I have been involved in curriculum designing for over twenty five years, teaching a subject that remains outside the national curriculum has meant I have had a free hand at putting together the intricacies of a curriculum throughout this time. Working as a curriculum consultant over the past five years I have sometimes been out on a limb when it comes to my message that a joined -up curriculum is essential in order to teach children effectively. Some (not most) school leaders, instead, preferred various ways of gaming the system; only today I read of 500 pupils being entered for two different boards’ maths exams for GCSE, this can’t be a good idea for any pupil and can probably add to a pupil’s anxiety at an already stressful time.
I am convinced that a coherent curriculum is one of the central features of any great school and I am equally convinced that, for a variety of reasons, in some schools it has not been given as much a priority as it should.
Some of the reasons why it has not been central are accountability measures, a focus on exams and tests and a belief that the national curriculum is, maybe, sufficient. And, as the HMCI Amanda Spielman points out:
Over time, this competence (the theory that underpins curriculum planning) across the sector ebbed away…
A curriculum is not all timetables and exams, instead it should be the narrative around which a school revolves. That “…for most children, the end of key stage three is the last time they will take art, music, drama or design and technology.” shows the importance of key stages two and three but also, maybe, the need for a broader offer at key stage four and five, where the English Baccalaureate is a poor substitute for the breadth required over these four years.
In her excellent commentary published today Spielman makes the following salient points:
- …at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.
- …exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round.
- …choices need to be made about what to do when, how much depth to pursue, which ideas to link together, what resources to draw on, which way to teach, and how to make sure all pupils are able to benefit as each new concept, construct or fact is taught.
- …teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding.
- …despite the fact that the curriculum is what is taught, there is little debate or reflection about it.
- …there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum.
- …the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum.
- Where key stage 3 is curtailed, this means ending study at age 13 rather than 14. Furthermore, access to these subjects is sometimes restricted by how schools set options choices.
- …there is scope for intelligent ‘backward planning’ to achieve a coherent curriculum sequence from age 11 to age 16, especially in subjects that are taken by all to age 16. But this should not come at the expense of key stage 3 curriculum breadth and depth: 11/12-year-olds should not be taught to GCSE assessment objectives.
- It should also not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils. If a pupil gains valuable knowledge, for instance in history, but does not get a grade 4, they will still be better educated for having studied it.
It is well worth reading her whole commentary. She pays off with the line that she has no doubt that the curriculum research programme: “will shape how we inspect in future.” Maybe this is the stick to come…
In the meantime let’s go with the carrot…
The (apparent) lost art of curriculum design can be revived and a school driven by it at it’s core can be a successful and ethical institution.
Instead of gimmicks and tricks or just chasing short term gains, put your energies into coherent, joined-up curriculum design.
If you are on Facebook you can get involved in my page: Curriculum Conversations
If you are in the north of England you might like to come along to mine and Tom Sherrington’s ‘Powerful Curriculum Design Course’ on Nov. 1st
If you’d like to discuss any aspect of curriculum design with me and find out more about the work I’m doing with schools and MATs please get in touch here