Strategic school leadership simplified: quality assurance mechanisms

In the first post in this series, I detailed our process of setting strategic direction – a community wide collaboration of agreeing aims, values and a description of the future.

The next stage was to determine ways of knowing the extent to which our vision is being realised and to do this, we needed to be clear on the different types of impact that we can have as school leaders. A few years ago, I came across Thomas Guskey’s mechanisms for evaluating professional development. These proved a good starting point to think about ways to evaluate the work of the school in its entirety. Ultimately, if the school is working effectively, there will be an impact on outcomes for children. In order for children to do well, schools should seek to influence adults’ knowledge and adults’ behaviours. When certain behaviours develop into cultural norms, they become systems and processes. Finally, leaders’ impact on climate underpins the impact in all the preceding realms.

Within each of these, there are sub sections. The interesting thing with these is that there is an inverse relationship between the ultimate outcome and those that we can more directly influence.

Next, looking at each strand, we considered key performance indicators that would show how well our vision was being realised. It was pretty difficult to keep the number of key performance indicators low – there are lots indicators that seem important and, after all, schools are complex places. Here’s a snapshot of a few (with a baseline RAG rating):

With more specific indicators now agreed, we considered what could be measured or assessed in some way that would help us to know the extent to which our vision is being realised and whether the key performed indicators were being met.

Now with a clearer idea about what we might want to assess or measure, thinking turned to how we could do so:

There is quite a bit of overlap here – one quality assurance activity could easily provide information about all five strands of impact. Equally, there are certain quality assurance activities that would not provide any meaningful information about a particular strand and it is important for leaders to understand that. Any quality assurance activity would need to be chosen to ascertain the information that leaders require and not done simply because it has always been done or because it’s what others do.

To help show this, here’s another representation of what different quality assurance activities could give us useful information about:

It is worth pointing out at this stage that no individual quality assurance activity can provide completely reliable information and this is due to the many variables that are involved, not least bias in the person or people doing it. It is important for governors and leaders to understand that a combination of measures over time is probably the most reliable way of getting information that is anywhere near valid.

Having worked on this pre-pandemic, the educational landscape has changed somewhat and the opportunity will hopefully arise to reshape what the norms are regarding quality assurance in schools – less so hard accountability measures and more so a collaborative notice and adjust model. Even with more of the latter, the quality assurance activities would still be mostly valid; it would be how they are done that can shift. Pragmatism and humanity over numbers and one off performances.

Having clarified a vision for the future and mechanisms to check whether we’re meeting that expectation, the next part of this series looks at strategy selection to set out the details of what we need to do in order to be successful.

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Curriculum coherence – threads of key concepts

One way of creating coherence in a curriculum is to pay close attention to the key concepts for each subject.  These key concepts go by other names such as big ideas or threshold concepts.  Whatever they are referred to, they are concepts that, once understood, transform a child’s understanding of that subject.  They can also be developed across year groups – they are not taught as one off ideas, they are a thread through the entire curriculum with children developing a more complex understanding as they get older.

Deciding on the key concepts starts with research.  There are a number of sources of information to gain a better understanding of them.  Mike Askew has written about the big ideas in maths.  The Association for Science Education (ASE) has published Wynne Harlen’s big ideas in science.  And of course, the national curriculum purpose of study and aims sections for each subject contain the concepts if you know what you’re looking for.  Further (great) advice on the matter can be found in the subject association websites.  They require a membership for access but are well worth the subscription.

Below are what my school has settled on for key concepts in each subject.  There is also a link to the relevant subject association where one exists.  Hope they’re useful.

English


  • Structure of a sentence
  • Words, phrases and sentences have an effect on the reader
  • Structure of stories
  • Imagery
  • Sound and phoneme / grapheme correspondence
  • Word decoding / sight recognition

English association website.

Maths


  • Estimation
  • Equivalence
  • Classification
  • Numerical reasoning
  • Position on a number line
  • Meaning of symbols
  • Sequences
  • Place value

Maths association website.

Science


  • All material in the universe made of tiny particles
  • Life
  • Gravity
  • A force is required to change an object’s movement
  • Organisms have a finite life span
  • Organisms require energy and materials and often have to compete for them
  • Genetic information is passed down to offspring
  • Finding the cause of phenomena
  • Explanations best fit the facts at a point in time

Science association website.

History


  • Significance (people, events and developments)
  • Continuity and change (chronology)
  • Cause, effect and legacy
  • Perspective and evidence

History association website.

Geography


  • The physical world
  • Place and space
  • Human environments
  • Scale
  • Interdependence
  • Change

Geography association website.

RE


  • Worship
  • Symbols
  • A good life
  • Holy places and pilgrimage
  • Key figures
  • Life after death
  • Celebration
  • Scripture

RE association website.

PSHE


  • Identity
  • Relationships
  • Healthy lifestyle
  • Risk
  • Diversity and equality
  • Rights, responsibilities and consent
  • Change and resilience
  • Power
  • Career

PSHE association website.

PE


  • Practice
  • Conditioning
  • Performance and evaluation
  • Teamwork
  • Strategy

PE association website.

Art


  • Depth
  • Light and dark
  • Proportion
  • Mood / Colour
  • Texture

Art association website.

Music


  • Practice
  • Performance
  • Beat
  • Style
  • Musical structure
  • Musical dimension
  • Scales

Music association website.

MFL


  • Pronunciation
  • Intercultural understanding

MFL association website.

DT


  • Product evaluation
  • Design
  • Make
  • Evaluate

DT association website.

Computing


  • Digital literacy
  • Algorithms
  • Programming
  • Debugging
  • Networks

Computing association website.

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Strategic school leadership simplified: what leaders should pay attention to

In four years of headship, I’ve always been interested in strategic direction and that interest came from the dissonance between knowing that it is important combined with not doing it well enough nor seeing an example that made me want to use and develop.  I would spend time on the format of the strategic plan and muse on the difference between milestones, success criteria and other fancy terms.

For this round of strategic planning, I was determined to do it better than I had before.  I had experienced a lot of noise in doing this before and wanted to simplify the whole process.  The first thing I decided to do was to align the strategic planning process with the financial year instead of the academic year to better align funds available with strategic priorities.  I also decided to extend the time frame for strategic planning from one to three years. As simple as it sounds, we needed to be absolutely sure about what it was that we should pay attention to:

My school is settled and entering a new phase of school improvement – no longer in the rescue phase and now aiming to move from reinforcement to refinement.

Then I read.  A lot.  First was Viviane Robinson’s Dimensions of Student Centred Leadership and the average effect on student outcomes:

This was useful as a point for discussion with other leaders about determining what we should be paying attention to.

Next on the reading trail was this article by the Ambition Institute (related ResearchEd video here), the writing by Vivianne Robinson and by Matthew Evans as well as this from the NGA.  It was divine timing.

 

What persistent problems should the school seek to address?


The term persistent problems comes from an article by Mary Kennedy, Parsing the practice of teaching, applied by the Ambition Institute to school leadership.  They described them as universal, unavoidable and implicit – no matter the context of the school or the expertise of the leaders, they’ll need to be solved.

The process for the creating the next iteration of our strategic plan began with senior leaders considering, within the remit of their roles, the persistent problems that we face.  This was framed within the wider process of eventually describing a vision for the future and which stakeholders would contribute at each point:

After using the Ambition article to explain what persistent problems are, I presented them as satisfying one or both of two criteria:

  • Aspects of school leadership that we need to do better
  • Aspects of school leadership that are too important to not focus on (whether we do them well or nor)

Leaders used good old post it notes and we compiled our collective thoughts, resulting in a table full of around 50 things.  Each time, the leader justified its inclusion and perhaps edited some wording after thinking aloud.

50 was too many and this was only the initial step.  We then started grouping the ideas into clusters that were related, ending up with 6.  Now it was time to consider the views of other school leaders so I revealed the Ambition Institute’s seven persistent problems:

  1. setting direction and building alignment
  2. Enlisting staff contribution and ensuring staff development
  3. Organising and staffing the curriculum
  4. Attending to pupil behaviour and wider circumstances
  5. Diagnosing, prioritising and managing resources effectively to build and implement strategy
  6. Managing an effective and efficient organisation / administration
  7. Developing personal expertise, self regulation and resilience

After comparing what we came up with and the work from Ambition, we settled on the first draft:

Image

It was reassuring to be along the same lines.  Leaders left that session having thought hard about our strategic direction.  They had contributed significantly to it but there were more stakeholders to have their voice heard.  Leaders were tasked with chairing discussions, just as we had, with teachers, support staff and parents.

Engaging the wider community


Before we started looking at solutions to the persistent problems that we identified, we wanted to know if we were paying attention to the right problems from the perspectives of everyone else.  The aim was also to ensure that everyone had their say on the direction that the school would take.  Reassuringly, the vast majority of what we’d discussed was also identified by teachers and support staff.  We framed the discussion in a similar way, setting out criteria as above but added another scaffold to focus thinking.  We asked them to name an aspect of school life that could be better or is too important to take our collective eye off and then describe how they wanted it to be.  This went some way to ensuring that we thought about direction rather than what might have happened that day.

The process was repeated in a similar way with parents.  The chairing of that discussion to keep it future focused was more of a challenge because what is important to parents is often down to their own child’s experience.

Describing the future


We were at the stage now where we’d agreed the strategic priorities based on the persistent problems that we were trying to solve.  This was beginning to take the form of a strategy document – an description of what our school will look like in the next few years.  Leaders got together once more and looked to list the conditions that we’d be working in if we had solved the problems that we had identified.  The result was this:

Ir was the governors’ turn next.  I’d arranged a strategy session as part of an FGB to support governors to genuinely carry out their ‘setting strategic direction’ responsibility.  Leaders described the process and what we had distilled from all the discussions.  This was incredibly valuable because the process had started as strategic with senior leaders, took into account the experiences of other stakeholders and now had to return to strategic level again.  With governors’ input we were ready for the final draft of a strategy document, one that sets the direction of the school for the next few years, that protects the school from unnecessary change if there were to be significant changes in leadership.

Vision and values


The final piece of the strategic puzzle was to check if our vision and values were still valid.  We thought about whether our strategic priorities matched with that overall aim for the school.  We considered whether our values were for purpose in enacting the strategic priorities.

So here it is and I hope you find it useful.

Next steps


  1. Agree on key performance indicators for each strategic priority and quality assurance methodology (blog part 2)
  2. Strategy selection and strategic resourcing (blog part 3)
  3. Implementation planning (blog part 4)

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9 ways to put sentences at the heart of the curriculum

This post leans heavily upon the great work by Judith Hochman and Natalie Wexler in The Writing Revolution.  In my school, the least advantaged children are not as competent as their advantaged peers at crafting accurate and effective sentences.  To combat this, we aim to put sentences at the heart of the curriculum, with a number of strategies that can be used not only during English lessons but in any subject using the fascinating content that each subject brings.  After all,  writing is thinking and getting children to think clearly about the curriculum is fundamental to them building schemata.

Understanding children’s misconceptions

The starting point for any strategy selection is to understand the misconceptions that children have around sentences.  From The Writing Revolution, categorising these misconceptions as grammatical or stylistic can be helpful.  These strategies may help children to write better sentences but reading is just as important.  For example, children might use run ons when writing and ignore full stops when reading.  Paired reading, sentence by sentence can ensure that children pause at full stops and hear the demarcation of sentences more clearly.

 

Securing subject knowledge

Teachers need good subject knowledge in order to clearly explain the intricacies of the grammar and stylistic choices that need to be made when forming great sentences.  The following images show some key concepts that the sentence strategies rely on:

The role of oral rehearsal

Children can only write what they can say and the following strategies must be built upon plenty of oral rehearsal.


#1 Fragments for completion

What

Using the subject content from various subjects, provide children with fragments.  These fragments contain the key vocabulary and turns of phrase used in the unit of work.  Remember to set up plenty of oral rehearsal first.

Why

Using a part of a sentence as a focal point of discussion around how it make it complete draws attention to what is and what is not a sentence.  Doing so provides opportunities to talk about what is missing (subject, verb etc) and what those might be in order make a complete sentence.  This task also provides an opportunity for precise thinking about the subject content with the aim of putting across information learned in a concise way.


#2 Because, but, so

What

A main clause is provided and children are encouraged to extend it using a conjunction.  The choice of conjunction is important.  Because prompts a causation; but sets up a contradiction and so leads into a consequence.

Why

The three chosen conjunctions make the sentence take very different turns.  If the initial main clause is selected well enough from the subject content in any given subject, children will have to think hard about completing them to portray the subject content accurately.


#3 Sentence functions

What

Provide prompts for children form one of the 4 functions of a sentence.  Use vocabulary, concepts or ideas from the subject content of the wider curriculum.

Why

Aside from more practice in forming different sentence types, children are given an opportunity to think about subject content in a different way.


#4 Change words and phrases for effect

What

A sentence is chosen from a text and a discussion is prompted about the word choices that the writer has made.  Experiment with adding, removing or changing words and phrases and thinking about the effect that the changes have on the reader.  Consider changing the intended effect – what words or phrases would need to be adapted?

Why

Shared writing at the sentence level helps children to see and hear the thought processes of good writers.  Sometimes this can be lost in writing longer pieces so spending time on the analyse and crafting of individual sentence is time well spent.


#5 Convert the voice

What

Provide sentences in the active voice for children to convert to the passive voice and vice versa.  Once there is a sentence in each voice, consider which voice sounds better.

Why

Choosing between the active and passive voice is important when deciding where the reader’s attention should be directed in a sentence.


#6 Manipulating word classes

What

Provide children with a word that can be classed differently depending on context, drawn from the wider curriculum.  Prompt children to write sentences where the word is classed in different ways.

Why

Words can only be classified in context.  A sentence can come alive with carefully selected words used in the right context.


#7 Adding adverbials

What

Provide a single clause sentence which children develop by adding adverbials.  They’ll need to first choose which information would be valuable to add:

  • when the action happened
  • where it happened
  • why it happened
  • how it happened
  • for how long it happened
  • how often it happened
  • with whom it happened.

A further discussion would be useful about whether the adverbial is best placed at the beginning of the end of the sentence.

Why

A sentence can have complexity whilst still retaining only one clause.  Writers are deliberate in what information is included and how a sentence is organised.


#8 Single to multi clause

What

Provide children with a single clause sentence and experiment with using conjunctions to join further clauses to it.  Choose a coordinating conjunction and a further main clause to make a multi clause coordinated sentence.  Experiment with other coordinating conjunctions and decide which coordinated sentence sounds best.  Choose a subordinating conjunction and a subordinate clause to make a multi clause subordinated sentence.  Try the subordinate clause before and after the main clause and decide which configuration sounds best.  Does the coordinated or the subordinated sentence sound better?

Why

Adding further clauses using different conjunctions enables sentences to put across links between ideas.


#9 Adding a relative clause

What

Provide a main clause and consider what more information might about the subject that a reader might need to know.  Which relative pronoun would be best: which, who or that?

Why

The use of a relative clause combines otherwise separate ideas into one sentence, particular when the extra information about the subject is better coming before the action in a particular sentence.


If you liked this, you might like:

Single and multi clause sentences – an analogy

Suspenseful with a pencil

Memory and Writerly Knowledge

Tweaking Talk for Writing Text Maps

Knowledge, Memory and Writing

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Rudyard Kipling and pupil progress meetings

Rudyard Kipling’s poem If is written from the perspective of a father who is giving his son advice on how to live up to the ideals of manhood. It’s full of wisdom about how one can live with integrity and aims to help the son to understand the world in which he is growing up.

There is one part of the poem that comes to mind when thinking about pupil progress meetings:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two imposters just the same;

Completing these conditional clauses is the ending of the poem:

Yours is the earth and everything in it,

And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

A caricature of the most heinous pupil progress meeting is a teacher getting a child by child grilling on why they haven’t done as well as they should according to an assessment a few years ago. There may even be some appraisal and pay progression linked to how well children do which can skew the reliability and validity of any judgements.  The result is poor information and any decisions based on poor information cannot work.

Kipling’s Triumph is the list of children in the upper right sections of a progress matrix – compared to the previous key stage, they’re doing well. Disaster, on the other hand, is the list of children in the lower left sections of the same matrix.  Most pupil progress meetings draw attention to these imposters and it’s how we treat the pair that determines whether the earth and everything in it is ours. It’s human nature to claim causation in Triumph and wash our hands of Disaster but as Kipling advises, we should treat these two the same and the reason for this is that they can’t be reliable – they’re only indicators of how much children have learned.

If we’re happy to take credit for Triumphs then we must equally assume the same for Disasters. Similarly, if Disasters are out of our control then so are Triumphs.  The reality is that there are so many influences on how well children do on tests or the judgements that teachers make on children’s attainment that we probably do not have as much influence as we’d like to think.

So where does this leave us with making pupil progress meetings work? Put simply, they need to be solution focused, aiming to tackle systemic reasons for underachievement.

Taking the information that we have (test scores and teacher assessments compared to a previous key stage) as only indicators, leaders can run discussions on what it is that these children need that they’re not currently getting. Broadly, these needs can be categorised into changes or refinement. Sometimes, change is needed in order to get the best out of children but change isn’t necessary. Often, we would do better looking at how well we’re doing at the strategies that we’ve chosen and try to do them better.  Changes or refinement can be applied to 4 domains within our control.

Curriculum

Does the information that we have tell us that curriculum changes or improvements are needed? Is the sequencing right? Are there chunks of prior knowledge plainly missing from our curriculum and causing poor subsequent conceptual development? Are we giving children enough opportunities to revisit concepts to embed them in long term memory?  Are the books in our reading curriculum challenging enough?  Are our model texts for writing fit for purpose?

Pedagogy

Do we need to do something different with how we’re teaching or refine existing practices? Are we modelling enough? Are our explanations rooted in great subject knowledge and clear as a result?  Does our questioning extend thinking and help to check for understanding?

Intervention

Have existing interventions made any difference? Do the people running them have the right expertise? Is the content pitched correctly with the right scaffolds? Might pre-teaching be more effective than reactive intervention?

Operations

Would adapting the timetable, the school day or how adults are deployed make a difference?

A good pupil progress meeting should result in a clear idea of what leaders and teachers might do in order to get the best out of children. There’s another possible avenue to pursue here though. Might some children be underachieving because the effort that they’re putting in is insufficient?  If we have trust in the strategies that we’ve developed, and they’re working for many children, doing something new is unnecessary.  Perhaps we need to get better at encouraging improved effort from certain children in order for them to achieve better.

Kipling promises the earth and everything in it if, amongst other things, we can treat the imposters of Triumph and Disaster equally.  Accetpting that Triumph and Disaster are fleeting, focusing solely on what adults can do differently to promote better outcomes is probably our best bet at using pupil progress meetings to enable every child to flourish.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 3: what’s been learned?

This post, the third of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.

In the first part of this series, I set out the thinking about the big picture of curriculum design and this can be summarised with three key insights:

  1. Subject leaders need to do the thinking themselves.  The value is in leaders enacting the process and learning along the way, not in buying in a commercial curriculum that is not tailored the school’s needs.
  2. The curriculum is the progress model.  If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
  3. Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work.  With periodic outcomes in mind for each unit of work, it is far easier to set children up for success in producing purposeful high quality work.

In the second  part of this series, I detailed the components of medium plans and explained the decision to write these for teachers to ease workload and to ensure that curriculum intent is enacted.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 3: What has been learned?


Senior leaders and teachers need to know what children have learned because this is the only true measure of how effective a curriculum is.  Some subjects are assessed more than others so for the purposes of this process, I’m referring to non core subjects that are not assessed in the same way as English and maths.

I’d go one step further in defining the success of a curriculum.  We must focus on the children that are most disadvantaged in any cohort.  If they are are not learning what we intend, then we’re not succeeding.  The learning of these children is the real measure of how successful a school is.

I’m proposing a set of indicators that can be used to judge the effectiveness of a curriculum.  These are not formal assessments but when looked at in conjunction with one another can give us an idea of the extent to which the curriculum has been learned.

Low stakes testing 

Regular opportunities for children to recall what they have learned serves the purpose of signposting what they do and do not understand as well as reinforcing memories making use of the testing effect.  These can take the form of a review of previous learning in each lesson, a multiple choice quiz dropped in at any point in the sequence of learning or a short answer quiz used in the same way.  Cursory glances over children’s responses, particularly those of the most disadvantaged, will reveal what has been understood and what has been misunderstood.

Vocabulary check

If medium plans stipulate the key vocabulary that children are to learn in a unit of work, then checking children’s understanding of those words are asking children to use them in context is useful.  A great way to do this can be in conversation with a sample of children, perhaps with their books in front of them, perhaps not.

Composite end task

The high quality piece of work that children produce as a result of the work done in that unit, although not independent, can nonetheless add to the bigger picture of what children do and do not understand.  After all, if, despite the scaffolding and support, children still misrepresent key ideas, we know that they have not fully understood them.

Reading comprehension

If children have developed a good schema over a unit of work, then their general knowledge will have been broadened.  Considering that most reading comprehension can arguable be a measure of knowledge of a subject, one option to judge how much children have understood is to provide some reading material around the topic that has been learned to see if they can answer a range of comprehension questions.

When?

Some of these indicators can be monitored during or at the end of a unit of work but if learning can be defined in a change in long term memory, perhaps we need to look at the indicators away from the point of teaching, for example in the weeks after a unit of work has been completed.


So what?

These possibilities can give leaders and teachers a good idea of what has been learned and what has not.  The important part of this process though is what we then do with that information. If we do not act on the information gathered, there is no point gathering it in the first place.  Plainly, if we have spent a chunk of curriculum time on teaching a particular unit of work and children have not understood it all, the rest of the carefully sequenced curriculum can fall down.  Concepts that have not been remembered well can be interleaved into the reviews of previous learning during lessons in the next unit of work.  However, if it is an understanding issue, a couple of lessons might need editing and reteaching, perhaps at the beginning of the next unit of work.

The other equally important action from judging the effectiveness of the curriculum is to adapt to make it more effective for the next cohort.  If there is a pattern of children misunderstanding a particular component of a unit of work, then perhaps the way that component has been taught needs to be adapted.  Leaders may even need to cut some of the content because too much had been planned, or add to the content if it came up short.  The sequence may need to be altered after teachers find that a different way made more sense.  Through the course of teaching the unit, teachers may have found better tasks, photos, sources, video clips than were originally included in the plans and so adapting the plan upon reviewing the extent to which children have learned the intent is crucial to give the next cohort an even better chance of learning and retaining what has been set out.

In summary, monitoring these indicators should result in the edition of future plans for that particular class as well as the plans to be used for children in the future.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 2: the detail

This post, the second of three, details the process carried out to reform the curriculum upon taking up my Headship back in July 2018.  Every school’s needs are different so it is important to set the process I carried out into context.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership – no subject overviews, no progression across the key stage and no shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.

In the first part of this series, I set out the thinking about the big picture of curriculum design and this can be summarised with three key insights:

  1. Subject leaders need to do the thinking themselves.  The value is in leaders enacting the process and learning along the way, not in buying in a commercial curriculum that is not tailored the school’s needs.
  2. The curriculum is the progress model.  If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
  3. Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work.  With periodic outcomes in mind for each unit of work, it is far easier to set children up for success in producing purposeful high quality work.

Once the big picture had been set out, it was time to focus on the details.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 2: The details


In researching other schools’ curricula, it seemed that many stopped at the big picture and handed over responsibility to teachers to create medium term plans.  This bothered me for two reasons.  The first is the workload associated with writing medium term plans because doing this well requires significant expertise and plenty of time.  If neither are afforded, then we are left with teachers trawling search engines for tasks to do which are then thrown together.  Doing the work to a high enough standard to enact the intended curriculum is not something that a typical primary subject leader, not remunerated specifically for the responsibility nor usually with the knowledge and experience necessary, can be morally expected to do.  The second reason that handing over subject overviews for subject leaders to write medium term plans from bothered me was because of the inevitable breakdown in cohesion.  All the care invested in the content and sequencing choices for each subject could easily be lost.

The resultant decision was to provide detailed medium term plans for teachers for every unit of work in order to increase the likelihood that the intended curriculum became the enacted curriculum as well as to eliminate unnecessary workload.  With so many plans to write and now beginning to train others with the right expertise, a number of criteria were needed to ensure that there was sufficient detail for teachers.

Components that build to the composite end piece of work

Medium term plans are not divided into lessons, they are divided in to components – chunks of understanding that accumulate to enable children to produce that high quality end piece.  Some components may take a couple of lessons for children to master, while some lessons could provide children with the chance to develop more than one component.  The important idea here is that lessons are the wrong unit of measurement.  Teachers need to exercise autonomy in how much time they spend developing each component because splitting the sequence up into lessons can encourage coverage rather than learning.

Each unit of work has a sequence of learning that builds towards a high quality end result.  We frame these as questions that children should be able to answer once the work has been completed.  By setting out what exactly children need to be able to articulate, it allows those writing the plans to consider different ways in which that can be achieved.

Deliberate vocabulary development

With a good overview of the content of a unit of work and where it fits in to the overall curriculum, choosing target vocabulary that children simply must understand serves two purposes.  The first is to ensure that teachers focus vocabulary instruction on that which will contribute most to understanding the key concepts of that unit.  Those with well developed subject knowledge are far better placed to make those decisions than if teachers needed to get to grips with the content and do this themselves.  The second purpose is to give leaders a simple way of monitoring the extent to which the curriculum has been learned and understood.  Sampling children’s understanding of the identified key vocabulary is a great starting point for assessment.  This can be picked up from looking at the quality of articulation of vocabulary in children’s work as well as some good old fashioned questioning.  More on this in part 3.

Identification of necessary prior knowledge

Ideally, each unit of work builds on what children have been taught at some point in the past but it is inevitable that children will forget some of what is necessary to understand the more complex ideas that come later on.  Time at the beginning of a unit of work needs to be set aside to assess and reteach what children should have remembered from those previous units.  Many schools will experience children joining school at different times of the year and at different points in the key stage and so deliberately checking and reteaching required prior knowledge helps those children to succeed too.

A thread of key concepts

Early on in the first phase of strategic curriculum leadership, I used the national curriculum and the work of the subject associations to clarify the key concepts for each subject – the big ideas that often recur at increasing levels of complexity in most year groups.  Examples of key concepts are:

  • position on a number line in maths
  • the effect of writing on a reader in English
  • the idea that a force is required to change an object’s movement in science
  • cause, effect and legacy in history
  • scale in geography
  • worship in RE
  • identity in PSHE
  • performance in music
  • invasion strategy in PE
  • depth in art
  • accent and pronunciation in French
  • debugging in computing

These concepts should be regularly revisited and developed iteratively over the span of a curriculum and drawing explicit attention to them in medium term plans helped to focus the plans on addressing them as well as drawing attention to high level curriculum thinking for teachers reading and using them.

What teachers need to know

Teachers’ subject knowledge is vital to them explaining clearly and enthusing children in each subject.  Proper research into the topics being taught takes time but this burden can be eased by the inclusion of key subject knowledge for teachers on each medium term plan.  Experts compiled extracts, links and videos for teachers to access as a bare minimum to teach the unit well.  This has now become a significant strand of our CPD offer.  The experts writing the medium term plans will occasionally come across some content that clearly requires some high quality face to face training too.  When developing our art plans and talking to the teachers that would be teaching each topic, it became clear that a unit on perspective drawing and a unit on op art would never be successful without structured training because the teachers had no experience at all of them.  Working with a local artist, they showed our teachers how execute certain artistic techniques and as a result, we had far more confident teachers and excellent pieces of art.

Skeleton presentations for teachers

Teachers would need to take the medium term plans that have been written and turn them into what children will see in each lesson.  However this is another example of a key moment when all the careful thinking about curriculum design can go wrong.  It is very easy now to find published presentations, some free and some needing subscription, with a quick online search.  The quality is variable and so is the relevance.  Choosing the right models, images pictures and video clips to show children can be time consuming when done properly.  For this reason, the plan is for those with the time and expertise to source these visuals and compile them for teachers into presentations.  Teachers will be free to use these if they wish and welcome to add to or improve them.

A key consideration throughout all this work is striking the right balance between prescription and autonomy.  Leaning too far towards prescription may ease workload but remove a lot of teacher choice about what is covered and when.  Leaning too far towards autonomy may give teachers more choice but increase their workload and result in a loss of cohesion.  For this reason, the medium term plans that we wrote detail what children need to know, understand and remember.  Ideas are provided for how teachers might achieve that but it is here that teachers have autonomy to do different things.  These decisions are guided by our teaching and learning guidance about what makes great teaching.

In the third part of this series, I describe the information that we gather that informs us of how well the curriculum is being learned and then what we do with that information.

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Strategic curriculum leadership phase 1: the big picture

Context

When I took up my Headship in July 2018, I set out to reform the curriculum. This series of posts details that process. Every school’s needs are different so context is important.  The school I took over was judged as requires improvement in March 2017.  Between then and my appointment, there was a time of leadership instability.  Initial visits to the school revealed that there was a lack of any curriculum leadership. There were no subject overviews and no attention to progression across the key stage. Neither was there any shared understanding of how any subject should be taught.


Strategic curriculum leadership 

Phase 1: The big picture


Curriculum design principles

The first task was to settle upon a set of principles to guide any decision making on curriculum choices.  Reading Dylan Wiliam’s Principled Curriculum Design was useful and I settled on the following:

Subject overviews

The national curriculum was the necessary first port of call for subject specifics.  This served two purposes.  The first was to sequence the content across KS2 (we’re a junior school).  Some subjects were more straightforward to sequence. History, for example,is broadly chronological from year 3 to year 6.  The second purpose was to determine the key concepts that threaded through the key stage. These are the big ideas that children ought to leave in Y6 with a thorough knowledge of.  I checked in against the curriculum design principles to ensure that the conditions for a great curriculum were met. This work led to the clarification of the first key insight about curriculum development:

School leaders need to do the thinking themselves.

There are many off the peg curricula for schools to buy.  Doing this is a mistake.  A relevant curriculum looks different for a school in Cornwall than it does for a school in Birmingham city. Alongside meeting statutory requirements, it must meet the needs of the children in the school and the communities that they live in.

The end result of this phase of strategic curriculum leadership is captured in key documentation. We now had curriculum overviews for each subject. Within these overviews, each unit of work’s existence can be justified by answering two simple questions:

  1. Why this?
  2. Why now?

The first question relates to the content choice.  Much of this is driven by the national curriculum but there will be some that is not.  I gave careful consideration to the type of content and how it contributes to the bigger picture of what it means to have a deep understanding of each subject If the content is hierarchical, then the acquisition of knowledge further down the line will be dependent upon it For example, children need to know how to multiply and divide by powers of 10 before they can convert between different units of measurement.  The choice of content can be made for a few main reasons:

  • it is in the national curriculum,
  • it is not in the national curriculum but nonetheless interesting and therefore worth teaching and
  • it is a necessary component to develop a larger composite schema at some point in the future.

Alternatively, if the content is cumulative, it’s purpose is to build a broader understanding of the subject. Other units may be dependent upon it though.  For example, the KS2 history national curriculum stipulates the study of an aspect or theme in British history that extends pupils’ chronological knowledge beyond 1066. The decision on which aspect or theme could stand independent of the rest of the history content.  Swapping it out with another aspect or theme may not affect the curriculum as a whole.  Leaders’ choice of content should be driven by the school’s local context.  For example, an estate near my school has roads named after aircraft and is called the Bomber Estate. We chose to include a unit on the role that that the Battle of Britain played in WWII.

The second question (Why now?) relates to the order in which the subject content is arranged The national curriculum stipulates that the subject content needs to be learned by the end of the key stage. Mapping out the order of units of work across the key stage by terms or half terms needs deliberate thought.  Some concepts may suit a particular phase. Each decision about where in the key stage a unit of work fits should include how it builds on what children already know and how this unit contributes to a more sophisticated understanding further down the line.  This exemplifies the second key insight about curriculum development:

The curriculum is the progress model.

If the curriculum has been designed well enough, it gets progressively harder year on yearGood design is deliberate content choices arranged in a logical order. By keeping up with the expectations of the curriculum, children will be making progress.

Links between subjects need careful consideration at this stage of curriculum planning. Christine Counsell words this memorably as crazy cross curricularity vs intelligent interdisciplinarity.  An example of the former would be forcing links between subjects to adhere to a topic theme.  I chose to implement subjects as individual disciplines, making links where they naturally arise I also took it a step further in an attempt to give children multiple opportunities to interact with subject content across the key stage.  At first, it was rather tempting to fit those natural links together in the same term. For example, I could have combined Egyptian themed art work in the same term and year group as the Egyptian history unit.  Instead, I spaced these links out. After children have learned about Ancient Egyptian history in the summer of year 3, they learn about ancient Egyptian art in the Autumn of year 4 Teachers can use this opportunity to encourage children to recall what they learned about Ancient Egypt. They can also add a layer of understanding to their general knowledge with the art unit.  Trips were planned in the same way – we moved them out of the term or half term where the unit of work was being taught. This increased the frequency of interaction with the content to make it more memorable over time.

Composite tasks for each unit of work

The ‘Why this?  Why now?’ consideration was also applied to the sequence of learning in each unit of work.  Before embarking on this work, I researched different schools’ curricula. I was surprised to see how common it was for leaders to provide teachers with titles for units of work followed by little more than statements copied and pasted from the national curriculum If teachers are expected to write medium term plans from subject overviews, how can the curriculum be deliberately built over key stages Our subject overviews include a sequence of learning for that half term – key components that children need to learn about in order to understand what is required in the national curriculum Writing a few of these in conjunction with colleagues from other schools led to the third key insight about curriculum development:

Clarify the desired outcome for each unit of work first.

Sequences of learning can then be sketched out to build towards these end points.  Each component in the sequence of learning contributes to children being able to produce a high quality piece of work at the end of each unit.

This part of the process was particularly interesting, The outcome was a set of carefully designed end products for each unit of work in every subject.  They take two forms.  The first is an authentic cross curricular piece of writing.  We stipulated the purpose based on the English curriculum. For example, at the end of a Y3 science unit of work on rocks and soils, children write to inform a reader about the different rocks and soils with illustrated examples.  The second form of end product is subject specific. For example. children carry out a scientific enquiry into electrical circuits or create a two point perspective drawing For some units of work, we looked for a combination such as a watercolour painting of Japanese cherry blossom with an accompanying written piece explaining the artistic decision making.

These pieces of work are not intended to be independent  and as such they are not there for assessment.   They are there for two reasons.  Producing work of high quality as a result of the build up of learning over a period of time is a great experience for children.  They can see that what they do lesson by lesson is going somewhere.  Success breeds motivation too.  The second reason is that the quality of this work (particularly from our most vulnerable children) provides us with feedback about how well the curriculum has been implemented We take a good look at the pieces of work that have been produced and have conversations about how the unit of work panned out. As a result, we make adjustments to the sequences of learning in order to increase the likelihood that the next cohort produce work that is even better.  Pieces of work become models of excellence for future cohorts.

With a clear idea of what the end goal is, leaders can make far better decisions. The key decisions are about content choices and their sequencing over a unit to best enable all children to be able to produce high quality work These sequences form the basis of medium term plans which are written for teachers by leaders The rationale behind providing detailed medium term plans for teachers is described in the next post.

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What makes a good reading strategy?

When it comes to a school’s curriculum, reading is first among equals. Any reading strategy must be driven by what it is that the school’s curriculum seeks to achieve. It’s hard to argue with intent such as fostering a love of books, reading and language and access to great children’s literature, both physically through a well-stocked library and intellectually through great teaching.  To achieve that, a strategy should include the following.

Address phonics and fluency needs quickly

Without adequate knowledge of phonics and skill in decoding, segmenting and blending, children will not be able to crack the code of written English that will enable them to experience the joy of books. Children need a systematic approach to learning the phonetic code from the first day of Reception. Where children are older and have not yet mastered this, schools need rigorous screening processes to identify gaps and teach them until children are fluent. Where children are in the process of systematically growing their knowledge of the phonetic code, they’ll need phonetically decodable books to practise reading with success. Blending the code into words and fluently reading sentences must also be deliberately practised for children to master the mechanics of reading.

Fluency is about more than speedily translating code into sound though. The inflections and emphases that are part of quality spoken language must also be learned and applied to by children when they read independently. When children know typical patterns of prosody and can read with appropriate expression, they are far more able to extract meaning from text than if the reading is robotic.

Provide a rich diet of literature and language

The books that form the reading curriculum will make or break a reading strategy. Real page turners with great story lines will make learning to read a pleasure and there are many decisions for school leaders to make. There needs to be a good blend of modern and classic fiction, a variety of authors beyond the mainstream or well-known and these titles need to be supplemented with related fiction and non-fiction. Great non-fiction helps children to pick up general knowledge which in turn helps them to make sense of the content in the fiction – this link can be powerful. A rich diet of language should also include great picture books and great poetry too. It is not only the literature that needs a high profile but language itself. Celebrating language through modelling interest in words and turns of phrases draws attention to language and will more likely result in children mimicking that interest. Song lyrics and rhetoric are great vehicles for this
too. Many children sing along to words in songs without necessarily thinking about their meaning but those words are often so carefully chosen for effect that they are well worth examining in detail.

Oral language comprehension

The simple view of reading explains the relationship between decoding and comprehension and there is much research to show that working on oral language comprehension is effective in improving reading comprehension, not least the York Reading for Meaning Project. This can be as simple as reading aloud or telling children a story. Capture their interest. Retell it in different ways. At this point, it is important for teachers to know what children have understood but by asking questions, all we really know is whether they are capable of comprehending, not whether they actually comprehend independent of us. Before any specific questioning, it would be useful to get an idea of what they have understood by asking them to tell you broadly about what they’ve just heard.  The decisions they make about what they say reveal what they think is important and you can also judge the accuracy of their literal and inferential comprehension. Difficulty decoding should not be a barrier to children experiencing
and understanding age appropriate texts. Doug Lemov puts this beautifully:

Low readers are often balkanised to reading only lower level texts, fed on a diet of only what’s accessbile to them – they’re consigned to lower standards from the outset by our very efforts to help them.
Lemov (Reading Reconsidered)

Listening to texts and using open questions to prompt discussions ensures that the focus in on language development in a way that is not restricted by poor decoding.

Varied question styles

If the goal of a reading strategy is to ensure that children fully understand what they’re reading when they do so independently, then the questions we ask are important. These questions develop habits of how children think about what they have read. The first layer of open questions that prompt good think about what has been read are Aiden Chambers’ questions in his book Tell me. He proposes four basic questions:

  • Tell me about what you liked.
  • Tell me about what you disliked.
  • Tell me about what puzzled you.
  • Tell me about any connections you noticed.

There are other particularly good questions, such as ‘Tell me about how long the story took to happen,’ which can prompt a great discussion about the passing of time and how we know. For more specific questions, using old SATS questions, keeping the format but changing the context to suit the text that children are reading is a good way to ensure variety whilst still keeping a focus on key indicators of comprehension such as literal and inferential understanding, prediction etc.

Modelling the reader’s thought processes

Reading is an activity that is mostly done in the reader’s head and there are many thought processes that competent readers initiate. This isn’t simply reading the text from beginning to end; reading will be interspersed with commentary, explanation or making links to general knowledge. These frequent pauses for analysis allow the teacher to show children that good readers think while they read in order to achieve an acceptable standard of coherence. As children get older and texts get longer, teachers can’t lead shared reading of the whole text, so by initially earmarking sections that children are likely to misunderstand, shared reading can be focused on addressing misconceptions.

 

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Success criteria in maths

I vividly recall maths lessons as a child.  I was in the bottom set and I remember a general feeling of bafflement as it appeared to me that others seemed to know what to do while tasks remained a mystery to me.  I don’t remember anything being explained and years later as an NQT, reading the numeracy strategy unit plans, I had a moment of realisation that there were ways of calculating in your head.  In your head!  All I’d known was formal written methods. For everything! What I needed whilst at school was to be let in to the secret of how to do maths.

Continue reading here.

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