At the Heads’ Roundtable event this week I was making a pitch for school leaders to get stuck into a deep curriculum review process – as many already have. Not because of the expectations of whatever accountability process is underway, but because it matters so much. To a degree that is underplayed all too often, I would suggest that schools are fundamentally defined by their curriculum.
Every school has its motto – those value statements emblazoned on every letterhead, every blazer, above the entrance… Respect. Courage. Resilience. Ambition. Compassion. Fortiter Ex Animo. Carpe Diem. But these grand ideas only take form in the context of students doing things, learning things, experiencing things, receiving messages about things.. actual things that you have decided on. And those things are your curriculum; the actual tangible real-life curriculum that is enacted across the days, weeks and years of a life in your school.
As I have explored in some detail in this post, 10 Steps for Reviewing Your KS3 Curriculum, there is a process that applies to any curriculum review, starting with getting to know your school curriculum as it is. I’m suggesting that school leaders make sure they have developed a strong set of principles around curriculum design and content informed by exploring their own curriculum and a range of alternatives. What do you believe about what your children should learn across the curriculum? Often leaders are only relatively expert in a narrow set of curriculum ideas – we’ve all largely been trained in specific knowledge domains so it’s difficult to know what the possibilities are; to know what an excellent curriculum might look like in every area. But, whilst it may always be necessary to defer to the expertise of others – inside and outside your school – it pays to get into the detail, to begin to learn about each area and develop some reference points.
Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself about your school curriculum:
Maths: How is the maths curriculum organised and sequenced? Is it logical, appropriately designed for mastery, vertical coherence. Where does it start? Number? Sequences? Why does it start there? Who decided? Do they know why?
English: Which books will students read in each year group? If you don’t know, this is a good place to start. What’s the rationale for each one and the overall sequence? Which books have been left out.. who decided? Do teachers choose or is it a departmental approach? Overall, what’s the range of genres, the balance of ‘classics’ vs contemporary fiction? Is the selection something you feel is bold, interesting, building a secure foundation in the literary canon for future reading, opening doors to the world of literature, challenging and demanding as well as inspiring and engaging?
History: Does your history curriculum provide your students with the knowledge and understanding you’d hope for given who they are and where you live- including those who select if for GCSE and those that don’t? What does your curriculum say about your priorities – it is balanced well between UK history and world history, a range of historical periods, a range of types of events – power and politics, social history, wars? Does it allow for alternative perspectives and some depth studies alongside a broad factual overview of events and key figures – the facts that every child should know?
The same questions for English and History apply to art and music and RS. Which artists do they meet? When do students learn about Islam? What do they learn about Islam? Which style of music curriculum do we offer: composition-focused with a contemporary slant or more classical with a strong strand of theory, notation and music history?
In Science- are you confident that the curriculum is designed bottom-up with key concepts – particles, energy, cells – embedded and built-upon. What’s the general experience in relation to practical work and hands-on learning? Will students grow those plants or just label diagrams of them in theory? Will they ever design an experiment of their own? Will the Geography and Science curriculum links be strong so that your students definitely all gain a very strong foundation of knowledge about climate change and sustainability? What exactly will they learn? And when?
Across the curriculum, where do students get to develop their oracy skills, to extend their knowledge of their local community, to mentally travel the world, to physically get into the countryside or the city, to see museums, to gain cultural experiences, to hear the Holocaust story, to discuss homophobia and racism, to learn about sex and relationships, to make things and be creative, to engage in an extended learning project of some form, to make a choice about the way they communicate their ideas?
Across the curriculum are you satisfied that it is challenging enough? Challenge is a vague notion until you tie it down to some specific curriculum choices. What’s the diet like in Year 5 and Year 8? Are your highest attainers truly stretched? Is there any padding, filler, soft, weak meandering when a bit more rigour might be more appropriate? Where you’ve had to make compromises because of the constraints of time and resources – are you happy you’ve arrived at the best possible balance between competing choices?
All of these questions can be answered. And then you have to decide what you think. Is it a good curriculum? Are there different, better choices you could make? Is it a curriculum you feel proud of – that represents the school you want to run and be part of? Because this is what your school actually is. Your curriculum is your school. So, to the greatest extent possible, it pays to own it, to shape it and to celebrate it. It’s so powerful if you can be on the front foot before anyone else comes along to test it out. Here’s our curriculum: This is what we are. This is what we do. And we’re proud of it.