Curriculum Murmurations #1. Thoughts from 2019.

A murmuration of curriculum.  That’s how my wife – a secondary Deputy Head – described the current state of things nationally.   It’s a great image: the energetic but chaotic swirling around of individuals trying to stay together, following-the-leader in short bursts within a flock that has no overall sense of direction; patterns emerging here and there as certain individuals seem to fly off with purpose – only for the whole mass to turn back on itself.  Fleetingly the collective gives the impression of working in collaboration with flashes of coherence – but then  patterns dissipate and we go round again.


I’m going to use this image for an occasional series of blogs, collecting miscellaneous observations about curriculum developments as I see them.  For now, here’s a round-up of some issues I’ve encountered that might feature in more detailed posts to come.   There’s an awful lot going on! The energy and spirit is great… but there are plenty of issues to take account of.

Curriculum Expertise. Deficits and challenges.  

Leaders:  I like the idea that your curriculum is your school; knowing your school means knowing your curriculum.  It takes time to engage with the detail and it’s great to see where this is happening. However I often meet leaders whose knowledge of what is taught in their schools is tenuous; their career is build around strengths in other areas and they haven’t yet been able to invest time in this area.   They all know their P8 scores -but often not that much about what their students learn – that’s largely delegated.   People are happy to talk nebulously about ethos and values and in detail about outcomes – but don’t always think that this should manifest itself in the content of what is learned.  I think this warrants a rethink of priorities – and, no, not just because of Ofsted.

Curriculum Leaders:  I’ve met some superbly talented and knowledgeable leaders shaping an exciting subject curriculum in their school -but I’ve also met some who are clearly struggling  to truly take ownership of it.  There are some very inexperienced people out there shouldering a lot of responsibility for curriculum design without the subject expertise needed. And yet, if you just buy off the shelf stuff, that doesn’t always work.  It’s a challenge.  How do Heads support their less experienced middle leaders to deliver something of quality now,  whilst also building their long-term capacity?

Subject Communities and the National Curriculum: I’ve become a big fan of the national curriculum as a reference, especially in particular areas like science – which is really good at KS2, for example.  Why? Because often it’s a better framework for a spiralled curriculum than people realise and teachers need to be pretty strong curriculum thinkers to do a better job.  This links to a wider idea that subjects are defined from beyond the school gates, supported by subject communities.  It’s so important for teachers to be connected to their subject communities – and for Heads to support this – because that’s where a lot of deep thinking is being done and shared. It doesn’t always happen. The idea of a blank slate is problematic and unnecessary.

Curriculum Review

Product vs Process:  Some people seem to get this; some don’t. I’ve worked with some superb schools where they’ve understood the need to involve everyone in a team in a curriculum design process, ground up, developing a collective understanding of the details and the rationale.   This isn’t about documentation and vision statements.  Conversely I’ve met schools where they’ve false started, bogged down in vision writing and where ‘getting it finished and up on the website’ was all the Head seemed interested in, rather than what his students were reading.

Who decides? Who is responsible? Ultimately the Head is responsible for the curriculum like everything else.  But it’s a big challenge.  How do you have the expertise to question what your Head of English or Maths or PE decides to do with the curriculum in Year 7 or Year 9?  The way forward is for Heads to learn as much as they can; to take an active interest and, ultimately, to develop sound opinions about what constitutes high quality.  Simply saying ‘I trust my staff’ is fine if that works; but it’s not always enough – and I’ve encountered some pretty weird decision-making that the Heads had no idea about: book selection, topic order, a whole anti-knowledge philosophy.. .

Knowledge-Rich  has a long way to go:  For now, all I’ll say is that if you think ‘every school has a knowledge-rich curriculum’ – I can report that, no, they don’t.  In some pockets, there’s even an expressed resistance to the very idea that teachers should specify the knowledge students should learn and ensuring they remember it later. (I’ve found History teachers are the most likely to still talk in terms of  ‘we teach skills, not knowledge’).   But more, it’s just that the range is huge. Some schools are simply MUCH more ambitious than others about what students can and should learn at any given stage.

‘We know what’s best for our kids’? I hear this a lot and I have a problem with it. Nearly always it’s presented as part of a defence of the status quo, the Head irritated by changes to Ofsted and frustrated by P8 structures (with good reason).  But the truth is that kids in Cornwall, Haringey, Birmingham, Bolton, Norwich, Bristol and York are all very much alike: they need and deserve a rich, challenging broad curriculum offering a wealth of knowledge and experience.  ‘What’s best for our kids’ is not always based on a comprehensive needs analysis: it’s just code for ‘we have certain strong biases and preferences and that shapes our curriculum choices’.  It can be an excuse for offering a less demanding pathway for some students which they wouldn’t be offered elsewhere.

No Shakespeare;  No Sex Ed? It’s not up to you!  I’ve heard a Head of English expressing her boredom with teaching Shakespeare, suggesting they did other plays instead; Science teachers asking if Reproduction could just be dumped into PSHE because they hated teaching it.  Sorry guys… you don’t get to just apply your personal whims to your students instead of enacting what is a curriculum entitlement.

 Timeframes:  Fools rush in.. Curriculum review is a long, slow, deep process, with no real end-point.  It’s mistake to try to knock something out just to look like you’ve done it.  The best processes I’ve come across where I’m seeing high quality materials and implementation all started 18months ago or more.  That’s how long it takes.

Key Stage 2 Issues

Topic vs Subjects at KS1 and KS2.  This is such a fascinating debate – it’s always a hot issue at gathering of primary teachers and leaders.  ‘Topic’ isn’t a subject  – and yet, with so many subjects to cover, there is a pragmatism about linking things up.  I have captured some of the variants in this post: Designing Curriculum: Values, quality, preferences – and sofa theory.  I’m a big fan of the Reach Feltham approach with special Geography and History units.  I also love the St Matthias nuts and bolts approach where careful week by week planning weaves subjects together.  But topic systems can also be great.  It’s just so important that subject coherence is maintained and considered within the topic framework.

Primary Science.  I would write a whole thing on this.  I’m fascinated by what is in the National Curriculum for science at KS1/KS2. I think it’s great.  For example, rocks appear in Year 3. Why? Because this helps children develop an understanding of the Earth’s age having a huge scale, it introduces the possibility of fossils and, hence, makes sense of dinosaurs and their extinction.  It also then allows Evolution in Year 6 to make sense: yes, there has been enough time for us to evolve.   But…

… I always say to teachers, don’t be responsible for the misconception that we evolved from chimpanzees, as suggested by the annoyingly common image on the left.  We have common ancestors: an important distinction.  Teach this well!

I’m also often surprised by how under-confident some KS2 teachers are explaining things like day and night and phases of the moon.  We need to get talking about these things and not just assume that everyone knows.  Here’s a favourite: the Earth and moon to scale. 655894_madpezkoh_earth-and-moon-to-scale

This kind of thing needs to be discussed so that it can be taught well avoiding the classic misconception that the phases of the moon are about the Earth casting a shadow. I also think live day by day moon-tracking should be a universal experience! moon-phases-Fred-Espenak-lg-e1464203296249

Oh – and every child should grow a bean.

Key Stage 3 Issues

Can a two-year KS3 be any good? I’m in the process of collecting new Secondary curriculum models here: Curriculum Models 2020: A new collection exercise – please contribute.  There’s a real split between schools with two and three-year KS3 models.  Some schools do a nice, half-way house, bridging year, introducing some choices in Year 9 but not moving to full GCSE options until Year 10; the KS3/4 divide is fuzzy.  There’s a lot of pressure now to re-evaluate a 2-year KS3 because of the very real issue that Year 8 might be the very last time students will ever study History, Art, a Language.  So those two years have got to be packed! And good!  Does anyone leave your school not having studied the Holocaust? How happy are you with that? I’ve seen people make a decent case.. but it can’t just be swiped away defensively: a good case has to be made.  My feeling is that, if you can face making the change, it’s a good idea to draw up a dummy model with a three-year KS3 and then honestly consider whether, hand on heart, you wouldn’t actually prefer it.

The GCSE-ification of English Language at KS3.   Something I see across multiple schools: the GCSE-ification of English teachers’ talk about the subject even at KS3.

  • Reading and understanding texts becomes AO1.
  • Structure becomes Paper 1 Question 3.
  • Comparative analysis becomes. Paper 2.

It’s like the purpose of Eng Lang is the exam. I even met one HoD who started his whole overview of his KS3 Curriculum Vision by telling me ‘Year 7 is all about AO1’.  I told him that this was possibly the most depressing thing an English HoD has ever said. He was relieved to discover that our review agenda was different and, next time I met him, he gave me his true passion and spirit version.  The AO1-stuff wasn’t his fault; it was his response to feeling controlled by the system.

Reading:  I would say that one of the biggest variables across the system at KS3 is the amount of reading that students do in a typical day.  The range is vast. In some schools you could go all day without reading much; in others, reading feeds in continually, sometimes at a high volume and frequency.   I’d say this can’t be left to chance – but some teachers have limited experience of using good quality reading-based teaching resources.  Some even tell me that using textbooks isn’t something they’re comfortable with because ‘what if someone comes in and sees me, they’ll think I’m being lazy‘. I could cry.

Arts and D&T Carousels:  This is often a major mess in my view.  There are often too many elements being squeezed in and the impact of carousel discontinuity isn’t always properly acknowledged.  Even amongst Arts and D&T teachers there isn’t a consensus about whether a thin weekly allocation is better than a large chunk per week in a carousel.  The time given to the whole range of these subjects is sometimes depressingly low.  I’ve met one school where kids would do 18 Art lessons at secondary school before moving to KS4 in Year 9. It’s not enough.  At the same time, you can’t reasonably do justice to Food, Textiles, Ceramics, Drama, Dance, Graphics, Electronics, Wood plastic and metal, Music (composition, performance, theory, listening and history) if every element gets a thin slice of time.  The best practice I’ve seen has been where more time overall is allocated plus some one-off short units are delivered to a high standard and that seems fine.  Sometimes it is fine to specialise and do fewer things well, openly and honestly.

MFL Time:   Nobody will ever persuade me that it makes sense to give students with lower prior attainment even less time for MFL than everyone else.  They barely get enough time as it is.  Two hours/week is surely an absolute minimum.

MFL Strategy:  I’m delighted to see the ‘learning in chunks’, phrase level, sentence-builder approach promoted by Gianfranco Conti and others gaining momentum.  In fact I’m surprised when any school still uses the ‘grammar paradigms plus vocab list’ approach given how much better the other method is for building confidence and fluency.   I’d suggest that all Leaders should know about this axis of debate within MFL.

See this post for more questions on KS3: Curriculum Review at KS3: Some common issues.

Key Stage 4 Issues

The Big KS4 Squeeze:  In the main schools choose between three option blocks or four but I have met schools where they only have two: where you can’t do History, French and Art: only two from those three.  That’s not ok in my book – even if they also do RE.   There’s huge variation about whether RE is a core subject and whether it is examined.  What shocks me slightly is how many schools squeeze PE to oblivion.  Plus PSHE done by tutors or drop-down days risks being a very poor hit-and-hope model.. it’s the poorest of poor relations in the curriculum. Pressure on the core is so vast that these decisions all have sound rationales in Leaders’ minds. However, the decline of arts is plain to see.  I love it when a school makes an arts option compulsory in a four-choice model – but that’s not common. And that’s my bias coming through.

Breadth of Curriculum vs Breadth of Choice:  People mix this up wrongly.  It doesn’t matter how many subjects you could have chosen if you only get to do three.  Your breadth of curriculum has three subjects – not the 20 possibilities celebrated as ‘breadth’ by the curriculum Deputy.

Other Issues.

The Ofsted Cat Amongst the Pigeons. For sure Ofsted inspections are playing a role is stirring up the murmurations.  I met someone who had been told that withdrawing students from MFL for a literacy programme ‘violated the Equalities Act’.  Similarly there are other reports of inspectors having definite views about a three year KS4; some accept the case; some don’t.  This seems to be as much about the inspectors’ views as about what the schools are doing.  In time we might get more clarity – but given the time I’ve spent talking to curriculum leaders, I’m yet to be persuaded that you can meaningfully evaluate a school curriculum as part of a graded system within short visit.  It’s like sampling The Quality of Life in England by having a day out in Bristol.

Inspiration is all around us.  One of my main messages to leaders is to look around before you make changes.  There are so many examples of great curriculum development going on – at school level and subject by subject.  It really pays off to spend time exploring the terrain of possibilities.  I always ask subject leaders and leaders what other examples they’ve looked at.  Sometimes the answer is none. That’s unhealthy.   Take a look around… inspiration is all around us.  Once again – take a look here for examples of what I mean: Designing Curriculum: Values, quality, preferences – and sofa theory.

OK.. longer than I’d planned and there’s still much more to say on each area; more to follow.


  1. Thanks Tom, very extensive and that’s just on curriculum! My two big concerns would be the impact of GCSE assessment objectives in KS3 and the role of Ofsted and accountability, but this simply reflects my own views from top-down policy work in the past. What matters, as you say, are the decisions made by individuals in schools.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting Tom. In general, I tend to agree with almost all of it. However, in the context of my school, I would say that Leadership knowledge, combined with knowledge of the parent body and knowledge of the Inspecting body (KHDA), as well as the International Exams target set for all Dubai schools; makes your theory on division of KS 3/4 and the lack of Art; rather weak. For us, Arabic as MFL, is mandatory till Year 10. So is Islamic education. Another 2 mandatory subjects are UAE Social Studies and Moral Education. Both require to be taught for one hour each, per week. It now becomes a real challenge to bring in Art and music and D&T.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s