As a head teacher of two primary schools in East London, I was recently asked to present a ‘practitioner’s’ response to a recent report published by the Durham Commission on Creativity and Education, and I was very pleased to do so.

The place of creativity in our education system is a conversation where I believe we have to keep the fire burning. There is sufficient evidence to indicate that as a country, England is falling behind education systems around the world where the development of creativity and critical thinking in students is taking centre stage. As a head teacher, I’m also aware that my view on the importance of developing creative thinking is not reflected in all schools, and certainly not sufficiently reflected within levers of government policy, such as the National Curriculum or the recently revised OFSTED Inspection Framework.

A quick glance through the history of education demonstrates that there has been momentum within our education system to develop creativity through the curriculum. In 1999, the Robinson Report encouraged us to consider a national strategy for creative and cultural education. I still believe that we need to develop a national strategy that facilitates and supports school leaders and teachers to foster creative and critical thinking. 2009 saw the implementation of Personal Learning and Thinking skills (PLTs), which marked a significant shift away from a curriculum dominated by knowledge toward one which also seeks to promote wider skills. Now we have the Durham Commission on Creativity in Education (2019), which aims to identify ways in which creativity and creative thinking can play a larger part in the lives of young people.

So, what does this mean for us in schools? Not a lot right now. As many education systems across the world are investigating pedagogies and the effective assessment of creative thinking skills through the curriculum, we seem to have moved towards a system that values the acquisition of knowledge. The acquisition of knowledge is very important for students, but this must be balanced alongside the acquisition and development of creative thinking skills.

The way school leaders are encouraged to lead their schools is heavily dominated by an accountability system that values outcomes in national tests (at the expense of wider personal and social development) within a rigid inspection system. School leaders face immense pressure to lead their schools according to the demands of the inspection framework. My most recent experiences with OFSTED Inspectors have indicated to me that knowledge acquisition is valued more than creative thinking. The mantra of ‘Know more, Remember more’ is central and the word ‘creativity’ seems to be disregarded.

I will illustrate this with a straightforward example. I’m currently headteacher of a five-form entry primary school and before I arrived, the school had been graded “Requires Improvement” by OFSTED. I’ve been head teacher of three schools, and one of the first things I’ve done at each is introduce what we call the ‘Creative Curriculum.’ This curriculum enabled my first school to become one of the highest performing schools in London – basically, we teach in a way that develops children academically while also developing their motivation, curiosity, and critical thinking skills. We recently hosted an advisory visit from current OFSTED inspectors. When we introduced our creative curriculum, the title alone stopped one particular inspector in his tracks. He signaled for my Curriculum Lead to stop talking, explaining that the word ‘creative’ made ‘alarm bells’ ring in his head. He is not the only inspector who has given us similar feedback. As an experienced head teacher, I may be able to withstand the external pressures facing our schools – but many school leaders will not.

What do we need to do? The Durham Commission makes a good start for us by defining creativity and critical thinking:

Creativity: The capacity to imagine, conceive, express, or make something that was not there before.

Creative Thinking: A process through which knowledge, intuition, and skills are applied to imagine, express, or make something novel or individual in its contexts . . . underpinned by perseverance, experimentation, critical thinking, and collaboration.

Teaching for Creativity: Explicitly using pedagogies and practices that cultivate creativity in young people.

If you are currently working in a school, take a moment to consider the extent to which your curriculum offer reflects this. Other countries in the UK, notably the development of the new national curriculum in Wales, are further advanced in their inclusion of creativity as a desired goal of education. The fact that PISA has signaled that the assessment of creative thinking is a priority for 2022 should be considered. The global development of creative thinking in education is a movement that we in England can no longer ignore.

My first recommendation for developing a greater emphasis on creative and critical thinking in our schools is that we need to implement systemic change. Therefore, we need to have the development of creative thinking as central to our National Curriculum. This must be underpinned by a strong emphasis on the development of our students’ social, personal, and emotional skills.

Second, we need to adapt our inspection system and accountability framework to value the development of creativity in schools. Our inspection framework should also place greater value on the quality and leadership of teachers’ professional learning and development.

Finally, if we want to develop our students as independent, creative, critical thinkers, we equally need to develop independent, creative, critical thinkers amongst our school leaders and teachers. We need to enable staff teams to teach in a way that nurtures critical thinking – a national professional development programme that makes it as easy as possible for school leaders and their staff teams to work together to implement a curriculum focused on the development of creativity in our students. We need to do this urgently, because these are the skills I believe our young people need to lead successful, fulfilling lives in the future.

Dr.Kulvarn-AtwalDr. Kulvarn Atwal FCCT has spent his entire career teaching and leading in East London schools and is currently Executive Head Teacher of Highlands and Uphall Primary Schools. Highlands was recently awarded the Mayor of London’s Schools for Success award for the fourth year in a row; one of only 12 primary or secondary schools in London to achieve this award. Kulvarn specialises in teacher professional learning. His doctoral thesis highlighted the factors that impact upon teacher engagement in professional learning activities, with a particular focus on workplace learning theories and action research. He has worked with educators across the world to develop expansive learning environments in schools. He has published his first book, ‘The Thinking School. Developing a Dynamic Learning Community‘. He occasionally tweets at @thinkingschool2

If you enjoyed this blog, check out Kulvarn’s other posts!

Cultivating an Environment for Well-Being in Schools

If You Want Creative, Independent Thinkers, Focus on Emotional Literacy

Five Strategies to Build a Thinking Classroom

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