Curriculum is still hard

Earlier this year, I wrote about how curriculum leadership is hard. It’s still hard. I want to consider a few more reasons why curriculum leadership is hard, and why that’s also great. My reflections have been prompted by Jill Berry’s recent blog post, ‘Heads – how many hats?’. You can find Jill’s fascinating post here.

In a thoughtful post, Jill reflects on an excellent TES article written by Stuart Lock, CEO of Advantage Schools. Jill’s post is very interesting, and I’m grateful to Jill, and many others, who are engaging with what feels like a shift in thinking about school leadership, expertly articulated in The researchED Guide to Leadership, edited by Stuart Lock. Jill’s post is typically balanced and reflective, and I was interested to read how she agrees with much of what Stuart says, but disagrees too. This is what I think specifically in relation to curriculum leadership.

Senior leader expertise

I believe that for a school to provide the best life chances for its pupils, it needs to place curriculum at its heart. It needs to live and breathe curriculum. This is hard because curriculum leadership is hard. It means that we need to be up for the challenge of getting to grips with the intricacies of our subjects. And for senior leaders, it means we have to be up for the challenge of getting to know subjects that aren’t our specialisms. This is also really hard. But it’s great.

I’ve been a senior leader for 12 years and I’m now a director within a MAT. For 11 of the 12 years when I was an acting senior leader, an assistant head teacher, a deputy head teacher and an acting head teacher, I line managed English. English is my own subject, my bread and butter. Those discussions with heads of English were hugely rich. And they were rich because I had the subject knowledge to be able to engage with debates about the substance of what was taught. My ideal would be that senior leaders line manage their own subject specialisms. Now that’s a utopia, of course, and an impossible one for all sorts of reasons. I had to line manage other subjects, and I developed expertise over time. I was lucky: although I line managed many other subjects, for 11 years solid I line managed Humanities faculties, including history, geography, RE, and French, German and Spanish. This meant I was able to develop a much deeper understanding of those subjects over those 11 years. But, for a long time, conversations about the substance of curriculum were absent. Line management meetings were often checklists: what’s the Year 9 data looking like; who are the priority Year 11s; when is intervention starting; what’s the QA looking like; what are the next steps; don’t forget your stationery order; your glue stick delivery is in reception; can we have your article for the newsletter please etc etc. Now that’s not to say that some of these discussions weren’t important, but the substance of the curriculum – the very stuff being taught to hundreds of children – was rarely talked about in detail. Sometimes we talked about ‘leadership’. Invariably, this meant we talked about vision, vision statements, leadership styles, and so on and so forth. These discussions were often too nebulous and abstract because they weren’t hung on anything of substance, like curriculum. But this was a time in schools when a tsunami of genericism washed over everything, so looking back, I’m not really surprised. I happily bobbed along wholly unaware that this probably wasn’t the most useful thing to do to support my subject leads. But as I write this it makes me very uncomfortable, because this generic wave hasn’t really gone anywhere, and in some places it’s still drowning our subject leaders, senior leaders, and head teachers.

Engaging with subjects

Where there were curriculum conversations in those line management meetings of the late 2000s, they were pushed to the grasping ends of meetings because instead we had trackers to look at and pro formas to fill in and agendas to tick off. My thinking started to shift considerably relatively recently. To really support my heads of faculty, I needed to know more about the substance of what was being taught. I needed to understand more so I could ask useful questions and engage with curriculum discussions. I started reading more. My faculty leaders were delighted that I wanted to understand more – I was passed papers, books and blogs to help develop my thinking. I asked more questions so I could know more and understand more. I went to the West London Free School History Conference with my faculty leader for Humanities. I sought out subject-specific presentations at researchED conferences with colleagues. I read more subject-specific blogs. I invested more time in trying to know and understand subjects. I felt a huge burden of responsibility towards my faculty leaders: I trusted them implicitly as the experts of their subjects, and I also felt that I needed to take the time to engage with their subjects to know, understand and question, so I could best support. I wager that good curriculum leadership – good school leadership – means that you seek to understand the nuances, knots and debates of subjects. If not, we do our subject leaders a disservice. The relationship between senior leader and subject leader is one of trust, and it works both ways: the senior leader needs to trust the subject leader’s expertise, and the subject leader needs to trust the senior leader can challenge, support and ask helpful questions. That trust is nurtured through knowledge.

Embracing the challenge

For senior leaders to get to know subjects better, we need to talk to our subject leaders and their faculties. Understand what the debates are, what the agreements are, what the challenges are, what the interests are, what the specialisms are. If we don’t embrace this challenge and enter into a conversation with subject leaders, if we don’t think, curriculum can very quickly flutter into a house of cards of documents and spreadsheets and intent statements that mean nothing and have literally no impact on the children in our classrooms.

Senior leader and head teacher engagement with subjects is a Very Good Thing. It is not off-putting for aspiring school leaders and head teachers, but hugely exciting – just look at the likes of Ruth Ashbee, Andrew Percival, Jon Hutchinson and Nimish Lad who embrace it with open arms. It’s wonderful and joyous. There’s nothing I love more than curriculum conversations with subject leaders; they’re fascinating. It’s only potentially off-putting if your school doesn’t value this, and instead wants you to use your precious meeting time as a checklist ticking time. Then, sadly, you’re not in a school that values curriculum, even if it says it does.

So, senior leaders, do by email what can be done by email (e.g. ordering glue sticks!). Get rid of the extraneous stuff to make way for the important stuff: talking with subject leads about their subjects. You don’t have to be an expert of every subject but I think it is necessary to read about them and engage in those subject-specific debates. I think this is a better use of your time than reading broad brush ‘leadership’ manuals. And head teachers, if you value curriculum, it is incumbent upon you to make this happen: to ensure that senior leaders, and you, prioritise time to understand and ask questions of the substance of the curriculum. I’m grateful for the many subject specialists who share their knowledge so generously on Twitter, for the courses and conferences that have challenged me and made me think deeply about subjects other than my own. For CogSciSci, for the West London Free School History Conference, for the Historical Association, for Team English, for the #Curricularium, for Niki Kaiser and the Literacy in Science group, for all the subject-specific bloggers and authors. Yes, curriculum is hard, and that is really, really good.