In my role as Director of Academies for a large multi academy trust, I know how important it is to recognise the local context of the schools that I work with. Yet if there is one area where all schools would benefit from central direction it’s in the field of curriculum and assessment.
It’s difficult to design an excellent curriculum, and even harder to devise an assessment framework to go with it. United Learning is able to provide central support and direction for our schools, but when I look outside our group I find it incredible that schools are grappling with their own solutions to recent curriculum and assessment reform. What I see is a patchwork of alternatives, some of which are inferior versions of the previous system.
In assessment, some schools have replaced levels with systems which contain all of the problems of levels (vague labels which encouraged teachers to get students over thresholds rather than focus on what they can and cannot do) without any of the benefits (at least levels were broadly understood).
When it comes to the curriculum, some schools have heeded the government’s advice that the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) route should be the default choice for all but the most vulnerable students, while other schools remain committed to “doing what’s right for our students”, which usually means dumbing down the curriculum to make it more “accessible”.
Teachers and students moving between schools now struggle to make sense of a curriculum and assessment framework which only exists within the walls of each school. Parents familiar with one assessment system at primary are told that these levels hold no currency at secondary.
I take the view that government should only do for schools those things that schools can’t do better for themselves, and nothing passes this rule better than the design of curriculum and assessment. The government should gather a panel of experts to design a model curriculum. Of course it would need to be a truly inclusive panel, charged to identify the very best that has been thought, said and done in each academic discipline. This content would then be laid out in a logical, sequential format: year by year, term by term.
From the age of 4 to 14 all children in England would study exactly the same content and their success in grasping this content would be tracked in the same way. It would be different to the current national curriculum because it would set out the exact content that students would cover in each subject and the exact order in which they would cover it. To take one example, students up and down the country would study globalisation in Geography in the first term of Year 9. Our model curriculum would be driven by the needs of students, rather than the myriad interests of schools and teachers.
This model curriculum would be rigorous and challenging, based on the mastery principle that a carefully planned, skilfully delivered and accurately assessed curriculum enables all students to gain a secure understanding of each subject. It’s an approach we’re adopting in all of our primary and secondary academies at United Learning.
I would hope that in time all schools would see the benefits of adopting the common curriculum, but in the first instance I would invite schools to opt into it rather than making it mandatory.
Of course the government would need cross-party support to make this happen, and sufficient time would be given for schools, publishers and exam boards to prepare: five years would seem about right. Once in place, the curriculum for each subject would be reviewed every five years to ensure that it remains rich and relevant.
Imagine the expertise and resources that would soon latch on to this common curriculum. We talk a lot about collaboration, but it’s difficult for two history departments to collaborate when one teaches the American West and the other the Weimar Republic. Law makers have had to make tough decisions about the width of railway tracks so that train manufacturers can work to a standard size. It’s the same with car stereos, USB drives, credit cards and headphones sockets. Uniformity unleashes creativity. So a common curriculum would encourage teachers, school groups and publishers to generate supplementary resources and expertise, safe in the knowledge that all schools would be following the new curriculum for years to come.
The common curriculum would include set texts – classics of fiction and non-fiction – which would enrich the content covered in class. The curriculum would also set out the vocabulary that students should acquire in order to access the next phase of the curriculum. Canny schools would create online quizzes for students to self-test their way through these words. At key transition points – 7, 11 and 14 – catch-up resources would be in place to support students who have fallen behind.
Alongside the common curriculum would sit functional skills tests for literacy and numeracy. Children could take these online tests whenever they are ready, and certainly by the age of 14. Any student who hadn’t passed the tests by 14 would receive extra tuition.
A common curriculum for all schools would work wonders for social mobility, as it would ensure that students from council estates in forgotten corners of our nation are given access to the same knowledge-rich curriculum as their peers in the leafy suburbs of the big cities. All children would have access to the whole curriculum.
Meanwhile, teachers and school leaders – freed from the pressures of curriculum planning – could focus on perfecting the delivery of the curriculum in the classroom.
I know from experience that there aren’t many things that schools want imposed on them from above. A common curriculum and assessment framework is one area in which there is a strong case for central direction, and I would encourage the government to muster the courage to put this in place.