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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

Thomas Bennett Teachers vote to strike

99% of the voters elected for strike action.

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Thomas Bennett teachers vote overwhelmingly for strike action over funding cuts and job losses

Teachers working at Thomas Bennett Community College in Tilgate, Crawley have voted to take strike action. Members of the National Education Union (NEU), voted by 99% in favour of the action, with a turnout of 89%. The school, operated by The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT) has threatened to make teachers redundant and make drastic funding cuts to areas such as support for children with special educational needs (SEN).

Regional Secretary, Paul McLaughlin said:

“This overwhelming result shows the enormous strength of feeling that members have over this devastating issue. We’re calling on the employer to come to the table with serious plans to save this school, otherwise we will be forced to take significant action.”

This follows a recent public meeting where 150 members of the school community including parents, pupils and staff came together with local councillors to oppose these plans by the academy trust.

The union has confirmed that any action will be non-disruptive of exams.

Local Representative and English Teacher in the school, Alex Ramiz said:

“Through this ballot result our members are sending a clear message to The Kemnal Academies Trust that they do not accept their outrageous proposals for running our school into the ground. They will take strike action unless TKAT come up with a more workable solution.”

NEU Regional Officer, Glenn Kelly added:

“TKAT have choices. They have £7 million of reserves they can use to save this school; the Chief Executive is paid £165,000 a year and they can renegotiate the terms of their PFI contract which costs £1 million per year. So far, they have been unwilling to consider these alternatives, and prefer to make our members redundant instead. These decisions would leave vulnerable children in the school without adequate levels of support.”

Angela Newman of the Crawley Community Action Group, a parent led body formed to help fight the cuts to the school, stated;

“I am one of the many parents who are concerned about Thomas Bennett and are determined to save the school. I want to speak up to say that we fully support the teachers who have balloted for action. It’s a shame that it has to get to this but, like us parents they are motivated only to save our school and to be able to provide the children with the education they deserve.”

Peter Lamb, Leader of Crawley Borough Council said:

“As the teachers said at the meeting last week, if you want to prevent the cuts to the school we need to be ready to stand together to defend our children’s education.”

Crawley MP Henry Smith said:

“It’s perfectly understandable and right that teachers at Thomas Bennett should highlight concerns about the future of the community college and I call on the academy trust who runs the school to respond fully to these worries so that pupils and parents can be assured for the future”

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