18 MARCH 2016

Releasing the Imagination, Celebrating the Art of the Possible

Releasing the Imagination, Celebrating the Art of the Possible

The new University of Cambridge Primary School opened its doors to its first two Reception, one Year 1 and two Year 2 classes in September. It is the first UK primary University Training School, a new concept intended to bring together academic research and primary practice and offer placements for student teachers.

Getting to this point has taken four years of discussions between Cambridge University, its Faculty of Education and the UK Government’s Department for Education. The planning reflects the latest research in building design, pedagogy, initial teacher education and ongoing professional development. The team involved in realising this concept are writing a book due to be published in September 2016 but in advance of this James Biddulph, the Headteacher gives us a preview.

Building Design

The school is circular, designed by the award-winning architect Marks Barfield (who also designed the London Eye) and based on research undertaken by Dr Catherine Burke. In this, children described their ideal school as having nooks and crannies and light, airy spaces. As a result there are smaller areas where children can take themselves off to have individual space for their activities. There are beanbags where they can relax and read and rooms where they can undertake activities in small groups. The school has an outdoor corridor and an internal “learning street” with classrooms and other learning spaces leading off it. None of these have doors. This is intended to foster a culture of openness to enable teachers and children to interact and teachers/leaders to pop into classrooms. James often wanders through the school, sits in classrooms and joins in. No classroom is square – this disrupts teachers’ assumptions on how to organise their classrooms and forces them to think more creatively. The colour palate is warm but small as James said “it is the children that bring the colour to the school.”

Indoors and outdoors are connected by glass and light. The external canopy covering the outdoor corridor is a public work of art commissioned from Ruth Procter entitled “We are all under one sky.” It has images of the sky captured in multiple different locations around the world, the message being we are all individual but connected and so we celebrate diversity. In the hall, a 6 metre tall window features a photograph of the Milky Way taken by the University’s Institute of Astronomy.

The school has capacity for three forms of entry and is split into three classroom clusters plus an Early Years Centre. It is designed flexibly to facilitate research. So it could operate either as three small schools within a big school with classrooms for Years 1 to 6 within a cluster; or with Year Groups situated together to enable whole Year group activities. They may well try out both approaches to see which works best for the children.


Expectations are high. “Excellence is the only option for this school” the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University said when laying the foundation. James describes “wanting it all – high academic achievers, children who can empathise with others, be creative, dance.” He and the staff will find ways for every child to flourish.

Teachers say they “have never been asked to think as much before.” As a new team they are able to create a learning culture from the start. At their first meeting James gave each member of staff a Research Learning Journal and a set of questions and asked them to write a letter to themselves a year ahead. The intention is that they should use the journal to record significant moments of joy or chaos or crisis to document their and the school’s development. Their reflections will be an invaluable dataset to help inform the book.

The ethos is all about challenge. This is evident in children’s comments such as “if it’s not difficult Mr Biddulph, you are not learning” and “you can’t say ‘I can’t’ unless you put ‘yet’ after it.”  The school does not have ability groupings but Challenge 1 to 4 activities. Children are guided to choose the Challenge appropriate to them but occasionally to try something harder for them. Dame Alison Peacock is James’ mentor for this year and he is implementing many of the Creating Learning Without Limits approaches that have been used at The Wroxham School.

The musician and song writer James Wheeler led part of the initial teacher training day.  The intention was to model what it feels like to be out of your comfort zone as a learner as a big singing event presents a significant challenge for many people. The staff wrote a song together with the process involving connection, building social capital, literacy, assessment and evaluation.

When issues arise, James wants the conversation to avoid labelling a child but rather to ask “what can we do to change provision for that child?” His approach to behaviour management is to talk about feelings and needs, for teachers to understand the experiences and reactions of the child and for the child to understand the impact of their actions in order to shift their behaviour. 

Professional Development

James hopes the school can become a “brilliant hub where people can enrich themselves and be brilliant teachers”. Ideally he would like teachers to work for Masters degrees and to have the mindset of seeing research as part of what teachers do. He regards his own PhD as a highly formative experience, disrupting his assumptions about other people and about children’s experiences. He sees the practice of teaching as an enquiry where teachers should be constantly questioning their assumptions about what they do. 

There is a lot of expertise already within the school community so they are initially creating their own professional development. For example, they held a Maths day in which two Maths professors, a parent expert in coding and NRICH participated.

The school is already outward looking. The Year 2 teacher is one of 100 maths hub teachers in the UK. Next term he will be working with another school, the year after with 30 other schools.

Links with the University

The links to the university are strong. Six members of the Governing Body are also senior members of the university including the Pro Vice Chancellor for Education and the Director of HR at Cambridge Assessment. Members of the Faculty have provided their expertise in the planning stages and are advising on the curriculum that the school is developing. For example on adopting the principles of Shanghai maths but making them its own, linking with findings from the Cambridge Primary Review. But James feels the parameters are clearly set – he and his staff are running the school and the Faculty are leaving them to it for the moment. He will be calling on them to help with the challenge of how to make research robust and rigorous; valid and reliable. And how to use research to change practice.

An example of this working well is the recent launch of the Lego project. 20 teachers discussed the academic aspects in the first floor seminar room, then they had the opportunity to apply these in classrooms with children. They had a period of reflection over lunch and then came back into the classes to facilitate a writing task with the children. This way theory and practice can be brought together.

Looking to the future

James sees his challenge is “how to stay courageous and find possibilities” opening the school’s doors to others, connecting with nature, bringing in the community. There are exciting years ahead as the school grows to capacity and we are looking forward to learning more about its successes and challenges when the book is published.