By Shannen Doherty
Is the National Curriculum misunderstood by school leaders? Shannen Doherty explains where she thinks some schools are going wrong and how to solve the curriculum conundrum.
As I get older, I get grumpier and far less tolerant of incompetence. I see posts in social media edu-groups where teachers ask for help with planning a fun unit of work based off only a punny topic title and I despair. Or they say “I’ve been thinking about teaching a topic on chocolate this term. Does anyone have any planning for it?” It’s not their fault. They think this is normal. They don’t know that their leaders are failing them.
While I will acknowledge that we don’t do anything just for Ofsted, there is no doubt that they have played an integral part in some schools jumping on the curriculum train in the last couple of years. Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework details how and why they will focus on a school’s curriculum during inspections. They say that inspectors will make judgements on the extent to which ‘the provider’s curriculum is coherently planned and sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment’. Subject leaders will be part of ‘deep dives’, where they are expected to know what is taught in their subject, when it is taught and why it’s taught in that order. They will need to evidence a progression in skills and knowledge that builds on what has been taught before. They will need to show the links between units of work and explain how those links are brought to the students’ attention. I think the emphasis on curriculum has been needed for years and I had hoped it would result in all schools developing a coherent and sequenced curriculum. But, it’s becoming more and more clear that not all leaders have got that message.
Some might argue that we have a National Curriculum, so why isn’t that enough? The National Curriculum is a framework. It’s the bare bones of the matter. Programmes of study are set out but just as an outline. Schools can approach how they form their own curriculum with the National Curriculum to guide them. We need to see the National Curriculum as a baseline for universal entitlement rather than a comprehensive breakdown of what should be taught, for how long and when. It is entirely unacceptable to give teachers the responsibility to use the National Curriculum to develop their own schemes of work. So why are some teachers being put in this position?
When I started teaching, the trendy way to ‘do’ curriculum was topic-led. Every term had a different witty topic title, which usually had some kind of word play, such as ‘Magnificent Monarchs!’ or ‘Terrific Travel Agents!’. The term would begin with a ‘launch day’ (don’t get me started on these!) and then your whole term’s learning would be full of tenuous links to the topic title. You’d find a text for English that had some tiny link to your topic, regardless
of its low-quality, and when it came to Art you wouldn’t teach any skills or look at artists’ work but you would spend hours and hours on a questionably-linked project. Every subject would come back to that key theme. Yes, even PE. What? You’ve never seen a dance routine inspired by aeroplanes? You haven’t lived.
There are undoubtedly some real experts when it comes to developing your curriculum. Clare Sealy, Andrew Percival and Neil Almond are three that come to mind straight away. In her blog on ‘The 3D Curriculum that Promotes Remembering’, Clare discusses the need for vertical links, where key concepts are revisited over the years, deepening and strengthening them. She also talks about horizontal links, where links are made between subjects within that year. Finally, there are diagonal links, which are concepts that link between subjects and across year groups. These links aren’t like the previously mentioned tenuous connections where teachers tear out their hair trying to find a link. They are very real and vital links that provide children with a much greater understanding. This idea of developing a well-planned and well-thought-out curriculum is key to ensuring our pupils have the richest and most valuable experience of Primary school.
In his blog ‘Confessions of a Curriculum Leader’, Andrew Percival writes that despite thinking he knew what his curriculum consisted of, he really only had a shallow understanding of it. I think this position is far too common and I’d go as far as to say that most people can’t even see that they’re in that position. Andrew and his school went through the process of nailing down the finer details in each and every subject of their curriculum. They used Clare Sealy’s 3D Curriculum approach, which ensures that the curriculum allows for, and acts as the school’s progression model.
Neil Almond wrote about a ‘box set’ curriculum in his blog ‘Ramble #6 Achieving Coherence in Primary Science (Why Primary Science needs to be less like the Simpsons and more like Game of Thrones)’. He outlines the importance of treating your curriculum like Game of Thrones (stay with me) instead of The Simpsons. Where The Simpsons episodes stand alone and don’t have a clear path from the beginning to the end, GoT has a plot laid out. Within the main plot, there are ‘seasons’ and each season has its plot, and the ‘episodes’ have sub-plots but the whole time it is leading towards something. Almond wrote about this before it finished so unlike Game of Thrones, your curriculum should have a clear and coherent journey towards its end.
I am not one for SLT-bashing in general, but as far as I am concerned school leaders are to blame for the sorry position that some teachers find themselves in. Teachers should under no circumstances, be expected to design their own curriculum. They should not be deciding their own topics, they should not be deciding what goes into those topics and they should not have to resort to asking people on social media for ideas of what should go into their units of work.
This process of developing a curriculum isn’t a quick one. There isn’t an overnight fix that will get you into Ofsted’s good books and left alone for another few years. You need to spend time on it. It’s also not a job for one person. Subject leaders need to be involved on the ground by working together and finding those links between subjects and across year groups. Teachers should be equipped with everything they need to make their teaching a success. It is not good enough to send them off with a topic title and smile and hope for the best.