Sunday, 12 January 2014

Is a good curriculum innovative?

With the incoming new Primary curriculum there is a lot of discussion in and out of schools about innovating curriculums and it being time to redesign provision in schools.  As a headteacher I am passionate about 'what' and 'how' we teach and have driven curriculum reform in both schools that I have been in charge of.  Unfortunately I now feel I got it wrong.  Or at least went about it in the wrong way so I'd like to share some pointers that I wish I'd considered more thoroughly before embarking on curriculum change.

What's the point?
'Start with the end in mind' is often, particularly in education, easier said than done but I wish now that I'd taken longer to thoroughly nail what we wanted our learners to be like at the end of their time in my school. Most schools have a vision (normally with words like 'potential' and 'values' polished to high degrees of fluffiness) but what does this actually mean?  What will it really look like? Do the vision and the end product bear any resemblance? And, more importantly, who is driving the definition of 'end product' in your school? Is it OfSTED?  The DfE (or whatever agency is now currently in charge)?

Recently I saw a couple of great questions on a blog by @htbruce here that he developed after interviewing teacher trainees and I've 'borrowed' them below:

Question 5 – What if all children had was primary school?

Question 6 And finally, a question to chew over for a lifetime.  

Imagine that we have no National Curriculum, no OFSTED, no strategies, nor
government breathing down our necks – just a mandate that childrenmust leave us at 11 having had a wonderful primary education.  If youhad a completely empty room and a large budget, what exactly would youdo with a class of 30 children if you could do anything at all thatyou wanted?
I'm sure you've considered these types of questions as part of your starting point for curriculum design. I've always resisted falling into the data trap and have maintained a mantra of 'forget doing it to achieve x number of levels or to keep a certain group happy'. If you get this right the data will look after itself, and external people love good data...

So, whilst I started with some thought of the end product, I wish I'd spent more time developing a clearer, more absolute, image of what the children will look like and from that some kind of pathway to success.  This isn't a subject specific outcome (although the same thinking could be applied to individual subjects) but one of the whole child, including the word 'values', but also skills, concepts, knowledge, attitudes.  When these are clearly defined then 'subjects' can be crafted to contribute to this outcome.

Just a thought about the term 'secondary ready'.  When I first heard this being banded about I assumed that as usual primary education was being dumbed down and the only education that counted was secondary.  But the more I think about it, maybe it isn't such a bad thing.  Maybe we should be sending children to secondary school able to learn independently; able to manage themselves effectively as individuals and as members of a team; able to find and solve problems, communicate effectively and treat others with respect and value.  I'm sure this is what Mr Gove meant and not just to do with academic outcomes.  I mean, no-one would focus on such a small part of being a learner and certainly not rank them against each other.  Would they?!

Who is it for?
This has always been one of my major beefs with the current system.  The one-size-fits-all system of assessment, policy diktat, curriculum, inspection etc. takes little account of the huge differences in the challenges that schools face.  Mick Waters in Thinking Allowed uses a brilliant analogy of children's starting points in education as a race track but without the staggered start.  Children like those in my school are already at a disadvantage (in the outer lanes) compared to those in more affluent areas (inner lanes) before they even start and yet are expected to perform the same.
With this in mind I wish I'd have got to know the groups within my school better before changing the curriculum.  I don't mean the statistically identified ones from RAISE online but the hidden groups within the school community; those on certain roads on the estate, those with similar home issues, those of multiple generations as examples.  Why?  Because our curriculum should reflect their needs.  Not the needs imagined by a sycophantic trusted advisor in an office in Whitehall nor the needs of the next group of faceless visitors in grey suits with clipboards or those of the latest company funding the education office.  If we are truly going to improve the life chances of these children and their community then we have to fully understand them and shape a curriculum to fit.