Inside the University of Cambridge's new primary school

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Sunday, 31 May 2015 03:18 GMT

2015 LEGO Idea Conference in Billund, Denmark

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Earlier this year, the 2015 LEGO Idea Conference—a premiere international convening focused on play and its critical link to learning—took place in Billund, Denmark. The event brought together more than 250 international experts including leading academics, practitioners, innovators, international education organizations, government representatives and social entrepreneurs from all corners of the globe to share, learn and collaborate.

In the first of a series of interviews conducted with delegates and LEGO leadership, I spoke to James Biddulph, headteacher of the University of Cambridge's new primary school, a bold new endeavour opening its doors September 2015.

“We are creating a space to release the imagination and celebrate the art of the possible,” explained Biddulph. In the interview, we discussed the founding of the institution, the unique benefits of the school’s university affiliation, innovations in curriculum, measuring success, and much more.

Tell me a little bit about the origins of the new University of Cambridge Primary School opening September 2015. How did the idea first come about, and what makes this particular primary school unique?

The University of Cambridge Primary School is the first primary University Training School in the UK. It is part of the UK government’s view to develop a relationship between theory and practice, and put teacher development at the heart of collaboration between schools and universities. As well as establishing an outstanding primary educational experience for our children, we will also be a place of adult learning, inspiring, facilitating and leading robust educational research and working with the University to train new teachers. The school, its building and curriculum is designed principally on research into education, assessment and teaching practice. The round building, an innovative design with natural light and glass, and unusual small and large spaces for children to learn, was designed by MarksBarfield, the award winning designers of the LondonEye. As Loris Malaguzzi, the founder of the Reggio Emilio approach suggests, the environment is the third teacher and as such we are creating a space to release the imagination and celebrate the art of the possible. 

In the context of the LEGO Idea conference, what lessons did you take away and how will this new school integrate and encourage the power of play to learn and grow?

Linked with the University and Faculty of Education puts us in a unique position in that we can proactively contribute to research projects to enrich what we do as a school and through dissemination via the University—to share new knowledge and experiences to support the professional learning of others locally, nationally and internationally. Of course we will take our first steps to open the school and ensure that it is a brilliant place to learn, and then we will look beyond and outwards to connect with others to reflect upon what we do as educators and to make it better, more and more.

The LEGO conference provided me with great ideas through its inspiration, and by networking and knowing that there are equally passionate people out there who are striving to make a difference and want to build a research basis on which to build a strong foundation for playful learning. 

With regard to best practices and a plethora of new research tied to early childhood education, how are you thinking about the curriculum?

Our curriculum is based on the Cambridge Primary Review which was the most significant and far reaching academic research into primary education in the UK since the 1960s. You can find more about the curriculum structure, aims and principles which underpin it online. However, this will be our starting point and with the new dynamic team I am recruiting we will create a curriculum with children to respond to their needs and interests, aligned with the standards expected by the UK government and making links with the intellectual capital which the university represents. We hope that the curriculum will challenge and support, and link the outdoor with the in so that learning is meaningful as lived experience as well as academic. High expectations will pervade the school. 

What do you anticipate will be the toughest challenges to reimagining the learning environment in this way?

Communicating our vision and ethos to a diverse community of parents and stakeholders will be a key task for us. To show that there are not polarities in education—creativity or productivity, and standards versus soft skills, for example. We want it all! We want to evidence that this is possible.  Building a new team is also a tough challenge for a headteacher, but we are recruiting staff who are incredibly excited about creating a school from scratch. They will make the school. I will be there to work with them to power them to be the best they can be, have the courage to respond to the children in their care, be creative, be organized, and be imaginative humane educators.

Ultimately, how are you thinking about measuring success and evaluating the effectiveness of the school? 

We are working with other colleagues who are leading the agenda in this area. We are thinking of ways to capture the learning that involves innovative use of technologies, keeping the children at the heart of their learning journey with them contributing as much as adults. Ensuring that we can evidence progress and high quality will be essential to convince the UK inspectorate, Ofsted, and others that not only can children play, but that they learn through play. And learning through play brings high quality standards, meaningful acquisition of knowledge and other essential skills for our children to be positive citizens and to be able to achieve throughout their lives. As I said, high expectations will seep from the walls of the school!