How do you turn commitment to the curriculum into systems, process, policy and culture?
The Ormiston trust’s five-year strategy will try to answer that, says Amelia Walker

One of the best moments since I joined Ormiston was overhearing a head of department say to a colleague, after a session talking about curriculum, “O Captain! My Captain!” – the Walt Whitman quote immortalised in Dead Poets’ Society. Because he had just summarised so neatly, in a way we all understand thanks to Robin Williams, what’s at the heart of the curriculum debate. It’s about the gift of the love of subjects that has the power to sweep into the classroom and transform the predictable everyday into something vast and incredible.

The good news for Ormiston is that, from what I have seen so far, our teachers have not been ground down by the tyranny of testing. They still possess that love of subjects. It was inspiring for me to hear a teacher wax lyrical recently that the purpose of their subject is “life, the universe and everything”. It’s no surprise teachers with passion often leave the profession if they are not given the headroom to fully share the richness of what they know. I can already see that our focus on subjects and the curriculum will contribute positively to our ability to recruit and retain excellent teachers.

As a trust, it becomes a pressing management question about how you turn that commitment to the subjects and the curriculum into systems, process, policy and culture. One of the things set out early on by Nick Hudson, our chief executive, was that we will not be about quick fixes. As a result, we are about to publish a five-year strategy. Deep reflection and development of curriculum and teaching will be a major plank of what we do for the lifetime of that strategy.

Our teachers have not been ground down by the tyranny of testing

Well done to Ofsted for creating an environment where we feel we have permission, nay encouragement, to do this. But although we have many inspections coming, as well as new reviews of trusts, this is not a reason to rush to change what we do. Getting the curriculum right is not for Ofsted, it is for our pupils, who deserve the very best that we can give them. Where we identify improvements, to get the impact we want will take time.

Curriculum is not new to schools, but being in a trust the question for us is what curriculum means to us nationally. We are not pursuing a uniform curriculum. I know some trusts have done this, but it doesn’t suit our culture. What we are pursuing is consistency of principle. I have been very encouraging to have so many senior leaders from across our schools come forward to volunteer to get these principles right.

An early exercise was to do a review of schemes of work.

Some of the lessons from this will inform our discussion of principles. For example, it’s worth thinking about the curriculum as 2 to 19, rather than as a phase. As a trust, we need to agree not only what we mean by some key words, we need to agree what words we will use (Can we talk about territory rather than domain? Is sometimes technique a more useful word than skill?). Furthermore, we need to share and develop practical easy techniques for teachers to help them inject conceptual rigour to their planning.

We are trying out some aide memoires, such as using different key phrases, to make sure in schemes and plans that the knowledge is spelled out really clearly. Also that it is defined clearly and separately from the pedagogy and from the techniques being taught to pupils.

It would be helpful to know whether someone nationally will step forward to help all the varied schools who are having these conversations to share their experiences and what works. We are making progress in working out – as a collective – how to reach consistency in what this looks like for departments, teams and classroom teachers. It’s definitely an advantage to have so many heads to come together. I feel privileged to be part of something so fascinating: “Oh, to be alive in such an age…