How can we support our schools to meet the curriculum challenges of today?
92 per cent of teachers and school leaders feel confident or very confident with their day-to-day work around curriculum. However, 61 per cent still consider it a challenging area of practice and 24 per cent believe it is a weakness in their school (Just Great Teaching).
Defining a coherent curriculum
If we want a simple definition of what schools must do, it starts with the curriculum. This underpins everything else that we do as teachers and school leaders. After all, get the curriculum wrong and your students are likely to be disengaged, misbehave and possibly achieve weaker outcomes, and I mean this in the broadest sense: attendance, participation in class and examination performance.
There is evidence that there was some sort of school ‘curriculum’ in England as early as the Roman occupation, from 43 to 410 AD. Roman Britain had a literate culture and it is thought that the ‘curriculum’ as such might have included ‘elementary learning (reading, writing, and arithmetic), grammar (correct composition and the study of literary texts), and rhetoric (the theory and practice of oratory)’ (Nicholas Orme in Gillard, 2018).
Fast-forward nearly 2,000 years to the 1980s and we have the introduction of the first prescribed curriculum as a result of the 1988 Education Reform Act. This National Curriculum (for England and initially Wales) was introduced to make sure all students had access to the essential knowledge they needed to become educated citizens. A slimmer version was proposed by Gillian Shephard in 1994 and there was another overhaul by David Blunkett in 1999. Further changes were introduced by Ed Balls in 2008 and then again by Michael Gove in 2014. As I write in 2019, it is now the focus of England’s current pedagogical debate.
How can schools talk about curriculum, all of the time?
So, focusing in on the curriculum is nothing new for schools, yet Ofsted’s new focus appears to have all schools talking about it once more – for whatever reason schools had lost their way (or not). Arguably, the purpose of a National Curriculum is to make sure that there is consistency in the knowledge and skills being taught in schools, so that every student is given the education they need regardless of which school they attend.
Everyone will have different opinions about these questions (and every education minister will want to make sure we know theirs). There are obviously plenty of challenges in working out what a curriculum should be and should do; perhaps the lesson from the state of play in Scotland, Wales and England today is that it’s very difficult to get it right.
Curriculum thinking, not curriculum workload
I have always believed that any curriculum intentions are impossible without supporting teachers to be the best that they can be – to bring the curriculum to life and to make it coherent and tangible for children. Without good teaching, curriculum is merely paperwork. What all of our schools must do is provide the conditions in which teachers can regularly plan and connect schemes of work.
I witnessed how the 2014 curriculum change in England created significant extra workload for colleagues and school leaders. I recall having to engineer many professional development days to give staff the valuable time they needed to plan resources. For the classroom teacher, curriculum reform required updated materials in many forms, from curriculum plans and overviews by key stage to schemes of work and individual resources to support students in lessons. In some cases, particularly in core subjects where teachers worked with students more regularly, teachers were often only one-half term ahead of their students, and this made it almost impossible to embed key skills or concepts from the beginning.
Taking your curriculum thinking further
In Just Great Teaching, I outline 5 ideas in great detail.
- Broadening the curriculum
- Question your what, why, how (or intent, implementation and impact)
- Design a future-proof curriculum
- Individual choice
- Curriculum delivery.
In the book, I share ideas and resources to support metacognition, technology and global issues, Kunskapsskolan education, critical thinking and real-world skills, cultural literacy and the arts, as well as how to avoid curriculum-change fatigue.
These questions are designed to support curriculum planning and reflection and are not ‘the’ questions that must be asked, but may support teachers to think more deeply about their curriculum and how it aligns with other teachers and subject teaching across the school.
Avoiding curriculum fatigue
It’s easy for curriculum-change fatigue to set in when it feels like we have to go through this rigmarole every five or so years. When teachers are overworked enough as it is, it’s understandable if there is reluctance to take on the huge and time-consuming task of redesigning the curriculum. You might even feel a sense of futility about it when league tables, exam pressures and the EBacc all limit flexibility and creativity.
Whether we agree with current government policies or not, curriculum change is a necessity and will continue to happen throughout a teacher’s career, so it’s important that we think creatively about what is possible within the limits set by statutory requirements.