Subtitle: Imagination taking power

Dave Strudwick on how a ‘School of Creative Arts’ can foster the imagination

We recently spoke to Andrew Brewerton, Principal at Plymouth College of Art, about the fascinating tale of how Plymouth School of Creative Arts came to be. PSCA is a remarkable new school which puts the cultivation of the imagination at its heart, even down to how its striking new building was conceived and designed. Before Christmas I visited the school and sat down to chat with then-Head Teacher Dave Strudwick to find out more about the place, how it came into existence, how it works, and what the thinking  is that underpins it. I started out by asking him to tell me its story:

“We’re just in our sixth year of existence.  It came about as an idea from the leadership of Plymouth College of Art and the idea that they were really concerned about the minimisation of the arts in schools, the lack of creativity in aspects of the school system.  They felt particularly concerned with the secondary aspects more so than the primary but also felt this concern more generally.

In a very inspiring and cavalier kind of way they thought, “Yeah, we make things, we’re artists and we’re an art college.  We make things.  Let’s make a school.”  One of the things that was really inspiring around that was the way that they didn’t look at it from the perspective of a pipeline for the college.  It was more around the aspect of transformation, social justice, of making the city a better place, making the education system different.

I was very lucky.  They’d been successful at an interview with the Department of Education.  I was very lucky to be appointed as a curriculum consultant.  It was around the October time of 2012, I think it was.  I joined as a curriculum consultant.  I then applied for the Headship when that was advertised and was successful.  I’d been a Headteacher before but the chance to start a school from scratch and working as an all-through school, because we have children now that go from 3 through to 16, and the school when we opened only had 94 children in an open plan office over the road from where the school now is.

Today we’re over 1000 students and a couple of hundred staff and it’s amazing.  There’s lots that we’re really proud of.  We’re just coming out of that start-up phase really and into a process of building into consolidation and into the next five years of really going for a new sense of horizon.

It’s a very striking building.  What was the brief to the architect to design somewhere that would host this dream?

That’s a really good question.  There was a whole series of things that fitted into that.  I was really privileged to be part of the group who were working with the architects looking at the brief, looking at the design process, and we had amazing support.  One of the things Andrew Brewerton did that was really pivotal was looking at the school ideally being in a part of the city, in the city centre. He was really interested in the development of a store in the centre of town that was derelict and the development of that.

When central government said we can’t afford to do that, Andrew somewhat flippantly, but also in a helpfully provocative manner said, “Well, can you build us a department store on this site then?”  Because what he’d identified was the significance of the larger open plan floor plates that we have in our studios.  There were aspects of things like we wanted to be able to do art anywhere.  We wanted the wider spaces to develop a more collaborative and team approach to learning, and to also provoke an element of a new pedagogy that was more appropriate for this century.

There were little details as well that I remember being involved in in terms of the visible engineering.  I really wanted that, not from a point of view of us saving money, although it did, but I really wanted children growing up to be able to see how the building worked and so often that’s hidden.  For me I’d no idea what would sit behind a wall or under a ceiling, or above a ceiling.  It was things like that were great.

It was very much a team approach.  We had great architects at Feilden Clegg Bradley, and their background of working with the arts, already working with the College of Art, made a really big difference.

How would you evaluate the state of health of the imagination and creativity in education in Britain in 2018?

It’s a really interesting question and I think if I was looking at aspects like curiosity and creativity, I’m really concerned with where we are.  There’s a real direct link there through into imagination. Quite often with young children in schools –if you think about really young children, sort of 3, 4, 5 year olds, they’ve got that wonderful curiosity and asking why and imagining things all the time, and it’s a very natural thing.  I don’t think it needs a lot of encouragement.

It’s almost inherent in being human and that process of play, and when you watch in the animal world, when you watch how they learn, bears don’t go to school they play but what happens as children get older and from relatively young age of 6 or so, children start to feel like the teacher knows the right answer and it becomes about trying to guess what’s in the teacher’s head, rather than imagine for them self.

The accountability system in schools is so skewing the profession, so pushing people to game the system, that actually we end up working in a way that’s not always healthy, or supporting the imagination and curiosity.  It becomes so teacher dominated and driven that we’re not preparing young people who are confident to think for themselves, to play and experiment.  You’ll get schools and teachers who will say, “Yeah, it’s okay to make mistakes” but I don’t think we actually really live that with any integrity, including us ourselves as adults.

So there’s some concerns.  As an example, in the phonics assessment in year 1, which is a national thing that schools are benchmarked against, (and I haven’t necessarily got a problem with phonics, there’s lots around those building blocks of learning to read, which are so critical for young people), what I worry about is that we end up not building a love of reading.  Or that because for example in the assessment there’s imaginary words – schools have started to teach imaginary words.  That’s just ridiculous and pointless, I think.

You could argue there’s an element, in terms of poetry and things as the kids get older, but that’s not what’s going on.  Sometimes we lose the purpose and intention sitting behind the big picture of what a real education is all about.

Theres been a lot of cuts in terms of teacher places and all of that sort of stuff as well

Huge financial pressures exist for schools.  It’s part of why, on a different level, the imagination of leadership, of governors, of a system to create a different model, is really important.  I see our community as a critical part of resourcing the context for our learning.  I don’t mean resourcing financially, but just being able to provide a real sense of purpose in a learning situation.

We’ve got guys who work over the water, Cremyll Keelboats, and they’ve worked with us renovating some 1950s Fireflies.  That’s been amazing, because of the purpose and edge to that.  As a teacher I can’t be a boat builder.  I haven’t got that experience.  You’ve got a skilled design and technology team, but they’re not a boat builder.  But that bit of edge of you’re not just making your spice rack or something – you’re making a boat that you’re going to sail.  Or you’re renovating a boat you’re going to sail and you better listen, because you’re going to sail this.

You dont want to drown!

It could be quite a wet difficult mistake to make! There’s something where that context and purpose from community is really powerful.  On the weekend we had over 1500, close on 2000 people coming through the school.  On the weekend we had a winter fair run by the PTFA on the Saturday.  Sunday there’s a church in.  There were sports going on as well.  There was professional wrestling being held on Sunday afternoon.

That’s important in terms of the school space, the Red House, being a community building.  That’s needed in this area.  There’s not another large community building.  But it’s also important for us financially because it supports that income generation, and partnership with different members of our community.

So was the school created as a free school?  Was it created under the free school legislation?

Yeah, it was.  Ostensibly the free school part is about how you are formed, and then ostensibly we’re run like an academy.  Have the same accountabilities in terms of how we’re funded, and the same accountabilities as other schools in terms of progress measures and things like that.

In terms of how you do what you do, and the experience that kids have or learning, how would you say that what you do nurtures the imagination, or produces young people who are more imaginative?

Part of it is when we’re working at our best, we give space for play and experimentation.  We give a context that gives a greater level of responsibility so that the student is driving their learning.  They’ve got a different responsibility and relationship to that, and when you’ve got a good project, you do that.

I was talking to a parent yesterday who was highlighting how their child was working on things at home and we were talking about how they were staying in at lunchtime to do this additional learning, and not because they were being forced to.  It was an intrinsic motivation of ‘I really want to do this.  I want to make it as good as I can.  I’ve got an exhibition coming up.  I need to make sure that I’m representing what I think it could be.’

It’s where sometimes as well, for some of our young people, it’s so important to have those connections towards what’s possible within your environment.  We had older students from Plymouth College of Art coming over from Palace Court, so 17, 18 year olds, working with some of our 8, 9 year olds on developing films.  The younger children were ostensibly writing a script that these poor students then had to turn into a film with no budget.  The kids were really stretching their imagination, but I think the lovely thing from the reciprocal side of that was for those 8, 9 year olds, they’re suddenly thinking.

It’s not like, “Oh I’d like to be like Steven Spielberg and a film maker.”  It’s like, “Oh, Wendy or Ethan who comes in on a Thursday afternoon, that could be me.”  That sense of possibility is a really strong part of that link between imagination and intrinsic motivation.  That’s something that if you’re just driving towards a test doesn’t exist, it’s not that there’s something wrong with examinations, but if you’re driving towards that solely, it’s not enough.  It’s not going to feed that sense of possibility.  It’s just a grade you’re trying to get to.

It’s not that I’m arguing against high standards or anything silly like that.  The quality that can be produced in a real context, a real project, I would argue is much deeper, more sustainable learning.  I can remember doing really well in exams and then afterwards just, I couldn’t remember a thing of it, and I can’t remember many of those things now.  Yet some of those really more meaningful experiences I’ve had in life you never forget.

You do the project- based learning like they now do in Finland as a standard, and theyre starting to do in other places, rather than, Now its Geography, now its French?  You take a more project based approach?

We do, and even within subjects as the students get older, into their GCSEs and B-Tech and various different qualifications, we still use projects there within a subject.  The lovely thing with a really good project though is it cuts across the boundaries of a subject, which is quite an academic process, rather than a real-life process.

I had the privilege of working with a group of scientists in the Science Museum in London and the way that you could make sense of it, it was as much about art, interpretation, perception, neuroscience.  It was all of those things within one.  I remember Andrew Brewerton talking about the nature of culinary art in terms of the science in that, the culture and the history and those things too.  Often in our lives we don’t compartmentalise it in the way that we do in schools for exams.

That’s where the context in a good project is so helpful and can really drive that intrinsic love, and enquiry, being really curious.  Rather than being worried about you don’t know something, being really excited because you don’t know something.  That’s certainly one of the things I learnt from working with those neuroscientists in the Science Museum, was they were insatiably curious.  A little bit like a three or four-year-old.  That’s when they were most excited, when they didn’t know.

Whereas I think for me as a teacher, I’d kind of got conditioned into feeling I should know the answer.  It was really obvious working with them that that was a real flaw in the way I’d wound up being and I think the challenge for us as a school is it requires the imagination of staff and leaders, as much as for the children, is that we have to reimagine ourselves in relation to what good learning is about and what a good education is about.

If young people left school at 16 or 18 as imaginative as they could be, and the previous 10 years, 12 years of their life had led up to them emerging as imaginative as possible, what might that time have been like?  What might some of the qualities or the experience of that have been like?

Some parts of it would be that wonderful kind of experience of excitement and fear in just about equal measures of going out of your comfort zone, becoming more comfortable through those experiences, through being stretched, to new things, to realise it’s okay not to know.

Some of those things would be very much embedded experiences within the community.  A real life brief.  Things where you’re drafting and re-drafting, rather than you make once.  So often in schools let’s evaluate what we’ve done, why are we evaluating?  Oh because that’s what you do at the end of a half-term.  Then do you go back to it?  Do you get a new brief?  Does the client feedback?  We don’t do that in schools.

It’s one of the things we’ve really been working on, is the re-drafting process of, okay, you’ve written something once and then you’re refining it, or you draw something and you draw it again and again.  You keep building until you get to a point of real quality.  I think sometimes in schools we rush.  It can be overfilled with content rather than quality.

That’s one thing I really want young people to have.  I’d want them to have the experience of not being at home as well.  We’ve got a residential experience that takes the physical horizon to a different dimension.  That’s really important.  When you’ve got young people who are going over to Cornwall and they’re saying, “Oh, what’s this bridge?”

Actually all of our children from 7 to 11 the other day went on a boat trip up the Tamar.  They went under the Tamar to look at it from different perspectives.  They’re involved in making models of it and developing a whole project around the Tamar and how it’s developed and why that might have happened in the way that it has.  I think there’s that bit of getting the physical environment to be in a different place.  A lot of our year 7s for example can walk to France.  Literally 250m down the road.

To the ferry…

To the ferry.  They go over as foot passengers.  We can do it for, I think, it’s about £45, and have a day.  They go over at night.  They have a day over there.  Buy produce and things over in the market at Roscoff.  And they come back with a different sense of possibility.  They really do.

We take children up to London.  We had students up in the South Bank last week presenting work and going up to Tate in March, again.   There’s a whole range of things that really support that.  Great relationships are really pivotal in getting people to feel safe enough to take the risks of imagining things differently.  It is about that stretching of your comfort zone.

Sometimes it’s easier to see that in other people than see those things in yourself, whether it’s as an adult or a child.  Sometimes, a great teacher, they imagine that sense of possibility for someone before they can see it themselves.  That just holds the space for them to grow into.  Sometimes it’s not like that.  It’s something else.  I saw some lovely examples last night of older students doing a performance and the level of support from their peers was wonderful.  Really inspiring.  I wish I’d had friends like that growing up.

A question Ive asked everybody that Ive interviewed for this book was that if you had been elected as the Prime Minister of this country in the last election, and you had run on a platform of Make Britain Imaginative Again’ – so you had felt that the big challenges that we face, whether its climate change or social fragmentation or whatever, are partly due to our not being as imaginative as we should be at this time, so we need to see a real revaluing and refocusing of imagination, whether in terms of public policy, in terms of education, in terms of public life, in terms of architecture, in terms of everything where would you start?  What might you do in your first 100 days in number 10?

There would be some things that I would disinvest in.  There would be some things that I would look at, in terms of a different kind of platform, to create what’s needed.  There’s something about looking at how people collectively contribute, and how you create platforms that support that.  Schools should have an accountability way beyond the test measure.  The danger is that you can see in the current climate that they’ll create some imagination score and, “Oh my god, Dave, you’ve only got 4 and a half out of 10 on your imagination score.”  You can just see that kind of thing building a level of anxiety that will stop people.

“I’m not imaginative enough”…

Yeah, no, oh god.  Then you get more stressed so you’d be less imaginative and more predictable.  There’s something about the accountability measures in schools that has been unhelpful, but it’s got real limits and there’s a time for really changing the expectations around what the purpose of school is about.

It’s a really hard conversation to have because I don’t think people like the idea that it’s necessarily not about the exams.  But they’re just a milestone, they’re not the end point.  Schools need a wider accountability towards their communities, and in terms of what that means in terms of engagement.  I’d definitely lose a series of the accountability measures of very young children that are ever so unhelpful.

SATs and stuff like that?

Yeah, the phonics assessment I was talking about earlier.  Just the relentlessness of schools being measured in such a narrow set of criteria means that people do not feel at times they’ve got the space to invest in the things that really matter.  And some of those things that really matter, like making our society a better place, and getting young people to feel that they can contribute towards their future, their community, our world, how do you really measure that?

Is it even helpful to consider that you do?  There are aspects of the whole way that we view things that need to be challenged and deconstructed.  There are some things in terms of platforms for investment.  On one level, clearly schools can’t be responsible for everything that happens in a young person’s life, but on another level, we can offer so much.  We can make such a difference and that sense of contribution towards somebody’s life, not just when they’re with you in school, but beyond them being 16, beyond the walls of the school, those things are really significant.

So looking I guess like in Finland where the teachers do an extra couple of years training, and then theyre just trusted.  Does it feel like this isnt a time when there isnt a lot of trust given to teachers at the moment?

That would be a part of losing some of those accountability measures.  Staff, you know, they care about what they do.  People invest so much time and energy and expertise in things, but some of that expertise gets stifled and limited in relation to gaming the system rather than trying to do what’s right.  There are some things that people need time on a national basis to construct from what the assets are though.

What I mean by that is I think so often we base our conversations in schools and in government based on what’s not working rather than what we’re actually trying to build.  One of the lovely things I was hearing the other day was that there’s some research that shows that when schools find out they’re getting a new building, their results start to increase.  Without anything being built, but it’s that sense of possibility, probably, and that sense of imagination of actually you start to think differently and then you realise we don’t have to wait for the building.  We can just be different.  We can do things differently.

That’s something that’s needed on a national basis, of what are we trying to build.  The nature of news and debate is it often becomes polarised and polemic rather than something that’s trying to be constructed and built to align towards something positive.  You see that all the time.

All the time.

There’s something that’s really age old around the sense of a village that isn’t about being, you know, “I’m seven years old, therefore I do this test.”  And that idea that it takes a village to raise a child.  But I think there’s something about in a village, well, what are we about?  People need some scaffold and support to feel that that’s an okay thing to do.

Because it’s very easy to say what is wrong, and what you don’t want – I’ve been doing a fair bit of that this morning – but it’s really important people are trying to create a new solution and then not just talk about it, actually act on that.  And again people need support to do that, because that can feel really confronting, “Well, what if I get it wrong?”

It’s like, “Yeah, that’s okay.  You’ll learn things and things will move through that.”  Because if people get a sense of the intention sitting behind these things, that people can keep working with that.  There’s a really good energy I think around those kinds of things.

So normally youd think well imagination and creativity is something you do in the art classroom and something that you do maybe in creative writing.  But I had a friend of mine who did teacher training up in London, she said on the first day they showed her that Ken Robinson Ted talk, and then said, Of course, thats if youre going to be teaching the Arts or English of course.  If youre teaching maths or science you wont be drawing on any of that stuff.

So ridiculous.

She was absolutely heartbroken.  “I’m going to give up a year to do this.”  So how in the school here do you teach maths and science and chemistry, whatever, in an artistic, creative, imaginative way?

Just to say, as a mathematician, or as a scientist, imagination is pivotal in those approaches.  As a research scientist, you’re creating an experiment, that nobody’s ever done before, to try and find out something that you’re really curious about.  Well that’s all about imagination.  It’s not about following a recipe, which I do think school science can be like.  I worked with these scientists and we created the world’s youngest published scientist.  We did an experiment with bees at Blackawton Primary school.

It was wonderful.  It really, really was special.  Beau, the scientist there, really showed me just how much the imagination is pivotal in science.  And he’s an exceptional human being in relation to that.  Also in relation to that ability to look at empathy.  But in relation to the question about maths and science, a key part of it is the distinction.  What we do at our best in the school is we look at being the scientist, not just learning about scientist.  Or being the mathematician, not just learning about maths.  So, again, aspects of project work that can be engaged in those areas does give a really good opportunity for creativity.

Beau did some amazing work with the ‘iScientist’ programme at the Science Museum.  There are lots of different responses and ways of doing these things by definition of the imagination and creativity in itself.  That’s where sometimes the local context is really important as well.  If you end up being able to work like we’ve done with the people over at Cremyll Keelboats, their skills and their context has enable us to do things we just couldn’t do on our own.  Or working with the College of Art, being able to get young children to sandcast and create glass hands.

There are some aspects where in your community if you can access the skills, then you can create different imagined opportunities and different possibilities in those things.  But I don’t think it’s a helpful separation out of those subjects.  The biggest sadness for me in relation to Ken Robinson’s talk, which I think is the most watched Ted talk of all time, is how many people have watched it, but how few people have done something in response to it.

That’s something that, whilst I wouldn’t present that we’re anything like the finished article if you like, I think we’re working incredibly hard and I think we’ve got some really, really great quality within the things that we’re doing, and we’ve got areas that we really need to improve at as well, but I do think the thing that we should all feel really proud of at the school is that we’ve really tried to do something differently in response to the needs of young people growing up today, and in terms of fostering that level of imagination.

Thats all my questions.  Just if you had any last thing you were thinking, I really want to say that about imagination but he hasnt asked me the right question”.

No I don’t think so.  The only thing that’s in my mind is I suppose just how when you talk to really little children, how they use their imagination or their perception of the world just creates the most beautiful insights into things.  Raises the most amazing questions as a result of them seeing things differently.

That’s why sometimes you just have the most wonderful opportunities when you spend time with a really young child.  It’s a real gift that, and I think it’s something that unfortunately for some children, and some adults, we unlearn, but I do believe it’s very natural thing.  Ai Weiwei, the Chinese artist, said “creativity is something that you can only unlearn”.  That’s really wise.  It’s something similar probably with the imagination.  It’s how do you create those conditions and really foster that.


  1. kitty
    February 21, 2019

    great interview and links ! What if we could clone David? What a good holistic and open view. And what we should do more: talk to really little children, how they use their imagination or their perception of the world just creates the most beautiful insights into things. And we need schools that let them stay in that process, instead of telling them “that is not possible”

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