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The Golden Age of Curriculum Design

I don’t like quoting Ofsted, because they never use any of my stuff.  I also promise that any reference to the inspectorate will only exist in this paragraph. This is because many of their comments coupled with the Daily Mail’s interpretation of their words is corrosive of the spirits of hard working educationalists. However, the annual report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for schools has included numerous positive comments over recent years. In 2017 they stated that education for children under the age of 11 had never been stronger. The inspectorate also recognised that some of our best primary schools defy the odds in challenging communities. For example, they report that children aged 11 in receipt of free school meals are reading better than ever before. This takes me to the view that a new golden age for primary education is in front of us and, because of these strengths, it is within reach. In 2014 Ofsted made a commitment to seek out those schools that accelerated progress and raised standards by daring to be different. They claimed they were looking for schools with a curriculum that promoted a sustained a thirst for knowledge, a love of learning and sense of identity that had a positive effect pupils’ behaviour, safety, wellbeing and their spiritual, social and cultural development. Four years later they declared that every school should consider what they intend their curriculum to do, how it will be implemented and what its impact will be. Then in true Ofsted style they introduced the fear factor and stated that any school judged as having an underdeveloped curriculum would face intense scrutiny and risked being placed in category of concern. To mis-quote Bertrand Russell we are on the threshold of a golden age; but, first it will be necessary to slay the dragon that guards the door. And that dragon is Ofsted. Our challenge is to dismiss those fears and move purposefully forward towards what I would like to call without fear of overstatement, the Golden Age of Curriculum Design.

That’s it. No more mentions of Ofsted. I promise.

But I will have to mention the National curriculum.

One danger of having a National Curriculum is that, in some schools, it simply amounts to a list of material to be covered. Then often we become obsessed with proving that the ensuing programmes of study had been duly and dutifully delivered. Add to that the lure of a publisher (or, increasingly, a government-favoured academy chain) selling a ‘quick-fix’ curriculum and much of the time and effort spent on planning is removed. Job done, surely?

However, as we like to say, there is always another way and what I see in the best schools I visit is that they recognise there is no easy route to curriculum design, because any curriculum is of necessity complex and also exists at numerous levels.

To help schools reflect on what they mean by curriculum, I regularly ask them to rank the following definitions of the word ‘curriculum’ on a scale of one to four:

  1. The curriculum is based around the grammar, reading, writing, mathematics, great literature and those permanent subjects that embody the essential knowledge.
  2. The curriculum is those subjects that are most useful for living in contemporary society.
  3. The curriculum is all planned learnings for which the school is responsible.
  4. The curriculum is all the experiences learners have under the guidance of the school. 

The debate that follows can be intense.

Obviously, the first definition is significant. Young people need to learn the appropriate knowledge, skills and understanding to equip the for the future and provide them with a sense of identity. In order to this there needs to be some form of syllabus that the school works to. The interesting question is how does a school identify what learning it deems to be essential. Experience tells me that there is a better answer than simply transferring the National Curriculum into a school-based plan. A better system is to personalise the programmes of study to the needs of a local community by asking these questions:

Based on our local community:

  • What do our pupils need to know?
  • What skills will our pupils need?
  • What personal qualities do we need to promote?

It is after these questions are asked, that teachers often come to the consensus that too much emphasis has been placed on believing that the curriculum is a series of traditional and/or nationally prescribed programmes of study that can be continually recycled and systematically delivered to groups of 30  (or more) children. Too often little attention is placed on the rapidly changing world they children are growing up in.

So, what of the second definition? It quite definitely has validity. These thoughts are being written in the week that the sixteen-year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg told politicians, ‘The politics that are needed to prevent the climate catastrophe don’t exist today’. It was the same week that over 250 people were killed in terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka. This is just four years after another teenager, Malala Yousafzai, told us that education and not bullets would change the world.

This suggests that young people look at the world and their leaders with despair. The children passing through our schools today have the capacity bring change. It is vital that they do. They can help us seek solutions to a range of issues. For example, they could help people to celebrate diversity and live harmoniously in rapidly changing communities, or even to resolve some of the issues of global warming. However, this requires schools to open the eyes of pupils to the ways in which they can make a difference to their community, their nation and their world, and for primary-aged pupils that is the order in which the issues should be addressed. If this involves removing ‘Late Neolithic Man’ from the curriculum in order to allow children explore what a better world might look like, then so be it.

Which takes me to the third definition which is equally important and builds from the first two. Once a school has identified a personalised body of knowledge and learning skills set within a twenty first century context it will need an implementation plan that ensures that there is challenge, continuity and progression for all learners.

My message to schools would be plan the work but more importantly work the plan.

Many schools may have a document they regard as their official curriculum. It is a plan outlining what should be taught and when it will be taught. However, different teachers can use the same plan and achieve remarkably different outcomes. Some teachers might see their role as merely imparting the prescribed knowledge to the children in order that they can record the necessary information. We have probably all encountered the teacher who’s talk dominates and who consequently manages to kill curiosity and any enthusiasm for learning. Other teachers find brilliant ways to be bring classrooms to life through the arts, drama, role play, stories, outdoor learning, visitors to school and visits out of school, enterprise education and more. These are also the teachers who use a blended approach to teaching. On occasions there will be an emphasis on direct instruction whereby learners acquire new knowledge or develop a skill. At other times teachers will employ inductive teaching strategies that ensure children develop a concept through following a prescribed process. Finally, there will be opportunities whereby exploratory methods allow pupils to use previously acquired knowledge and skills to further develop learning whilst creating something of value. These are the teachers who don’t simply plan the work. These are the teachers who work the plan and create youngsters who not only learn the prescribed curricular content but are also the equipped with a broader range of skills, qualities and a desire for learning.

However, it is the fourth definition of the curriculum that creates intense interest. If the curriculum encompasses all the experiences learners have under the guidance of the school it becomes challenging. This is point where schools have to consider the hidden curriculum and the ways in which they conduct their business in a broader context. The hidden curriculum relates to the unintended values and perspectives children learn in schools through the spoken and unspoken messages they receive. Whilst these messages might be positive and affirming, they can also be negative and dangerous with the capacity to destroy self-confidence and build barriers to the learning process.

I learned this lesson the hard way.

My second headship was in an inner-city school that was down on its knees for a number of significant reasons including an imprisoned deputy, physical assaults on staff and a building that was not fit for purpose. When I arrived I could tell that the school was feeling detached and inward looking, reactive rather than proactive. Whilst the mornings usually passed without incident, the afternoons were a challenge. As noon arrived the school filled with tension. Lunchtime supervisors shouted aggressively at children in a building where the high ceilings simply made the noise boom and echo. On the playground children found themselves being sent inside for a range of completely avoidable misdemeanours. They were then punished by having to write lines (at a time when the best teachers were trying to promote a love of writing). As the afternoon session started, the teachers were forced to deal with a whole range of negative ramification from a  lunch time which had served to remove a love of teaching and learning. The messages the children were picking up from the hidden curriculum were that it is fine to shout and be aggressive, the adults don’t like us, and that writing is tedious. By 1.30 pm everybody in school was well and truly fed up and everybody knew everybody was fed up.

The challenge was to turn those hidden curriculum messages from negative to positive. So, what did we do?

We modified the building. We trained the lunchtime supervisors to be play leaders who actually engaged with the children. We provided all classes with appropriate things to play with. We restructured staff deployment, allowing lunchtime staff to build a relationship with a specific group of pupils and with the children inviting them to take part in class events.

Before long, a half day of learning was being turned into a full day of learning.

The Golden Age of Curriculum Design will not be achieved through quick-fix activities hastily put in place before the inspectors arrive. It won’t be achieved through elaborate planning and assessment structures that over complicate teaching. Nor will it be achieved through off-the-shelf schemes purchased elsewhere or a tick-box mentality.

For me it is achieved when the dreamer moves purposefully and steadily forward with both feet on the ground. It is achieved when the educational theorist brings thoughts from learned texts and steps into the realities of school’s community and its classrooms. It is achieved when the statistician stops counting numbers of children at any particular level and focuses on the qualities a child in the twenty-first century is developing. Finally, it is achieved when our school leaders invest their intellectual capital in teachers, what they truly believe about the best schools, teachers and classrooms, and where necessary roll their sleeves up and demonstrate their beliefs. At the end of the day leadership is a verb and not a noun. It is about a leader’s actions rather than their position.

Michael Gove, the former Education Minister had an old wooden school desk as the centre piece of the entrance to his offices and removed photographs of children learning collaboratively. He was giving the message that learning was lonely and arduous. Coupled with this he frequently announced that he was a ‘traditionalist’ who believed that children learn best sat in rows. He obviously considered that the Golden Age of Curriculum Design was either behind us or simply a myth.

It isn’t.

It is ahead of us. [ITL]

Will Ryan is an experienced primary school headteacher, senior advisor and Independent Thinking Associate. Read more of his work by visiting his Independent Thinking Press page here.

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