Curriculum: A Warning, Part 4: Thou shalt not panic

Like me, you may have noticed a trend on Twitter since the welcome emphasis on curriculum. Lots of school leaders have been talking about curriculum, or what they think is curriculum but, as I’ve said before, what is one person’s curriculum convo is another person’s option block diktat. Words are nuanced and easily misinterpreted. So ‘curriculum’ has recently brought forth a fluttering of well-intentioned deep dive sheets and documents and enough paths/journeys/snaking yellow brick roadmaps to shake a stick at. A curriculum roadmap is this season’s knowledge organiser, if you will. I think this could be problematic. Let me explain why.

Decisions in schools are driven by school leaders and some things that are wrong across the system are because of school leaders. For those of us who are school leaders this is an awkward but important truth and calls for soul-searching and reflection. Many of these problems with leadership can be attributed to what I have written about before: poor, tub-thumping, personality-led leadership in the past fifteen years or so where rhetoric and force of personality were valued over knowledge. This was the dogma for a long time and meant that many schools wobbled on a bed of flimsy leadership knowledge. I’m heartened that organisations like Ambition Institute are now actively moving away from this nonsense and crafting courses for school leaders that value and develop domain-specific leadership knowledge. A consequence of this leadership guff of the noughties and 10s is that a lot of stuff was said but not much done, or indeed a lot of stuff was said and a lot of rubbish stuff done at the expense of pupils’ and teachers’ futures. This has been really problematic, and its hot air faecal leadership lingers. Scratch the service and there’s not much there. Many of us will have seen this: easily hoicked up soundbites, trotted out phrases and a whiff of faux sagacity all blown about like cheap leadership confetti.

Further, school leaders often look for a magic bullet. And, to a point, I understand the pressures of why this has been the case. In the past it’s been the search for a cure-all and salve to transform outcomes into a GCSE Lazarus. Now it’s a frantic scramble for the Curriculum Holy Grail.  This isn’t necessary.

It’s important that we consider the above because in some schools this curricular frenzy is being perpetuated, and boy are things getting distorted. I have warned about this before: here, here and here. This is another short blog post. Again, 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 do really want to be a school that prioritises curriculum. And so, to start, an important reminder: the first commandment is thou shalt not pay lip service. The second commandment is: thou shalt not panic. Here are a few more reminders about what I mean.

1. Don’t get complacent about behaviour. In the panic to ‘do curriculum’, don’t trot out the odd lip-serviced ‘behaviour CPD’ once a term or assume that things are OK if you haven’t spoken properly to your teachers about what behaviour is like across school. Walk the school all the time. Get complacent about behaviour at your peril, school leaders. I love curriculum and I’m a massive curriculum enthusiast, but if you don’t have the foundations for a curriculum to take root and grow and flourish, where teachers can teach and pupils can learn without interruption, it doesn’t matter how many beautiful curricula are designed. It doesn’t matter one jot.

2. Don’t move to a three-year Key Stage 3 because you think it’s what Ofsted want. This really gets my goat and I see it all over the place in a fog of leadership panic. If this is the reason you are giving your staff about why you’re moving to a three-year Key Stage 3, then please understand that the message to your staff is one of startlingly hurtful clarity: I still don’t see the worth of your subjects. Please, school leaders, think carefully about the why of a three-year Key Stage 3. If you really believe in the importance of curriculum, if you really want to prioritise curriculum as a school, if you really value subject disciplines and the importance of foundational knowledge, then your reason will not be “because Ofsted.” 

3. Don’t rush to design curriculum pathways/learning roadmaps. OK, so I’m worried that curriculum roadmaps are the new knowledge organisers and have become a curricular tool before a curriculum. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE that curricular conversations are happening in schools up and down the land. I think that’s great. But I see a proliferation of these curriculum pathways/learning journeys/curriculum roadmaps. School leaders, please don’t think that these are a prerequisite to a great curriculum, or that they mean a curriculum is ‘done’. They’re a tool, but not a necessary tool. A simple table is really fine. If these lovely maps help you think through your curriculum – great, and I’m sure they do help many – but please ensure your middle leaders don’t feel they need to spend an inordinate amount of time designing them. It’s not necessary. I’ve even read where school leaders have said that ‘Ofsted want these curriculum roadmaps’. They don’t. You just need to know your curriculum. I really don’t mind what format a curriculum is presented in as long as colleagues can articulate the curriculum narrative and why it’s sequenced in the way it is. Better that the time is spent in departments having the curricular conversations, and then investing that time in subject knowledge development and thinking through how to teach specific topics, rather than spending too long designing a beautiful map. If you use them – grand. If they help you – fab. But don’t spend any more time than is necessary. If you don’t have them, please don’t worry. Just have your curriculum.

4. Do not map GCSE Assessment Objectives back to Key Stage 3. Many of you won’t think this still happens. But it does. It does all over the place. Repeat after me: a good curriculum does not mean GCSE questions at Key Stage 3. Do so and you warp and bastardise the curriculum; in fact, this is not a curriculum at all but joyless chunks of hollowed learning structured around the surface features of the test. It fails to empower the child with knowledge. It heaves a disproportionate emphasis onto Year 11 and stultifies us in myopic inertia of the most crippling kind. School leaders, encourage your middle leaders to do this and you are freezing them in the cold, numbing grip of poor curriculum leadership. Not only does this practice fail to empower children with knowledge, it fails to empower teachers, too.

5. Don’t ‘do’ Deep Dives. I knew this would happen. School leaders are sploshing around in deep dives/small waves/exploratory puddles all over the place. I don’t think these frantic splashes are helpful. Firstly, it makes Ofsted the driver. I understand why school leaders could feel that this might be the case. But I think declaring the importance of deep dives in the name of Ofsted is unhelpful and woefully undermines your message if you’re a school that says it prioritises curriculum (see point 2). And there have been so many ham-fisted attempts to ‘do’ what some school leaders think are deep dives that they’re actually causing damage and encouraging poor practice in some parts, including the death by a thousand paper cuts of unnecessary deep dive documentation that hasn’t come from Ofsted, but from school and MAT leaders. Enough already. I’m not sure the abundance of well-intentioned deep dive question sharing is helpful either if it leads to practising ‘for Ofsted’. From what I’ve seen, some of the questions shared are really helpful and useful and interesting. But those conversations about curriculum should be at the beating heart of a school, not only at the frantically pounding heart when Ofsted come knocking. So, school leaders, this needs thinking through really carefully. Knee-jerkingly knocking up reams of ‘deep dive documentation’ for middle leaders is adding to workload. Don’t do it. 

6. Don’t worry if you don’t think your curriculum is as knowledge-rich as the curriculum of the school down the road. I really love a curriculum steeped in rich, lustrous knowledge. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t. I’ve firmly pinned my colours to the knowledge-rich mast. But it’s really OK if you don’t teach The Odyssey in Year 7. Don’t worry about it. Somehow, teaching Homer has become a by-word for ‘wowsers so knowledge-richy’. I jest. And I think it’s awesome that some schools do teach The Odyssey, but if you don’t and don’t have the resources or subject knowledge within your department to teach it at the moment, or have made the decision not to teach it, don’t worry! There are loads of other ace things to teach. And there are things that simply have to be in place first, irrespective of whether you’re teaching The Odyssey or not. I’ve mentioned about exemplary behaviour. That’s vital. As is a good understanding of how to teach well, and how to teach well with the nuances and specificities of that subject. Because if you’re teaching The Odyssey with word search starters and brain gym and little explanation from the teacher, then I don’t care if it’s on your curriculum: teaching like that is rubbish and the kids are getting a rubbish deal. I read a tweet the other day that said children were studying Animal Farm in Year 7 and had been asked to write a Facebook profile for George Orwell. The irony is hideous. I amo amas amat the idea of introducing Latin, but it’s a pretty rubbish idea if you haven’t got anyone who could design a Latin curriculum well, or if your school can’t afford to buy a really good Latin curriculum with texts and resources and invest in CPD. Let’s be sensible. ‘Knowledge-rich’ doesn’t mean you have to do what someone else does because ooooh, Homer. And I write that with my tongue only half in my cheek. But, still. 

So don’t panic, friends. This is a brave new curricular world, and it’s all going to be OK. 

Update

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 3