Perhaps I had a bit of sunstroke but it seemed to me that what the new OFSTED supremo, Amanda Spielman had to say was a ‘game’ changer. In her gloriously uplifting speech at the, equally gloriously uplifting, Wellington Festival of Education she said that:
One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.
To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched.
Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it. As Professor Michael Young wrote in his article, ‘What are schools for?’:
“Schools enable young people to acquire the knowledge that, for most of them, cannot be acquired at home or in the community.”
Yet all too often, that objective, that real substance of education, is getting lost in our schools. I question how often leaders really ask, “What is the body of knowledge that we want to give to young people?
I think the reason that some leaders might have overlooked this question is due to a number of reasons, for example, it might be assumed that the body of knowledge is down to individual teachers or departments; leaders might assume that the national curriculum and exam rubrics ‘are’ the curriculum; and in our recent obsession with ‘outstanding’ teaching and learning leaders might have focused on the ‘performativity’ of teaching rather than the substance, the script*, that is being ‘performed’. Learning walks, lesson observations, CPD focused on ‘pedagogical’ gimmicks and tricks have all added to the impression that teaching is a performance accompanied by engaging activities through which children are entertained or kept busy. I have argued for a long time that pedagogy is not separate to curriculum, the two are intertwined, and if you focus merely on pedagogy then you are neglecting the most important of the two. Curriculum must come first.
Spielman went on to say:
I’ve seen lessons where everything is about the exam and where teaching the mark schemes has a bigger place than teaching history.
For many teachers this is not a surprise at all, in fact for a lot of us in the classroom this has become the dominant mode of ‘efficient’ teaching, soundly teaching to the test to deliver results. This is inevitable in a high stakes culture and though for many it is the high stakes nature that causes this problem, I wonder that without that culture richer curricula would be the order of the day? I doubt it. For a number of teachers teaching has become a short term exercise where the lesson plan, scheme of work/topic and ‘getting them through the test’ approach has become the norm and the slow unfolding of the narrative of a rich curriculum has become a lost art.
And make no mistake, it is an art.
A great curriculum not only unfolds within subjects it occurs across subjects too. Spielman recognises this:
All children should study a broad and rich curriculum. Curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again.
A rich, broad, curriculum, experienced by children, giving them a variety of knowledge and experiences to enrich their lives is a precious thing and it is the primary reason for a school to exist.
How to ensure this happens?
One could do worse than begin with the recommendations made by Amanda Spielman’s colleague at Ofsted, Sean Harford. He recommended that:
Schools need to know their curriculum design and intent; know how their curriculum is being implemented; know what impact their curriculum is having on pupils’ knowledge and understanding, ‘need for numbers’? that’s up to the school, best way of ‘knowing’ (not ‘demonstrating’) the above.
This is something I have been working on for sometime, I would argue that a ‘trivium’ curriculum approach ensures that schools can provide a broad, rich curriculum with a focused design and intent with a variety of ways to know the impact that it’s having. To this end Tom Sherrington and I have, somewhat fortuitously, put together a ‘powerful curriculum’ day course in London on July 7th. Planned before the Spielman speech, this day will nevertheless look at its potential implications for schools. If you are interested in attending click here for the link.
If you are unable to make it and there are only a few places left we hope to do more in the future.
It is heartening to see that OFSTED ‘s explicit recognition of curriculum breadth and education for the sake of the knowledge learnt and its importance might help counteract the damaging effects of narrowing teaching and learning to ‘gaming’ the accountability system. That Ofsted has been part of the problem in the past doesn’t mean it can’t be part of the solution in the future. I hope that Spielman’s speech will turn out to be a significant step in the right direction in which all children are able to access a broad rich curriculum that will help them live interested and interesting lives.
*NB, I am not advocating the scripting of lessons here.