Curriculum: A Warning, Part 3: Thou shalt not pay lip service

In May, in exam season build-up haze and in new Framework fervour, I wrote that curriculum is in the ascendant. Now that I’ve had a chance to stop, to talk to friends and colleagues, and to think really, really deeply with them, I’m not sure it is. I thought this would leave me a bit flat. It hasn’t: it’s re-energised me. There’s much work to do, and I want to get cracking.

Lots of school leaders are talking about curriculum, or what they think is curriculum, but what is one person’s curriculum convo is another person’s option block diktat. This is problematic.

And, I guess, there’s the rub: there are, and always have been, many different interpretations and definitions of well-worn educational words. Take ‘pedagogy’. You might think Rosenshine; the school down the road might think pipe cleaners and plasticine. You might think pedagogy is driven by the subject discipline; someone else might think it’s post-it notes a go-go. Words are slippery and nuanced and easily misinterpreted. So what’s a school leader to do?

This is a short blog post. And in it, I’m going to tell you – secondary school leaders in the main – a few things from my point of view about what not to do if you really want to be a school that prioritises curriculum. And so the first commandment is: thou shalt not pay lip service.

This is what I mean.

1. Don’t blag on behaviour. Don’t make noises about good behaviour and pay it lip service by a 5 minute slot on an INSET day in September and mentioning it in a staff meeting a couple of times over the course of the year. Don’t sit in your office all day, or slope off to the staffroom to nab a Hobnob when you can hear a class kicking off down the corridor. Just don’t; staff will see through you like a Windowlened pane. Be highly visible, be present, support your colleagues. Create the conditions – the time and the space, as one friend said – for colleagues to think their curricula deeply, to plan, and discuss, and teach. Consistently apply sensible policies. And practise the application of those policies. Intentionally design the culture you want to see, and make the routines habitual, so a habit simply becomes what we do here*. Because without good behaviour, nothing – and I mean nothing – will stick.

2. Don’t pay lip service to curriculum by shoehorning in an inflexible, generic T&L approach. So you might be super-keen on your new teaching and learning strategy, but if you myopically juggernaut it through and don’t recognise that it will look different in mathematics, in French, in design, and if you don’t respect the subject discipline and listen to your experts in that subject, then you’re hubristically treading a path fraught with difficulty. Respect the subject.

3. Do not pay lip service to curriculum by ‘doing’ knowledge organisers and booklets immediately. God knows we’ve seen photocopiers churning out knowledge organisers and knowledge booklets at the rate of knots. If you want to do this – fine – but do not do this until your subject experts have carefully designed their curricula. Otherwise they’ll probably have to re-do those curricular tools. And this bastardises the curriculum before it’s been properly considered; they become artefacts in a process rather than outcomes of careful thought and curriculum design. Do not pay lip service by doing this.

4. And so do not pay lip service to curriculum by saying it’s ‘knowledge-rich’ simply because you have pulled together knowledge organisers and knowledge booklets: these are poor proxies. Knowledge organisers and knowledge booklets on their own do not a knowledge-rich curriculum make. They really don’t.

5. You are paying lip service to the importance of curriculum if you do not prioritise expertise in subjects. We should be rejoicing in subject experts and actively seeking out the most knowledgeable subject colossi to craft our curricula.

6. Do not pay lip service to curriculum by thinking that when curricula are completed, that they’re ‘done’. They’re not. Our curricula are evolving, moving, undulating. They’re never fully ‘done’. We need to be comfortable with that.

And so, to end, a reminder of my cri-de-coeur: an era where curricular thought enables our children to participate in the great conversation of life; where there is plurality of discourse; where we all inherit and own knowledge passed on to us: batons of truth and beauty in our hands. Lip serviced, supposedly curricular actions do not do this. They strangle and restrict; they sully subject disciplines, their truths unclear in a murky world of process and documentation. This cannot happen.

So there’s work to do. Let’s get cracking.

*With thanks to Tom Bennett. Please see his 2017 report where much of this is outlined in detail.


I’ve written 3 other curriculum warning posts. You can find them below:

Curriculum: A Warning, Part 1

Curriculum: A Warning, Part 2

Curriculum: A Warning, Part 4