The Frantic Curriculum

I attended a curriculum meeting at my children’s primary school recently. It was presented be a couple of school leaders and it soon became clear that the new (2014) National Curriculum had made them frantic.

The frantic was subtle at first. Just undertones of frantic like an out-of-tune bassoon at the back of an orchestra. Little dissatisfied notes like ‘I don’t know why they put that statement in there…’ and the like.

By the end of the meeting, the whole wind section was off with comments like ‘Gove didn’t know what he was doing’ and ‘ this bit is just too hard.’

Personlly, I quite like the 2014 curriculum. I included it in 4 posts I wrote some time ago about the broad and balanced curriculum I think school should follow. At the time I categorised these into 4 strands:

But I was clear then, and I’m still clear now that the National Curriculum is not the only determiner of what should be taught in schools. Education is broader than that.

And I think that part of the growing sense of frantic in UK education is because teachers can’t see past the National Curriculum. This is certainly true of what I heard at the meeting at my children’s school.

Aside from the fact that most people don’t like change, so change in itself can be a frantic event, there is the issue that some parts of the curriculum are genuinely harder.

This means if you’ve been teaching in one year group for a while and it happens to be a year group with some significant changes, the likelihood is that you’ll need to look at your subject knowledge. This is fine, if schools recognise the need and calmly set about training teachers in the right areas. But I can see that where schools don’t put time and energy into developing the subject knowledge of their staff, then the curriculum will be just one more thing tipping teachers over the edge.

The Coverage Curriculum

The coverage curriculum is the one that has us all running scared.

It’s a bit like the ‘health and safety’ of the curricula world. You must know that moment when you’re losing an argument that you desperately want to win and so you say, “but… Health and Safety…” Suddenly your opponent’s arguments come crashing down as you play the ultimate trump card. Well, ‘Coverage’ is a bit like that.

The thing with the coverage curriculum is that it is what is generally defined by Government. It’s the thing that civil servants print in black and white and subsequently ministers approve. It is the bottom line – the statements that set the learning objectives for the coming year. It is the mother ship of medium term planning: a hive-mind structure with hordes of little alien fighters that dart out to inflict teaching upon unwary students.

And so the Coverage curriculum begins its life already feeling superior to the three other curricula – Standards, Preparation and Education-for-education’s sake. In fact, given an intergalactic battle, ‘Coverage’ probably thinks it can take all three of the others put together. But it is not that kind of fight. In fact it shouldn’t be a fight at all. If teachers are not weighing up the standards their children need to achieve, with the preparation they need for the next stage, alongside the things that they love teaching about, then coverage will just become a meaningless exercise in box-ticking. And coverage will just drift off into the stars, its once mighty engines slowly being overcome by entropy.

That is what happened to the old National Curriculum. As a coverage document it was set up to be enhanced by the other three curricula. But when it didn’t work initially, or quickly enough, government concluded that they needed more coverage – so they designed National Strategies and other initiatives. They sent out more paperwork, often in fancy plastic boxes, sometimes with videos or CD-ROMS included. Each of them accentuated the coverage. Now you could cover citizenship, and problem-solving, and safety, and, lots of other things… But a trick was missed. More coverage was not what was needed. It was not the big issue.

And it has been interesting over the last year also. A new curriculum has been introduced at the same time as new teacher standards, new ways of funding schools, new legislation for special educational needs, new legislation for paying teachers, new frameworks for inspecting schools (at least two of these)… the list goes on. And yet the new thing that has caused most conversation and concern amongst teachers has been the new (coverage) curriculum.

It is important, but it isn’t the most important thing. It is September 2014 and the new curriculum is already two weeks old. Anyone noticed any really significant changes yet?

The Education-for-Education’s-Sake Curriculum

The most esoteric of curricula, the most elusive and probably the hardest to define. Education for Education’s sake is a strange notion in a sharply pragmatic world. Imagine learning something just because you can… Imagine teaching something because you are interested in it…

This is the curriculum that (I think) drives most teachers. It is the idea that Education itself has its own value – it is worth something all by itself. Set against other curricula, it defies the notion that education has a purpose other than just becoming more educated – it’s not for work, or for standards, it’s not to prove anything or to achieve a goal – it just is. Education for its own sake.

For teachers this curriculum is highly motivating. Teachers released to teach what really interests them fly. PE specialists teach their children to dance, run, compete; musicians teach their pupils to play, hear and compose; artists teach their children to appreciate the aesthetic, whilst RE teachers teach students of the ascetic.

Blended with the other 3 curricula that I am writing about, these highly motivated teachers will enable students to make great academic progress, be prepared for their next stage of life and cover all the necessary objectives required by local and national bodies.

Myself I feel I grew up with a curriculum that majored on Education for Education’s Sake. There were no SATs in the 1970s, yet despite no standards agenda many of peers did really well at school. There were no web designers or mobile phone engineers back then either, yet, despite this lack of specific vocational preparation I have friends who have become both. There was no National Curriculum either – no coverage agenda.

Each teacher was different too. Each had their strengths and weaknesses, but I learned something from each of them. Was this because they were allowed to teach with an emphasis on what interested them? I’m not sure. And I’ve tried to be clear in my previous posts that none of these curricula can exist in isolation.

But I think there is a danger in some schools that we try to clone a particular teaching style, or even a particular teacher. A strength of our education system is not merely the autonomy of each school, but also the autonomy of each teacher – each teacher’s strengths can make a big difference to a student’s prospects – if we clone teaching than we deny students a richness and a breadth that we might otherwise have had.

Education does exist for its own sake. This curriculum is important to blend in with the others that I am writing about.

The Preparation Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the second: preparation.

Preparation for the next stage; or for the work place. This is the preparation curriculum. Back in 1870, the first Education Act was driven through by industrialists who were fed up of the Church having all the action in the education business. They said they wanted to prepare children for the workplace, although some would argue that they wanted a share of the growing national pot of money assigned to education. What has changed?

In Early Years, teachers prepare children more formal school by teaching the children phonics and the beginnings of maths. In Key Stage One children are taught to read securely to prepare them to use reading across the curriculum in key Stage Two and to do increasing amounts of work without support. Each stage has its own challenges and the Preparation Curriculum has the task of providing the knowledge and skills to meet these challenges.

The Preparation Curriculum is sometimes at odds with the Standards Curriculum that I wrote about yesterday. For example, when children are boosted to perform at their absolute best In Key Stage 2 SATs and perhaps score a slightly higher mark in reading than they regularly work at, it can be misleading for the Year 7 teacher who then takes on that child in September. Similarly, the current National Curriculum level descriptors at level 2 are often accompanied by the phrase “with support”, yet during the assessment period for Year 2 children Level 2 assessments are accorded the same amount of support as level 3 assessments (and of course, there is no “with support” phrase with any Level 3 descriptors).

This means that schools that are doing their utmost to enable their students to achieve the best standards possible are not always preparing them for the next stage.

Of course, the ultimate preparation is for the ‘workplace’. The Preparation Curriculum would advocate practical and vocational lessons that give students the knowledge and skills for jobs in the real world. In DT, use this glue gun – you might be a carpenter. In Computing, learn this html – you might be a web designer. In science learn about Darwin – you might be a biologist. Some of these jobs will exist in the future, some of them won’t. The challenge of the Preparation Curriculum is to have the right lessons that will prepare children for the workplace.

An advantage of being mindful of the Preparation Curriculum is that it can mitigate against the gaming that I mentioned in the last post: if you are desperate to prepare your students for the next stage of their education or life, that you won’t let them cheat at tests. However, the Preparation Curriculum is predicated on knowing what the future holds and so it is limited by our prescient ability and the stability of our society.


The Standards Curriculum

I am making the argument that there are 4 curricula that drive the broad curriculum in schools. This is the first: standards.

The National Curriculum for September 2014 has provoked a lot of debate since its inception by the current government. What should be in it? What shouldn’t? How should geography be taught? Why change ICT to computing? And so on…

While this debate is purposeful, I believe the new Curriculum has and will have only a marginal impact on what is actually taught in schools. A far more significant impact is that of the Standards Curriculum. This is the curriculum to do with the standards that students reach in various subjects: in reading, writing and maths at the age of 11; in GCSE subjects at the age of 16; in ‘A’ level subjects at the age of 18.

It is the teach-to-the-test curriculum. The curriculum that grates on most teachers. We didn’t come into teaching for this, we say. And yet year after year, we prepare our children for the tests. We cram, we boost, we plan intervention groups. We ensure that our students perform at their absolute best in their assessments.

And with ever greater accountability structures for schools, the tests that drive the standards curriculum become less about what a student can do and more about what a school can get their student to do. There is the temptation, some would argue the tendency, to ‘game the system’ – to take steps that make the school look the best in tests, irrespective of the performance of their students. Some call this cheating.

No one would argue that raising standards for students is an important goal – all schools need a curriculum that does this. But a curriculum that only focuses on standards in tests is a frightening prospect. The question to be asked is how reliable are the standards? Have the students just crammed something for a test only to forget it the next week? Will that teaching stay with them for life? A standards curriculum relies on the performance of its students: if that performance has been over-supported by the school, then students may come out with grades that they cannot sustain and therefore don’t prepare them for the next stage.

However a curriculum that doesn’t focus on standards is also frightening. Imagine a primary school where the teaching of reading didn’t matter. Imagine a secondary school where academic ability was laughed at. We test students for a reason and that is reason is that academic standards are important. Students who are better readers and better mathematicians have more opportunities for themselves and more opportunities to make society a better place.

For me, the Standards Curriculum is the most important of the 4 curricula that make up a broad curriculum within a school. But the other 3 curricula are important too and need to be blended with standards to suit the needs of the school. The New National Curriculum is a useful starting point for standards, but in reality schools will be looking for what is in the tests that will be coming out from 2015 – these will be the driver for the Standards curriculum in the future, not the National Curriculum itself. Imagine the Year 4 teacher in 2016 looking at how to teach her class – will she mainly look at the National Curriculum or the tests she will have to administer at the end of the year? I suspect the latter.

I’m aiming to look at the Preparation Curriculum in my next post.

The 4 Curricula

What I like about the new UK Curriculum (the one that becomes statutory in September 2014) is that it’s a bottom line. It isn’t an aspirational curriculum like the old one used to be – it just provides the basics for what schools should cover. I think this is important, because it is the role of schools to encourage the aspirations of their pupils, rather than national government. How can a national government in a multi-cultural society encourage the aspirations of every student, given the huge range of backgrounds and expectations that exist? Schools are much better placed for this job, and within each school, each teacher using their amazing skills to educate their students.

I think the broad curriculum that a student is taught at each school is made up of 4 separate curricula:

  1. The Standards Curriculum
  2. The Preparation Curriculum
  3. The Education for Education’s Sake Curriculum
  4. The Coverage Curriculum

I would like to spend the next few posts exploring these curricula and unpicking my claim that schools with more autonomy are better for students than schools with less autonomy

Gove Week

Gove Week: I reckon the requirements for the foundation subjects in the new primary curriculum (2014) can be taught in just one week. Find out how I’ve got to this by reading on…

I’ve begun a process of curriculum planning with my staff this week. Two things have coincided to make this happen. Firstly there is a new curriculum which is mandatory for all state schools, commencing in 2014. Secondly we were getting a little tired of some of our old topics – they needed freshening up: both to maintain engagement for the children and the teachers.

I’ve seen a lot written about the new curriculum, some for and much against. But one of the things that can be said for it, is there is hardly anything to it – it is quite literally paper thin in some areas. Art and design, for example, has only 2 pages describing what must be taught for both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 – six years of a child’s education.

The consequence of this is that there are loads of gaps to fill in – you certainly can’t expect the National Curriculum 2014 to define everything that should be taught within a school, and in fact the National Curriculum says this itself in its preamble (2.2):

The school curriculum comprises all learning and other experiences that each school plans for its pupils. The national curriculum forms one part of the school curriculum.

I’ll be writing more about the curriculum planning process we are using in my school over the next few weeks, but one idea that I’ve come across is the idea of Gove Week. It was first mentioned to me by a HMI whom we use as our school improvement advisor. She said she had come across a school who were going to teach Gove’s whole history curriculum in just one week.

But I would go further. I reckon you could teach the whole thing in just one week.

When I say the whole thing I mean history, geography, art and design, design technology, music and computing. You see, the language in the curriculum is all about what pupils shall be taught – there is no expectation to what standard they might achieve. This means you could run a focused week on those 6 subjects and get the whole thing done. Taught. Covered.

The impact on schools right now is that rather than going through a convoluted process of curriculum design (like I am doing), or indeed an expensive purchasing program of buying loads of schemes and materials to fill the gaps, schools could stick with what they are already doing and aim to cover the Gove Curriculum in a single week: Gove Week.

It’s all about the curriculum, isn’t it?

If you’ve spent much time reading the educational news over the last few days you would have seen and heard lots of debate and discussion around the curriculum. The DfE’s consultation on the new programmes of study is out. It is important yes. But it is not the main thing.

What we teach has a significant impact on our young people, but I would argue that it is not as important as who teaches it. Evidence presented to parliament back in 2012 shows the importance of having the best teachers in front of children, and conversely the negative impact of the weakest teachers. We all remember the best teachers, not the idiosyncracies of the curriculum they were teaching.

Yet the people who make money from education – publishers, advisors, subject experts – they all have a vested interest in the curriculum. And so we hear more debate about the nature of the curriculum, not the quality of teachers who teach it.

The teacher standards that became law in 2012 are an incredibly ambition document. Personally, if I had been under those standards when I started teaching I wouldn’t have made it through my NQT year – it was a few years before I became better than ‘satisfactory’. However, now, the old ‘satisfactory’ means ‘requires improvement’. Newly Qualified Teachers aiming to pass this year can’t do it unless they’re ‘good’. The standards are a real statement of intent – “we want the best teachers in this country.”

This means that the processes within schools have to be really good at developing teachers. Performance management, CPD, monitoring all have to contribute to developing our competence. And with Ofsted now looking at performance management when they inspect schools, headteachers now have two reasons to make sure their performance management processes are working.

So here’s what I suggest if you’re in school leadership: put the new programmes of study in your staff room and collect a school response to the DfE consultation. Don’t rush out and spend a load of money on the latest materials to teach the curriculum. Remember, the effectiveness of your teachers is governed by their own confidence, their motivation, their pedagogy and their subject knowledge. Will Ofsted be most concerned by us rigorously sticking to every clause of the new curriculum, or will they be more impressed by amazing teaching.

Yes, understanding and getting to know the new curriculum will help, but it’s not the main thing.