replaced, not necessarily because the decision is made not to replace them but because there may not be anyone to replace them with. The self-fulfilling prophecy then takes over and where there was once vibrant Drama, Music, Art & Dance Departments; you are left with tumbleweed.

That’s outrageous I hear you say; yes it is, but here’s a question; what are you prepared to do about it? If nothing, then read no further, but if you really are interested, do two things. Firstly, if your son or daughter at any point in their school lives, or in fact at any point in their life, says that they want to choose any of the art subjects; let them, and even better, fully support them; leave no stone unturned in allowing them to develop their passion, their talent, because by doing this they will be happy and isn’t that the point. Imagine you are stuck in a job whereby every day you wake up and it’s an effort to force yourself into work, you don’t enjoy it but just wished you could do something else; now imagine that is the way your child thinks about going to school because you made them choose the so called academic subjects because you think they are more important, because you’ve believed the hype. Secondly, support your child’s school, write to your local MP about funding, even better go to their surgery and confront them about it in a relentlessly reasonable way; it really isn’t good enough, you pay the same amount of tax as the same family in Greenwich!

We are in challenging times in education, of that there is no doubt but one thing is for sure, where parents/carers and schools unite in challenging inequality, then change can follow. We need more funding, we need more teachers and we need your help to ensure that all children get the very best experience in schools and that they are happy and fulfilled by their experiences; they only get one “shot at the title”.

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Education

Michael Ferry: Education – It’s more than just good grades

Headteacher at St Wilfrid’s Catholic School, Michael Ferry on the price of education and how funding impacts schools.

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Michael Ferry, Headteacher at St Wilfrid's Catholic School

Let me first start by asking the question, “What is Education?”.

Is it purely the pursuit of academic excellence or is it more than that? We live in a society that has to measure everything and in the realms of education it is quite easy to find things to measure. Take for instance the % of students in a school who achieve a Grade 4 or better in English and Maths. That’s an easy measurement to make and allows parents to make direct comparisons between schools; dead easy, yes? Well actually, no it isn’t as simple as that. When you start comparing these types of attainment data, you are only comparing the “end results” and what you can’t compare is the level of progress being made in different schools.

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Even when you compare progress, it isn’t simple and straight forward as progress measures, as they currently stand, offer no context to the way in which they have been achieved, but as a society we like to measure things and as such we have seen the evolvement of education league tables.

Now let me put my cards on the table here; in my opinion the only place for league tables is in football (or any other sport to be honest); they have no place in education. The reason for this is the fact that schools do so much more than prepare students to sit exams; schools seek to celebrate each child’s uniqueness by recognizing their talents and working with them, and crucially their parents, to help them develop into young men and women of integrity who can enter adult society and make a positive contribution; to be frank, to make them better human beings. Therein lies the problem with league tables.

So, how do schools do the “unmeasurable”? They seek to employ the highest calibre of staff, both teaching and non-teaching; staff who have a passion for working with young people and will constantly go the extra mile for the students in their charge.

Presently in West Sussex, as well as in other Local Authority areas across England, there is a recruitment crisis in the teaching profession making it harder to deliver those life changing opportunities and experiences which can have a huge impact on the children of this country.

The recruitment crisis is compounded by the current funding situation that education is currently experiencing. We have been told regularly over the last 3 years that there “is more money in education than ever before” and more recently that “record levels” of funding are in education. In fact, this mantra was repeated on numerous occasions in the days preceding the protest by over 2,000 Headteachers on 28th September, when a letter was delivered to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Right Honorable Phillip Hammond, urging him to invest more in education funding.

Subsequently, we have now seen that following an investigation over alleged deliberate misuse of financial data, the DfE has been officially reprimanded [Click here]. Still, the campaign for fairer funding continues, buy why is it important?

Crucially, fewer and fewer schools are now able to offer as much support to children than they were in the past. Trained counsellors in schools are few and far between, Education Psychologists; Speech & Language Therapists, likewise and in broad terms, most secondary schools that I am aware of have seen a reduction in the number of Pastoral staff. This, compounded, by the fact that the number of teachers in secondary schools has reduced over the years means that although there is more work to do due to changes in exams and in accountability measures, there are less staff to do it!

It’s not surprising then that opportunities are being reduced from both within the curriculum and from outside of it. In essence, schools are being forced to plough their limited resources into the basics, the teaching of subjects so that students can pass exams.

Is that what we want as a society? I don’t think it is. Yes, getting good grades is important as it allows school leavers to access opportunities and further their ambitions once they have left school but what about the tools which prepare students for later life; the development of a moral purpose; the desire to tackle social injustice; to be tolerant; inclusive; to be loving and kind; in essence to be a better human being?

As the debate continues over funding in education, we really do need to think carefully about what we want our society to look like. If we get it wrong now, we will be blamed for generations to come!

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