Curriculum for Changing Times

Last week, I suggested some core reasons as to why pupils require a curriculum that is different to the industrial model of the previous century.

Below are some core principles for a such a primary school curriculum. This could be much more suited to an age much changed from thirty years ago, and where the threat of exclusion and isolation is ever more insidious. It is also written from the perspective of a headteacher used to serving an area which is referred to by others as ‘predominantly white-British and underprivileged’. And all that entails.

I take for granted that schools will always teach their pupils to read, write and have a basic grasp of mathematics – that’s why their importance is not mentioned. I also take for granted that schools will have very different views about pedagogy and balance (I’m not a great fan of false dichotomies – knowledge vs skills etc etc). Schools will have their own preferences here and I do not feel qualified to recommend one over the other.

And echoing a elegant, thought-provoking blog by Iesha Small entitled ‘Why I no longer believe in social mobility’ (www.lkmco.org/socialmobilityfail/), I argue that it’s rather irrelevant what knowledge or skills a young person possesses if that same person puts the gains to unsullied individual profit, incapable of realising what their community has to offer, and how their commitment to it can benefit the common good.

But I do intrude into areas of social policy, because it is here that leaders can achieve many of the desirable outcomes so treasured by politicians and academics: an increase in volunteering and community work, less dependence of families on the state, a more highly skilled and flexible workforce, or the cementing of core, universal – or dare I say it, British – values.

Some of the following would necessitate a complete shift in the way we view primary schools . We may have to ditch the traditional timetable for example. There is relevance for secondary schools too.

Of huge importance here is getting the right people leading the right curriculum in schools. The rest will follow. It doesn’t make a jot of difference if they are academies, free schools, charter schools or ‘concertados’ so long as the leadership is strong and principled.

Here is my eclectic list for Mr Hinds and his friends at the DfE, a work in progress but hopefully a good place to begin discussion.

  1. Early intervention: a ‘Children’s Centre’ in every school. (They may not be called this in the future so schools can name them how they please – in my world, they will be in charge of them, and should be). School leaders can extend the work of the learning mentors and others into child and family health, diet, post-natal care, early family support, advice on parenting. This is not nanny Britain, not moral relativity where everything elicits an arm round the shoulder and a ‘don’t worry, we’ll sort it out for you.’ It’s more like a ‘booster jab’ – intensive support for a period of time. It also would seek to deal with the correct assessment of SEND so that the right school package is agreed early. And, as I suggested in light of Darren McGarvey’s book, ‘Poverty Safari’, the overall aim is to have local people running these services in conjunction with the school. Faceless bureaucrats are rarely trusted by suspicious communities; teachers, in it for the long-term, often are.
  2. Radical reduction in teachers’ administrative workload, coupled with an increase in their work within the community. Contracts could be renegotiated to ensure that knowledge and skills held by staff would be put to maximum effect with pupils and community e.g. running community sports activities. A revised definition of what is beneficial to children’s learning and development could counter the current paper chase on progress and attainment in reading, writing and mathematics. By foregoing league tables and Ofsted judgements, teachers would, for example, prioritise the Tuesday evening Community Choir practice above mindless evidence-gathering. And enjoy their job more.
  3. Long-term commitment from teaching staff/leaders leading to an gradual but deep-rooted change/improvement model. One of the most important policies will be a retention policy, closely followed by a succession plan. This includes for governance. Appraisal and monitoring systems are drastically altered to focus on alternative outcomes, not simply those resulting from one pupil test. Regular time is invested in teachers discussing and challenging each other over pedagogy and learning content. Sabbaticals and other career breaks or pauses become the norm.
  4. Pupils as critical communicators. They meet others, often in an inter-generational forum, debating and discussing. Projects such as inter-generational cafes are not pleasant add-ons. but are core components of the curriculum, providing a forum for performance and practice. Pupils are taught to look outwards. National and international links are long-term and deep. Pupils have excellent manners, are good listeners and can debate amongst each other, explaining themselves clearly.  The learning of foreign languages is championed, providing a framework for good spoken and written grammar. We say goodbye to the days when a so-called ‘underprivileged’ white-British community is prevented from visiting a school in China because they are told ‘to learn their own language first.’ Peter Hyman, in his IPPR essay ‘Education in the 21st Century’, talks more about this focus on oracy, and his passion leaps off the page.
  5. SEN Hubs and Reverse-Inclusion. Schools are partnered with special schools, both as a way of sharing good practice and procuring training, but also to partner in curriculum projects where outcomes are both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’. Staff skills, for example in dealing with autism and other complex learning difficulties, are enhanced tenfold. This should be on a collaborative model so early identification and provision-mapping is the responsibility of the whole community, not simply the one school in the area that is prepared to take the children in. Children are brought up to value themselves for who they are and what they can do, not for what exam they pass or fail.
  6. Service learning: this concept has academic rigour largely in the USA where it has had some success but has attracted some criticism too.  In Brexit Britain, it has the potential to address some of the issues related to community cohesion, child mental health and (crucially in my opinion) resilience. Its championing should not compromise a focus on basic skills in the classroom. But by placing community at the heart of a school’s work, the ethos and values of the school leader can make a huge difference to all those connections within a given community. This in turn can lead to long-term sustainability.  In primary schools, the key theatre for service learning would be those regular activities and projects which build on the transferable skills of resilience, communication and independence.  Examples might include the forest school movement, deeper partnerships with local sports clubs, international and cultural projects, theatre and music community partnerships, and sustainable collaborations with charities.
  7. The Importance of Parents: there is total transparency and involvement, with trust an imperative. Parenting is becoming more and more lonely, with confidence suffering as a result. Together, staff and parents can, for example, deal with the benefits and drawbacks of social media and mobile devices, or dietary issues. They could take over the running of catering services for example, cutting out avaricious companies. Cyber-bullying, exploitation and child mental health issues become rare because of a team approach where all have responsibility. Parents cannot assume that ‘the school will do it.’ There is a sense of community where everyone sticks by each other because there is a shared set of values. School staff should have the guts to highlight any poor parental decision-making, but should also be pro-active in preventing such poor decision-making in the first place. The Children’s Centre (see No.1) leads on this element of school development.
  8. Arts and Physical Education are not just an entitlement but a curriculum driver for excellence and enjoyment. The school day is altered to ensure these opportunities are available before and after school as well as being central to the taught timetable. Partnerships with arts and sporting organisations course through the school’s offer to pupils. Regulators and funders should reward those schools who organise dozens of sporting fixtures or concerts instead of those who forego them to focus on test preparation.

At the moment, these are just statements of belief, but we are trying to put them into practice and ‘put our money where our mouth is.’ We’ll see where it leads us.

One final point. I’ve a particular interest in comparative education and, through a recent visit to China, can see that many of these points raised above are, in some form or other, present in the aspirations of the education system there. Wouldn’t it be great if policy was developed across national borders?

As our previous chancellor said, (and almost comical to recall now,)

‘We are all in this together.’

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