In the last few weeks I’ve had a lot of conversations with teachers and leaders in schools in challenging circumstances at both primary and secondary. A common experience has been the difficult process of trying to build a coherent curriculum in a context of staff turbulence, curriculum reform and recruitment challenges. I’ve also worked with maths and English teachers in FE who are essentially picking up the pieces after years of things not working out for their students.
Even when things are going in your favour in a stable school with high-functioning departments, it’s a challenge to construct a well-designed curriculum that flows upwards with students as they grow up and mature, building on what has gone before at the optimum pace to balance breadth and depth, the reinforcement of prior learning with the exploration of new ideas, concepts and skills. Obviously enough, at each stage, if the foundations laid in the preceding stage are weak, then it’s hard to continue the building process. The image above captures this beautifully: every floor relies on the strength of the one below: the whole structure is the sum of each level of sub-structure with some pillars being absolutely vital; others providing reinforcement.
It’s a fairly common teacher-tick to bemoan the failings of new students when you first meet them, the presumption being that they should have learned more than they have by the time they get to you. Year 6 teachers are frustrated by how much catching up there is to in the final high-pressure SATS year; Year 7 teachers can be disdainful at the level of knowledge their new students have; GCSE teachers express frustration that KS3 didn’t provide a more secure platform. Where teacher supply and quality and confidence is variable, it’s a brave school leader who deploys the strongest teachers in the younger foundation years rather than the older examination years. The short-term almost always wins over the long-term when the pressure is on – even if this is counterintuitive and counterproductive.
In my experience (parent, teacher, leader, observer), it is certainly true that Years 3-5 are far less intense than Year 6; Years 7-9 are far less intense than Year 10 or Year 11. There’s always a lot left to do in those final years. However, in the ideal scenario, the pacing, pitch and challenge of those years should be such that there is a smooth transition into Year 6 or Year 11. There is a lot to get right at every stage but it’s not helpful only to address learning with real intensity and urgency when the stakes are highest.
One important example is the development of writing. I supported a primary leadership team recently in looking at their whole-school approach to writing. There’s so much to get right at the level of school policy and the implementation by teachers: The development of mark-making and letter formation alongside phonics in Reception – where children already have different starting points. There’s the introduction of jointed-up writing in Year 1 moving into fully fluent writing by Year 2. It’s an amazing transition from age 4 to age 6. At KS2, there’s a need to map out a coherent journey with developing vocabulary and spelling, exploring multiple genres and building confidence with technical grammar structures – fronted adverbials and the like.
It strikes me that Year 3 and Year 4 should be the engine room of rapid progression with writing – but this relies on each teacher knowing where they fit into the whole progression map; knowing how much needs to be done overall and where the gaps are likely to be from KS1. If curriculum progression from Year 1 to Year 4 is optimised, teachers need a really good understanding of what excellence in writing should look like so that they can push, stretch, support and consolidate to the right degree, with the right pace and urgency.
The situation is exactly parallel in Secondary English departments. For students to succeed in English GCSE, they need not only to have strong knowledge and skill with writing, they need to be able to plan and deliver their writing incredibly efficiently: a GCSE exam is an almighty time management challenge with a great deal of writing stamina required. Students need to think about the content of their writing – what they want to say – and that is hard enough for some. But then there is the structure of writing – how to build an argument; the language they use – using words and phrases for effect; they need to consider audience and purpose, developing their capacity to be ‘convincing’ and ‘perceptive’ – nebulous terms that need to find form in what they produce. And all of this needs to be done sharply in tight time limits. It’s a huge challenge – especially where teachers have come and gone over the years – especially if you want it to be based on solid knowledge and understanding and not a collection of superficial tricks and tips.
There is no way you can turn all of this on in Year 11 – or even in Year 10. A good secondary English curriculum will enable students to build content, structure, stamina, pace, language, writing for purpose from the very beginning. The range of experiences at KS3 need to be broad and knowledge-rich so that students have a wide set of references to draw on when they get into the narrower, more intense GCSE curriculum. Again it will be important for teachers to know what the standards are; to know how high to pitch at every stage.
With this in mind it seems so important that all teachers know where their piece of the structure fits into the whole. There needs to be agreed protocols for developing hand-writing, spelling, use of language, for exploring genres in a sensible sequence, for building pace and stamina as well as accuracy and ‘perceptiveness’. Any new teacher or temporary teacher needs to know this more than anyone else. And teacher autonomy? Well, that’s nice to have but it can’t mean that teachers all go off on tangents that do not support the long-term curriculum planning. If joined up writing starts in Year 1, it had better continue in Year 2. If genre X is supposed to be covered in Year 7 as part of the overall structure then you can’t simply leave it out because you don’t fancy it – that’s your bit of the structure. And Year 3 or Year 8 are not cosy wilderness years where you plod along. They should be just as purposeful as Year 6 and Year 11.
This all applies to other curriculum areas too. It matters that students learn about particles in science before they start trying to explain chemical reactions – whatever Steve the bossy Technician might say about his trays of apparatus. The sequence of topics in maths matters; the pace and sequence of learning and the knowledge content matters – in history, languages, art, geography.
Obviously if you have been around to design the structure in the first place you are more likely to be committed to it. But, I would argue that there needs to be very good reason to change the overall plan once it has been agreed. And, to restate a key factor, a strong shared understanding of what excellence should look like at every stage is essential to guide the pace and drive at every level. The curriculum is the whole thing – not just our piece. We need to know our place and make it really count.