Too many schools (and their leaders) know more about pupils’ scores than what they’ve actually learned about, says Tom Sherrington
More schools seem to be undertaking some form of curriculum review, which is encouraging. In primary schools this is often around the foundation subjects; in secondary schools it’s mainly about key stage 3.
No doubt Ofsted’s emerging framework is playing a part, but usually it’s because schools have now done the hard graft around core subjects at key stage 2 and implementing new GCSEs, and are finally finding time to look at everything else.
I’ve been struck by how often school leaders don’t know their own curriculum particularly well. How confidently can you answer these questions?
• Which works of literature do your students read in year 8?
• Which periods of history are covered by year 9?
• When do your students learn about Islam? Or the Second World War? Or the Holocaust?
• What will your children be taught about evolution, climate change, abortion and same-sex parenting?
• What would you expect your year 5s to know about Romans or Tudors?
• What are the main geographical facts and concepts children should know by the end of key stage 2?
After years of data-driven accountability, school leaders are more likely to be better acquainted with their averaged-out value-added scores and outcome measures than the detail of what children actually learn; however, this is the real content that shapes their experience of school and informs their personal and professional adult lives.
Moving the data aside, the curriculum says a great deal about a school: its ethos; philosophy of education; priorities; values. We really should care a great deal about it so it’s pretty perverse that our system has rewarded us for caring more about a child getting a certain score than what they’ve actually learned about.
Knowing your school should probably start with getting to know your own curriculum. This has numerous dimensions:
A common complaint is that a heavy SATs focus forces primary teachers to marginalise foundation subjects or to link them tenuously to topics and themes at the expense of disciplinary coherence.
Is that true in your school? At key stage 3 are you inadvertently limiting your students’ chance of success in languages with an ungenerous time allocation? What about arts and history and geography? Do you honour the commitment to breadth in your mission statement? It might be worth checking if you’re happy with the time compromise your timetable represents.
By the time your students leave, what will they have read? What does this say about your school? Is it giving them empowering access to the canon of great works; a taste of multiple genres and cultural perspectives and a sense of the wide world of literature that lies beyond? Or has your young subject lead been allowed to make personal book choices; things they fancied teaching?
Which events and historical figures should everyone know about after leaving your school? What is the rationale? Does this focus on the UK – with a local dimension? Does it address the history of the students from other parts of the world? Is there enough of a spread over time periods to allow a sound chronology to emerge? The choice for history teachers is wide open, which is a challenge as well as a blessing.
Eventually you have to decide – but who makes the choice?
How far do you go in detailing what children should know? Are we just “doing Nigeria” in some nebulous general sense, or is there a specific set of knowledge about Nigeria, economic development, empire and colonialism that every child should learn?
Alongside the knowledge you can test, what practical hand-on experiences, field trips, creative making and performance opportunities feature for all children in your school? Are these ad hoc, included on a teacher’s whim or are they planned entitlements for all?
Once you know what’s happening, the gaps will identify themselves. But you’ll find lots to celebrate. These are the aspects of your school that parents and children love the most – and the things you should care about the most.