Now that schools are getting into the swing of the new GCSEs and KS3 assessment continues to present various challenges, it’s natural that a lot more attention is being given to the curriculum content at KS3. Of course some will say that Ofsted’s much-trailed renewed interest in curriculum is playing a part too – but I’ve been seeing this process underway in many schools since way before Ofsted started talking about its framework.
Some schools have the luxury – or challenge, depending on how you see it – of starting fresh with a new school, building a curriculum from scratch. Most schools will be starting with a messy legacy slate, rather than a clean one and it can be hard to know where to begin. Some school leaders will have a crystal clear vision for the curriculum of their dreams; for others, it’s just not where their expertise lies and it can be incredibly daunting. Here is my guide to how to go about it, assuming you’re more towards the ‘somewhat daunted’ category.
1. Develop a deeper knowledge of the detail of the curriculum you already deliver.
This really is a good place to start. If you don’t consider yourself a curriculum expert, the first step is to find out exactly is going on in your school and start to form a deeper understanding and wider set of opinions about it. Beyond any data of any kind, what do your students actually learn about? What concepts and experiments do they do in science? Which books do they read in Year 8 in English? What periods of history are studied in Year 9 ? Which artists are covered in Year 7? It’s important to know – and to care about the answers.
In my previous school we undertook this first-round mapping and it was fascinating. https://teacherhead.com/2016/07/02/emerging-ks3-curriculum-map-and-exhibition-plan/
The next round of questions is ‘why?’ What’s the rationale for the decisions that have been taken – if there is one? If you check, you can also see how it links to what it says in the national curriculum documentation: how does all that blurb come to life in reality? As you get into the detail, you develop a clearer picture of the learning experience your school actually delivers. It’s not a set of GCSE results and report grades – it’s all the knowledge that flows from the curriculum – and it can be a revelation to find out what content your own school actually delivers.
2. Look at examples of other curriculum models for reference
It’s so easy to work through a school system with a narrow view of what is possible in curriculum terms based on our own limited experience. So, an important task is to get your hands on the curriculum models and materials from elsewhere. You can see my 40 models from 2017 for example – at the macro timetable level – but really I’m talking about getting to see what other schools teach in English, in history, in art, in science.. find out what else goes on and take a view of yours compared to theirs. Of course each Head of Department can do this for their own subject and the results can be pooled.
3. Develop a set of principles informed by the initial explorations, with input from a range of stakeholders, linked to an iterative consultation process.
Once you have a feel for your curriculum as it is, informed in part by feedback from parents, teachers and students, you’ll have a better sense of what your values are. How important are languages, history, art and music, dance, food tech, Latin, PE? How important is it that Shakespeare is studied in depth or Dickens…. or 20th Century fiction or a range of classical music or history beyond the UK? It’s very hard to make good decisions if you don’t know what your red lines are around some of these choices. It’s also important to decide who decides! Does the English department get to pick the texts or do other people get their say? It’s not about trust; it’s about a shared ownership of the curriculum.
4. Develop some alternative models for the overall time allocation structure, in parallel with the subject review process to allow for interplay.
I’ve written up one walk-through of the though process here. and here’s a summary of the outcome.
In purely pragmatic terms alone, it’s obvious that you allocate time at least partly in line with the value you place on different subjects. However, there are numerous structures to explore including carousels and so on. I’m a fan of the Year 9 bridging year, lots of time for MFL and four options at KS4 – but that’s me. As with many things, it can help to look at 3 or 4 contrasting options to work out which you prefer and if anyone doesn’t like an idea – they need a better total solution, not to simply lobby for more time for one subject.
Of course you can’t plan the detail of a curriculum if you’re unsure how much time you’re going to get to deliver it in – so there needs to be some interplay between the macro planning and the detailed subject review process.
5. Create a review process within each subject area – ensuring the capacity is there to deliver a strong outcome, starting big picture, then drilling down to the detail.
This is the meat of the process; the core: each subject needs to undertake a ground-up review of what is taught at KS3. This should build up from fundamental concepts, the overarching narrative structure – ie how the story of the curriculum unfolds year to year – what content to deliver, what to leave out delivering a justifiable balance of breadth and depth. What happens at KS2 and KS4 will be influences – but ideally there will be a rationale for the KS3 curriculum on its own terms. It’s an important process of any subject leader to undertake.
Leaders and their teams will need time allocated for this process – several sessions sequenced across 12-18 months and that all needs planning. Some teams will relish the challenge and produce a superb outcome. However, it might be that some teams need a lot more guidance – it’s naive to assume everyone has the knowledge and confidence to build a curriculum from scratch – so it will be worth looking for external sources or curriculum designs that might provide the guidance people need.
6. Map the curriculum in a raw state based on each subject’s preferred curriculum
Once you have a set of curriculum strands developing, written from the perspective of each subject discipline, it’s possible to bring them together and see what it all adds up to. It’s really helpful if everyone has used a similar format and similar levels of detail at any given stage so you can look across in terms of time and see if common elements are present. With a clear structure, you can start to look at the overall diet for each year group and check that there is a degree of coherence between subjects, with themes and connections emerging rather than being imposed.
7. Look for authentic links between subjects that might support deeper curriculum ties and inter-disciplinary learning.
I’m a firm believer that authentic links that emerge from subject disciplines designed on their own terms are better than those forced onto subjects, constraining or distorting them. Once an overall map is produced, subject leaders and teachers can look to see where they can cooperate, coordinate and co-plan so that the curriculum strands interweave. Sometimes, as in the illustration below, it can be case of trading specific content areas to avoid unnecessary overlap; at other times, it can be good to teach something from different perspectives, always conscious of what the other perspectives are.
8. Map a range of set-piece learning experiences and entitlements that run across subjects, making adjustments, filling in gaps.
Here you are looking to see whether anything falls between the gaps of each subject planning in isolation. This might include large-scale residentials, theatre production projects, inter-disciplinary projects, large-scale community projects, short-run units ( eg on coding, learning an instrument, debating.. whatever). These things become embedded in the curriculum and everyone needs to see where they fit.
9. Review the curriculum by subject and whole-school from an assessment perspective, matching authentic assessment opportunities to the flow of the curriculum.
As the curriculum comes together, this is the opportunity to see where assessments fit best to support learning. It’s a nightmare when the assessment tail wags the curriculum dog, so here’s your chance to get things straight. If you have an overview of the flow of units across the curriculum you can see the impact of imposing centralised data-drops at certain times. You can also check that each department has a sensible flow of assessments and manageable, meaningful tracking to inform their teaching and reporting.
10. Review the curriculum vertically and horizontally (by subject and by year group) through various lines of enquiry: reading, homework, access to knowledge resources, speaking and listening, checking that the overall roadmap has clarity and coherence.
Finally, look across the curriculum for year groups and along the subject sequences to evaluate whether the overall diet of certain features you value is present and coherent. This might include the diet of reading, ‘oracy’, open-ended response projects, ‘hands-on’ making, opportunities to be creative and pursue personal lines of enquiry, homework… and so on. Some things only need to be included once in one part of the curriculum; others should be embedded throughout. The mapping and review process will show you the for tweaking or whole-scale change.
It’s important to give your school a good length of time for this and to create opportunities for all staff and for parents to get a look-in – so they can see what’s coming.
Good luck with it! It’s probably one of the most rewarding and impactful things you’ll ever do.