This post, the first 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.
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. Dylan Wiliam’s Principled Curriculum Design was incredibly useful here and I settled on the following:
If the circumstances were different, for example inheriting an established senior leadership team, then this would have ideally been done in collaboration with other leaders. In this case, working with colleagues external to the school to challenge my thinking was the only option to address the urgency of change due to having a very small and new to post senior leadership team.
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, for example history is broadly chronological from year 3 to year 6. The second purpose was to determine the key concepts that threaded through the key stage – the big ideas that children ought to leave in Y6 with a thorough knowledge of. I checked in against the curriculum design principles at this point to ensure that what had been arranged met the conditions for a great curriculum. Carrying out this work and discussing progress with others in different schools led to 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. Although there will be many common features, a relevant curriculum looks different for a school in Cornwall than it does for a school in Birmingham city centre because 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 to have curriculum overviews for each subject where each unit of work’s existence can be justified by answering two simple questions:
- Why this?
- 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. Consideration also needs to be given to the type of content and the role it play in 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 serves a purpose to build a broader understanding of the subject as a whole but other units may be dependent upon it. 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, but 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, hence our choice 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. With the national curriculum stipulating that the subject content needs to be learned by the end of the key stage (despite for some subjects being organised by year group), 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 but 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, with good content choices arranged in a logical order, then its gets progressively harder year on year. Therefore, just by keeping up with the expectations of the curriculum, children will be making progress.
There are some decisions to be made about links across subjects at this stage of curriculum planning. Christine Counsell words this memorably as crazy cross curricularity vs intelligent interdisciplinarity. An example of crazy cross curricularity 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. It was originally rather tempting to to fit those natural links together in the same term, for example doing some Egyptian themed art work in the same term and year group as the Egyptian history unit. Instead, these links are spaced out so that 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 as well as adding a layer of understanding to their general knowledge with the art unit. Trips were planned in the same way. By moving them out of the term or half term where the unit of work was being taught, we increased the frequency of interaction with the content with the goal of making 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. In researching different schools’ curricula before embarking on this work, 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? It is because of this that our subject overviews include a sequence of learning for that half term – key components that children need to learn about in order to learn what is required in the national curriculum. After writing a few of these in conjunction with colleagues from other schools, it 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 and the outcome was a good idea of the end product 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 would write to inform about the different rocks and soils with illustrated examples. The second form of end product is subject specific, for example a scientific enquiry into electrical circuits or 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. The first is that 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 alongside professional conversations and as a result, 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 about content choices and how they are sequenced over a unit of work 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. The rationale behind providing detailed medium term plans for teachers is described in the next post.