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:
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:
- 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. 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 year. Good 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.