The purpose of this post is NOT to analyse the national curriculum – it has already been carved up by a whole host of experts who have been/still are divided about the changes. I remember primary maths being a topic of much discussion because when you look at top performing countries like Finland – where children aren’t introduced to fractions until the age of 9 – yet our children start looking at fractions at the ages of 5/6 – you have to question the whole rationale of introducing difficult concepts to even younger children – and wonder if it will actually make a difference? I guess only time will tell. The history curriculum caused a huge Twitter storm – with some experts saying it was great, others just a narrow list… And, what about the Arts? Music reduced to a couple of lines?! I could go on… But I won’t!
The bottom line is that in England, state schools have a statutory duty to cover the curriculum – and whilst academies don’t have to – many do – because they still have statutory duties to follow… (see link below)
I have to say that I’m not ‘anti’ the national curriculum. Every single child, regardless of background is entitled to an ‘excellent’ education and there should be equity of curriculum provision to ensure this – regardless of where you happen to live. Let’s face facts – there were/are too many children who were/are left behind and whose educational experience was/is less than satisfactory. Thus, a national curriculum was introduced in 1988 with the intention of eradicating these inequalities – and to set out the minimum entitlement a child should receive. Have they succeeded? Someone out there will have the finer details I’m sure! However, as always happens when we feel things are forced upon us – there was much controversy and debate that – not only are we being told what to teach – we are also being told how to teach and thus effectively deskilling teachers. And that’s a whole other issue. But, if implementing a standardised curriculum has improved life chances for children – then it has to be worth it. I like to think we have achieved a great deal in our schools – and whilst we might not like some of the accountability measures imposed on us – we have to remember that you are only a child once – we have to get it right for them. And for children born in poverty – a good education may be the only way out.
With the introduction of the ‘tough’ new ‘slimmed down’ curriculum in 2014 – the government says that it now ensures depth and now does not tell teachers “how to teach”, but concentrates on “the essential knowledge and skills every child should have” so that teachers “have the freedom to to shape the curriculum to their pupils’ needs”.
So, if we have the freedom to shape the curriculum – but must still ensure that the essential knowledge and skills are covered. Then, what does that look like? Everyone has their own opinions and dare I say ‘passions’ about curriculum design. It got me thinking – how should we design the curriculum to ensure high quality outcomes? What are the key principles and processes? How narrow/broad should the curriculum be? Is one approach more successful than another e.g. Thematic approach or a focus on the basics only. I mean – it’s all about good teaching – isn’t it?
I have read a substantial amount of research/literature about school improvement and the implementation of a new curriculum for schools that have been failing – is cited as being crucial to securing and sustaining improvement. So – with this in mind I thought I’d start looking at the curriculum that outstanding schools offer. Are there common themes? What can we learn?
The National College looked at top performing countries and identified the following:
The national college also asked 10 school leaders of good and outstanding schools to share some of the ways that learning is organised in their schools. This section illustrates some of the many different ways they seek to achieve a balance between teaching basic skills, subjects and thematic learning.
“Our curriculum is carefully planned as a mix of integrated and discrete elements. Where possible we use themes to enhance learning but recognise that this is not always appropriate for all aspects of the curriculum”
“We plan for progression in all subjects to ensure challenge. We also agree on ways to extend and deepen learning through topics and themes in long term planning.”
“Everything is interlinked. Subject specific language, ideas and skills are taught and a cross-curricular approach is used, especially when this makes learning more meaningful.”
“To ensure progression we have essential skills of literacy and numeracy mapped across the curriculum. The skills map is constantly revisited. We have termly curriculum days to monitor. “
“All literacy is linked with thematic work alongside discrete phonics daily and reading workshops. We carefully map literacy and numeracy skills across the whole curriculum. We also have themed weeks, such as climate week. There is a toolkit with advice on how to plan these weeks so that they have real rigour.”
“We really emphasise the basics as a strong foundation. We then build a rich curriculum on top of this. For example, we may have an art day or week where we train teachers to focus on particular skills, such as observational sketching, and this leads to high quality work and displays.”
“We adjust the balance between a focus on basic skills and other subjects to meet the needs of particular children if we feel particular gaps need filling.”
Our medium term plan identifies the skills and knowledge and how they are targeted at different groups. Teachers always know where their children are with regard to what they know, can do and understand. They use this knowledge to plan next steps.
The national curriculum has been likened to a set of ingredients – but not the whole dish. Or a coathanger to hang your coat on. What is clear – is that outstanding schools are offering a rich, innovative curriculum that engages pupils in a meaningful way – that has opportunties to extend, and enrich learning in a variety of contexts e.g. Themed, cross-curricular and outdoor. A curriculum that has a context (local and global) and with one eye clearly on the future – but at the heart of it – the basics, the essential skills and knowledge that children need in order to deepen their learning experiences and create their own learning pathways.
Schools need to be innovative and visionary. My next stop will be to research if there is a particular approach that encompasses all the principles and values underpinning curriculum excellence e.g. Project Based Learning, 21st Century Ecuation and to look at different curriculum design models e.g. Subject centered, student centered, problem-solving centered and so on.
What I would really like to know from schools – is how many teachers and children were involved in the curriculum design process? Did you involve all stakeholders when building your curriculum – or was it a top-down approach? Are you confident that all stakeholders could communicate the vision? Also, how often do you revisit your curriculum? Is it still fit for purpose?
So many questions…
Please excuse any grammatical/spelling errors! Beauty of blogging – freedom to let thoughts run… 🙂
Links to schools who participating in the Grand Curriculum Designs Project – The Institute of Ecuation (UCL)