Getting the curriculum right can set teachers free.

During my NQT year I was a shocking teacher. I lurched from lesson to lesson, with the aim of getting through them.  There was no interconnection between lessons and no sequence of lessons. During my second year of teaching I was very fortunate to be able to work with Jeff Stanfield, then the Geography Advisor for Hampshire and we create several schemes of work together. It became clear to me that individual lessons matter little without a coherent curriculum that binds them together.

In 2008 when I became a middle leader, I inherited a ‘curriculum’ that was on one page, a bit like this:

I really wish I was joking. The thing is, if teachers are to focus upon planning for every pupil, then they need to be aware of the bigger picture. Working without a scheme of work and a detailed curriculum us crippling. Not only so young people not benefit from a common curriculum entitlement, but much time is wasted in needless planning. Now, I’m not talking about prescription here, but a document that supports classroom teachers to create brilliant sequences of lessons. It’s about the what to teach, not the how.  

By the curriculum, I refer to the detailed schemes of work that enable teachers to focus on sequences of lessons over the short to medium term. With a clear curriculum, teachers can differentiate and tweak: they will be nudging each and every time rather than starting with a blank sheet.

As a middle leader, we put a lot of time and resource into creating the curriculum, having Saturday away days and extended meetings. It’s important, and I still think that now.  Here is what I think goes into creating a curriculum. I define the curriculum as schemes of work that covers each year group. I’ve written about what Schemes of Work look like before and I still have an 11-16 geography curriculum. It’s down to the lesson level, not because I’m and egotistical megalomaniac, but because nothing is missed and the education is the same for every student.

Before starting, here are a few key ideas:

  • The curriculum should be co-constructed.
  • Get the logistics right first – how many lessons are available? What are your resources? 
  • The curriculum should be driven by what’s right for young people, not how many lessons you have and stuff that is available. However, teams do have to work with what they have.
National Curriculum / Exam Board Specification

Those that see these documents as the entire curriculum starve their students of a rich, varied and challenging curriculum.  To be frank, the new challenging and rigorous curriculum isn’t really. I’ve spotted similar content covered in Key Stage 1,2,3 and 4. Sure, the assessment has changed and is harder, but the content? No. If one considers the government documentation as the entire curriculum, then we are missing something. Of course, we do need to take in to consideration what needs to be taught, especially for external examinations. For example, technical terminology is often crucial. However, this is a starting point. I accept that there is a dilemma for content heavy subjects and that we do have to cover the stuff, but I fail to acknowledge that it’s not possible to enrich the curriculum. Using the exam specification is an easy excuse to use. 
The way I would suggest to overcome this is to think of the journey over a longer time scale. For example, I’ve always seen lesson one of Year 7 and the first in the GCSE geography course. Many of the skills and important knowledge can be introduced, nurtured and developed.
The most important question is of course assessment: how do you know that the curriculum has been successful? An understanding of assessment should be at the forefront of curriculum design.
School community and context

Most importantly, don’t dumb down. Increase the expectation but be mindful of what is important to the local community. Although we teach and students learn within classrooms, the knowledge, skills and understanding can be applied to the wider world. What real audiences does your school context provide? For example, PHSE students investigate the parts of a school where peer-to-peer sexual abuse takes place and then campaign to get those areas redesigned. The local community always will offer a rich and rewarding canvas upon which we can link our curriculum.  As a head of geography in a coastal city with no major river, we spent more time on coasts than we did on rivers. We also added in climate change.
Teaching team expertise, interest, knowledge and passion

As a head of geography, I had to start with the existing knowledge and skills of my team. This not only enhanced our curriculum, but ensured that we tapped into new knowledge. I remember part of my MA learning where school subjects become fossilized and decoupled from the cutting edge of the subject. To avoid this CPD is essential (most subject associations run update sessions) and tapping in to trainee teachers’ ideas and interests.
What is essential is that a lack of teacher knowledge and expertise is not a barrier to a rich and challenging curriculum but it does identify CPD needs. Remember that a teacher’s subject knowledge is one of the key factors in improving student outcomes. 
Considering this, we decided where to place units and how to teach them. For example, no body was passionate about ox-bow lakes so we taught it in a ‘flipped learning’ type way. (I’m using that term and it makes me cringe – it’s been around for ever just called ‘homework.’
The news and world events

As a geographer I know that floating topicality is essential and any curriculum that avoids world events is bonkers. Of course, at a school level this means ensuring that teachers communicate with each other. In my school, a department will email out their plans so that others are aware. We can deal with current issues in tutor time as well as lessons, but we shouldn’t be afraid to pause the curriculum in order to deal with an issue.  From a curriculum design point of view, this means building in some time to be flexible. 
What research says

This is an area where I’ve changed my mind. I used to avoid repetition on content through the currculum, but built skills and generic geographical thinking and knowledge. Now I know that the curriculum needs to interleave. Testing has always been important to me, especially the low stakes regular memory. At the moment, with the increasing demand of end of GCSE examinations, any good curriculum must take into account the theory of memory. 
Developments in the subject at university

If a curriculum is to be challenging then it should contain elements of the next stage up. For example, GCSE concepts can be tackled in Year 7 and A’Level should be in GCSE. I remember as an A’Level student I used to love the little snippets that teachers would provide me about the subject at degree level. Not only does this increase the challenge, introducing content not prescribed by the national curriculum adds interest and can provide important missing links. Of course, high quality subject based CPD is required here.
I must also add here that there is some very high quality teaching going on in primary schools. It brings home to me the lack of ambition and challenge that exists at secondary school. Generally, young people can and will meet where the bar is set, especially when supported by great teachers.
Students’ starting points

I’ve always been about progress and never really concerned with grades and the border line. When evaluating the curriculum, it’s really important to see how the year group is doing. Ask them. I encourage the use of student curriculum hackers who are trained to evaluate and design the curriculum. Gather student voice, hold focus groups and act upon the information given. Of course, we are the professionals and there are only so many fieldtrips that one can put into the year but I’ve always found listening to young people rewarding.
One of the richest areas of information are Year 11 exit surveys: well worth doing.
Department aims 

All of this work must sit within what the department aims to do. I’ve always been big on vision. So what is it you want young people to leave with? It’s worth sitting down and considering this before looking through the various specifications and curriculum. Many may scoff at lists of what young people should do, but what is it that you want young people to achieve and experience?  This is important if we are not to become Ofqual/Ofsted factories. Mind you, if you’re happy delivering the content prescribed to you, knock yourself out.
There isn’t one way to put a curriculum together and I hope that some of the factors I list here are useful to you. They’ve been developed through having to develop a curriculum from a single side of A4 to a fully resourced five year adventure. The curriculum and schemes of work provide the essential foundations for teachers to create brilliant sequences of lessons and for young people to achieve more than they thought possible. Having a solid, well thought out curriculum meant that we delivered the best results in the school. Of course, a curriculum is only one aspect of teaching and learning, but that’s for another day.

Photo credit from Flickr and used unchanged via a Creative Commons Licence.

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