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:
- 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.
- The curriculum is the progress model. If children are keeping pace with a curriculum that increases in complexity, then they are making progress.
- 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.