It’s interesting to me that, nearly fifty years after I entered training college, we are having to return to an essentially structural aspect of school life. The curriculum is, in reality, little different from when I started. There are a few extra subjects. Subject knowledge informs curriculum construction, in organisational and detailed terms, which I will seek to explore through this blog.
In the 1970s, the curriculum was in one of two forms, atomised into subjects, or themed cross-curricular approaches. In my locality, experience suggested that, where they were implemented effectively, both worked.
The broader curriculum embeds the concepts and vocabulary that children will encounter in their reading and may use in their writing. If nothing else, that should be sufficient reason for ensuring the broadest and deepest learning opportunities are available. The interplay of talk, reading and writing, based on experience often leads to enhanced outcomes. The availability of technology to rehearse before presentation, orally or in writing, often supported by digital images as prompts, is something that, when I started, I could not even conceive. When you had to wait for films to be developed, delays had to be planned in.
Curriculum exists within a number of parameters beyond the “knowledge”; space, time and resources. These have been constants throughout my career. It is easy to conceive the constraints on certain aspects of learning is any of these three are compromised. Good planning, including some flexibility in timetabling, available and accessible working resources for the class or group and an appropriate amount of space within which to work are key. All three are in school and teacher organisational control. Limited time, space and resources seriously limit learning opportunities.
It’s also possible to overplan a topic, filling six weeks, when three might have led to tighter planning and learning.
Curricula have not essentially changed since I started. At core, it’s a means of divvying up the content areas across each subject in a way that is appropriate for the continuity and progression of each subject, selected for its appropriateness for a specific age group. Learning, in any environment is episodic, so the order and organisation of what is being offered to children is the central feature. A curriculum is not an ad-hoc collection of seemingly relate activities. What is to be covered and what is to be learned needs to be clearly stated. Activities that arise from this should enhance and embed what is being learned.
From the mid-1970s ( blog… curriculum; once upon a time)
In the 1990s, Hampshire inspectorate published “Guidelines to Art Education”, KS1-5, which shared the developmental processes.
Learning, whether formal or informal, school or home, is always episodic, because it is time-ordered. In a formal setting, there is at least one formal adult lead, with a prepared diet of learning that constitutes a year, term, week or lesson. Where each lesson builds on previous learning, the whole becomes the sum of the parts. There was a mantra early in my career, whole-part-whole, which was linked particularly to PE teaching. This meant try and show current ability, focus teaching on the “next step” and have a chance to practice. This does have applications across all learning, as it enables some fine tuning to evident needs.
Having been a deputy when the 1987 National Curriculum was introduced, after a detailed audit of what the school was offering compared to the NC, the 95% correspondence led to a few tweaks. For interest, I have appended a cut and paste piece that I created to support a staff discussion. The discussion was more detailed and better informed as a result of having a common document to consider, having each read the subject documentation. There are statements in this document from 32 years ago that can be heard today. Some principles are central.
You have to remember, in reading these extracts, that in 1987 there was no such thing as a teaching assistant. All preparation, resourcing, organising and oversight was done by the teacher. As a full time teaching deputy, I had the same class commitments as every other member of staff.
In 1990, when I became a head, there was a very rapid need to organise the curriculum. While the nice school in a nice area was doing quite nicely, it was evident that there was considerable room for improvement. In many ways, this was accomplished through detailed planning, of overview curriculum expectation, but also looking at the available time and seeking to allocate appropriate topics and time periods to enable quality outcomes.
· We allocated topics to year groups, ensuring progression of content challenge and contextual availability of resources.
· We developed topic specifications, which some would now see as knowledge organisers.
· We looked at the idea of learning through episodic experience, premised on “Making Sense of Experience”, seeking to deepen challenge through the learning process.
We created the notion of an annual plan, to ensure that learning was allocated a space in the year; it was evident that the previous approach allowed some parts to be missed off.
· The first two weeks of the school year were “given” to the teachers to plan their own starter topic to get to know their new classes. On the second Friday, we held a closure dedicated to planning the detail of the coming term, tailored to the known needs of the class.
· We created further time during closure days to enable staff discussions and planning, across the one form entry school, to make the best use of the expertise and experience available.
· Subject managers were responsible for ensuring that each topic was effectively resourced; initially with a pump-priming fund, but then, following LMS, with an annual audit that had to specify replacement needs and consideration of resources to enhance learning.
· Time was bought from the inspectorate to enable one half day every two years for subject managers to review and update the topic specifications.
· Books transferred with children to their receiving classes, to ensure continuity of expectation.
· We developed the “flip sheet” of feedback and expectation that articulated to the child and the teacher what they should be concentrating on to improve their work. (Exercise books as personal organisers)
It is clear from this that curriculum development, to be successful, is something that can take (quality) time, for reflection, for research, for discussion, for dissemination, for oversight and evaluation. Time is a precious commodity on schools and, sadly, there is a cost element, too.
There is also the notion of progress, that some seek to diminish, as it relates to making judgements about children and their learning. Continuity and progression are important and need to be planned. Overlaying what is essentially content access is an often qualitative judgement about “how well” a child is doing. This has, at heart, an understanding of expectation for the year-group being taught, but also some appreciation of what went before and what comes next; articulated on page 3 of the NC Principles images.
The original NC had a “new” section on level descriptors. The Task Group on Assessment and Testing (TGAT) effectively created the idea of assessment of learning and, certainly in the first few years, the descriptors allowed detailed conversations about how well children were performing. Their use as data points distorted these conversations and, later, with APP (Assessing Pupil Progress) became so atomised that they added even more limiting, especially for children who could access learning quickly.
Any visit to a classroom today still shows that teachers will group and regroup children according to evident needs, so that they can focus teaching and support, remodelling or coaching to embed what seems to be less secure.
This is largely because schools still run on curricula organised by adults to benefit children.
Can we not enter a phase of evolution rather than regular tinkering at the edges, which only leads to distortion, or, being charitable, unintended consequences and a disproportionate amount of time in revising previous incarnations, largely to end up at the same place...?