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Three ways to promote creativity in your school

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Tom Gilliford is project engagement manager at The Royal Society of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA). Previously Tom taught religious studies in the country's first free school sixth form. Now, his job is to promote creativity for all citizens, throughout the course of their lives.

When more than 60% of pupils on free school meals miss out on the basics at GCSE, it’s time for some creative solutions. But with a ‘no excuses’ attainment culture taking hold in many schools, along with a sense that teachers won’t be rewarded for taking risks, it can be hard to see where this creativity is going to come from.

We’ve been working with governors who want to move away from the compliance model of school improvement towards one that values creativity. I thought I'd share our thoughts on how the project is going so far, in the form of three suggestions which you can put into practice in your own school:

Praise teachers who have the courage to try something new, even if it doesn’t work out

When a pupil attempts to answer a question, tries their hardest and gets it wrong, which teacher worth their salt wouldn’t praise that pupil’s effort? So why don’t we do the same for teachers? The best governors and school leaders I know are the ones who praise teachers when they have the courage to try something new. They trust them to act professionally and make sensible assessments about what is working and what is not.

Exclude innovative projects from performance appraisals

Failure is part of the creative process. To find the right way of doing something we first need to try and reject all the ways that don’t work. Unfortunately, performance appraisal systems within teaching tend to stop this happening, as they promote a risk-averse culture. If a teacher tries a new idea, they need to be willing to accept the risk that a lesson might go awry. Under current appraisal systems this would be viewed as a failure of their teaching, and would affect their chances for promotion or pay progression. In their place, would you take the risk?

Of course the standard of teaching in schools must always be high, but that needn’t be done at the expense of creativity. The creative school leaders I speak with assess the impact of time-limited innovative projects, but they don’t include the success or failure of such a project in a teacher’s performance appraisal. By doing this they create a safe space for teachers to experiment with new techniques.

Re-define what success means for your school

Schools are praised, promoted and rewarded for meeting attainment targets, but efforts to develop a creative community are mostly ignored. This has left us with an education system that measures success in terms of statistical gain, rather than in the development of well-rounded citizens.

Thankfully, some governors are deciding to change the terms of success. I know of one governor at an outstanding school in the south of England who works with his governing body to bring creative practice to the top of the school’s agenda. They have shifted the focus of the curriculum committee away from reports limited to outcomes, and now discuss the development of teaching and learning, as well as how new research is being used in the school. By holding a school accountable for creativity in this way, governors can incentivise long-term creative thinking rather than short-term attainment goals.

Where do you start?

The sort of change that the RSA is suggesting will take hard work, and a reorientation of the way we think about the development of staff and schools. The RSA has been working with teaching schools to create a free online toolkit, Research Rich Schools, that helps schools to innovate using self-assessment tools and research methodologies. RRS allows schools to develop a culture of experimentation on their own terms, but without having to do it all by themselves.

How can you join in?

Over the next few months the RSA will be sharing the results of a national governor survey we’ve conducted exploring creative governance. You can help by taking the survey. If you aren’t a governor and just want to share your ideas, join in the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #RSAcreatespace.

The RSA is running a series of free public events, workshops and discussions on creativity and schools; check the website to find out what’s on in your area.

Members of our service for school leaders can explore some of the points Tom has raised by reading our articles on designing a creative curriculum and the impact of this type of curriculum. If you're keen to build evidence-based practice into your school community, then perhaps you'd like to take a look at our article on the ethics of conducting action research.

If you're a member of The Key for School Governors, have a look at the questions you can ask to probe the quality of teaching and learning in your school. To find out more on how you can bring about improvements in teaching and learning, you can read this article

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