Bangor Grammar’s inspirational head on the importance of creativity and making the curriculum fit for purpose

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  • The principal of Bangor Grammar school, Elizabeth Huddleson, addressed the Future of Work in Northern Ireland Solutions Summit in Belfast recently.
    She spoke about the prospect of a very different world of employment facing her pupils when they left full-time education, and explained how her school had made structural changes to create a better learning environment that fitted pupils’ learning styles.
    The event was organised by Catalyst Inc in association with Bank of Ireland UK. Around 250 delegates spent the day thinking about the impact of automation on the workplace and getting practical experience of design thinking techniques.
    Elizabeth explained that the focus on measuring performance and exam results hinders the development of ‘thinking skills’, a theme introduced to the curriculum more than a decade ago that encompasses problem solving, self-management, and working with others.
    She described the overall current revised curriculum as “restrictive”.
    “Sadly the examination system in Northern Ireland is dependent on rote learning, memorising, having a photographic memory and being able to write under a time constraint.”
    Realistically, these factors do not “play to the strength” of the pupils at her all male school.
    Six years ago, Bangor Grammar restructured their timetable away from 35 minute periods to lessons of one hour in duration to better suit the learning style of boys. This change “created space for active learning rather than boys sitting pinned behind desks”.
    Year 8 pupils are quickly given the opportunity to present to their peers, assess each other’s work, give critical feedback, problem solve and work across traditional subject disciplines.
    Building on the positive benefits of the new timetable, further pilots are in place. In the summer term, year 10 pupils will spend three days away from their normal classes. They will tackle a mocked-up situation of a disaster that is imagined to have hit Bangor. With minimal resources the boys will be asked “to find solutions in a way that brings their skills and creative development into sharp focus in a fun way”. The school are working with local primary school principals to share their experiences with year 6 and 7 primary pupils.
    “Be curious” is a mantra in Bangor Grammar. “Pupils are encouraged not to accept what we say as fact but to challenge and ask the hard questions. They do it very well! But it’s what we want.”
    The principal notes that the numbers of pupils wanting to study English and Geography at A Level have reduced, driven by the focus on promoting STEM subjects, the growth of interest in Computing (which is now extending to Moving Image Arts) as well as traditional patterns of male academic vocational choices.
    But she labels subjects like Drama and Music – often deemed to be ‘softer’ – as “vital” due to the way they help pupils learn to perform, take risks, become adaptable and develop creativity. “I think those subjects are getting lost in some [school] buildings.”
    After school activities also provide avenues for development. Bangor Grammar is one of only five schools in Northern Ireland to host a Combined Cadet Force. Open to girls at Glenlola Collegiate, Elizabeth says that it “provides young people with a plethora of opportunities to learn skills and gain qualifications in leadership”.
    “In an ideal world I’d love to be able to build my own curriculum. The current Northern Ireland curriculum is stale and antiquated. So much more could be done if we didn’t have to work our pupils to GCSEs and A Levels in their current form.” Elizabeth notices that some of the set text her pupils are using have not changed from those she studied 30 when she was at school.
    Constraints like the reduction in school finance together and the ongoing union action are “stifling where we need to be taking children to”. Declining budgets have “decimated the Continuing Professional Development available to teachers outside of school, for instance provided by the Educational Authority. “That’s a real worry for me and other principal colleagues.” And industrial action means that CPD activity carried out within the school can only be scheduled during the school day rather than at the end of the day.
    The school’s working with parents to equip them to understand the changing nature of careers, pathways and subject choices.
    Bangor Grammar’s principal finished with a plea for dialogue between business and education to continue.
    “We know we have to develop schools for the future, but do all schools know how?
    “The world moves so fast outside school that career teachers are not getting the fine-tuned two-way communication they need to stay up to date. There needs to be more of this kind of conversion to bridge the gap between schools and reality so we can properly prepare our children.”

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