Case Study 4: St Hilda's School

St Hilda’s is a single sex (girls), voluntary aided school in West London of about 800 set in an affluent area but with a large ethnically diverse and socially mixed catchment. Its web strap line is ‘Excellence in a Christian Context’. Examination results are good, the school is well regarded and performs well according to conventional indicators. The atmosphere is calm and well ordered. Pupils appear well behaved and compliant, they speak with outsiders fluently and with ease. A high percentage go to further education with many students being the first generation to do so. The buildings are set around an old grammar school with bricks, plaques and parquet. There are good modern facilities surrounded by fields. It seems well maintained, comfortable and pleasant.

The Creative Olympics is a large scale, ambitious and complicated project, now is its fourth year. At the beginning of the school year, 'Creative Leaders’ are selected from each class in Years 7-9. This is a mixed process with students volunteering, some being volunteered and some being elected. The Creative Leader met with 16 artists (currently students at the Slade or Westminster) about 3 times over the year. The young people worked with the artist to design and develop creative activities, one for each of 16 subject areas around a general theme – The Tree of Life – over 2/3 afternoon sessions. As the year progressed Heads of subjects joined the mini development teams to tease out logistical issues. In addition some 6th formers joined these development teams towards the end of the summer term. Each team (subject area) developed a 2 hour session comprising a creative challenge – for instance the PE department session comprised an activity to build a device to carry a gallon of water between two buckets, a logic problem of undoing a padlock on a rope with knots in it and a quiz. The Food Technology challenge was to make, bake and ice species of animals and hang them from a Tree made by the artist.

On the day of the Creative Olympics, Years 7-9 (in non-uniform), plus a few year 10/11 who were not on work experience/had finished their GCSEs and Year 12s acting as ‘senior helpers’, were all organised in mixed age teams. Students then selected from the menu of creative activities on offer and participated in two activities in the morning. Within each creative activity, the students worked in their school houses. They completed the creative activity and were judged by the Creative Leaders (plus assorted 6th formers and other teaching staff) against six creative attributes, including imagination, communication and working in teams. Leaders gave out coloured cards to each groups deemed to demonstrate these attributes. In the afternoon all the cards achieved by each House were weighed and ordered in a raucous and emotional assembly leading to the identification of winning houses (one per attribute - and the one deemed most creative across the whole school). Celebratory dancing concluded an exciting, lively and energetic day.

The Creative Olympics project included different kinds of experiences. There were planning sessions between artists, teacher and students; the activity on the day and the experience of the day itself. These involved different logistical requirements, different understandings of creative activities and different sets of relationships. The project was large, expensive and high profile. The event generated an air of expectation, even in the planning and development sessions. This and its sense of itself - mythologised by staff and students who had participated in previous years - contributed to its specialness.

Many of its core notions – the attributes of creativity and how to evaluate them, the nature of a creative challenge – remained unexplored through the process of the project. The artists were inexperienced educators and were often diffident with the other constituencies, and the planning tended to be dominated by the teachers who had clearer ideas about what would work. In many senses, though, the project was highly successful. The degree of participation and involvement was intense and on the day itself there was a real sense of pleasure and investment by all concerned. It was very much a project about ‘learning to do’: it involved planning and preparing, consulting and negotiating, executing a plan, evaluating and celebrating its successes. Competitive team work was one of the organising principles. Students of different ages adopted roles as leaders, judges, helpers, consultants and participants. The parallels with work outside school were easy to draw.

But the project also had features which intensified and reframed the nature and impact of the learning. Its ambition and self-defined specialness, in themselves, constructed the project activities as different from the norm. (The project exemplified both the scale and ambition and the creation of a temporary ‘third space’ that we discussed as integral elements of the Pedagogic Platform) The confidence of the school to work to scale was an obvious assertion of trust in the whole school population. An important distinguishing feature of the project was the idea of participating in a large event, rather than the interaction between student and artist /teacher at the transactional level. The whole staff had to be involved; the timetable was rebuilt for the day. In some senses, therefore, what characterised the pedagogy of the project was really a high degree of organisational and logistical planning, procurement, maintaining and implementation. The project therefore offers an example of the value of structural and systematic interventions: creative teaching and learning is not limited to local transactions.

The other key feature at work was what can best be described as carnival. St Hilda’s generally had a strong ethos of order and calm; the Creative Olympics project deliberately played with the idea of misrule, of noise, of bodies being out of place across the day, of different kinds of groupings, of open competition and of different kinds of power relations between Creative Leaders, artists and teachers. The final assembly was notable for how the staff worked the crowd, deliberately playing with their conventional power roles, dancing and encouraging screaming, as a way of sanctioning disorder where it was conventionally suppressed and controlled.

In some ways there was nothing special about the work of the artists, they were a bit different, slightly more bohemian then the staff, younger and a more diverse but it was not at this level that the transactions had their greatest effect. In the activities the students were motivated, happy and compliant. They did not engage with especially deep reflections about the Tree of Life; in fact there was little evidence of how this theme worked, incrementally or otherwise, across activities and it was even more difficult to see how the learning of creative attributes worked at an individual level. However, when the lens was turned to a wider view, the project really came into its own. There was a great sense of trust, of community and belonging and above all of fun, of pleasure in each others' company, delight in achievement and in doing things together.