Leading Curriculum Redesign

There has been a lot of talk about schools for whom complete curriculum redesign – particularly at key stage 3 – is the big project for those heady summer days of gained time (which we all know don’t really exist!)  The three ‘I’s – intent, implementation and impact– seem to be the drivers of a lot of this work.

This is a short blog on why I feel that demanding subject leaders rewrite their curriculum plans and schemes of learning in a six-week period, or really why any top-down, deadline-driven curriculum changes are a bad idea, and how we have driven a curriculum overhaul at key stage 3 at my school.

The problem with a senior member of staff telling subject leaders to rewrite their curriculum plans starts with just that – they will do it because they are told to rather than because they have identified areas themselves that need improvement and want to go about making them.  As with a lot of ‘work’ directed by SLT to subject leaders – complete a G&T audit by November 1; do a work scrutiny and write it up by the end of the week; re-do your displays this half-term – it will result in something done to tick a box and meet a deadline rather than something that has been deeply thought about.  I suspect there are hell of a lot of subject leaders out there who probably don’t really think there is anything wrong with their current curriculum plans, and don’t completely understand the difference between intent and implementation, who will spend hours completing proformas and writing a lot of gump using buzzwords like ‘mastery’ and ‘knowledge-rich’ that will satisfy the Assistant Principal who is in charge of the curriculum but will result in very little change in the classroom, have no positive impact on students and won’t lead to sustainable, long term change;  it will all just end with another document gathering dust in a filing cabinet.

The other problem is that ‘the curriculum’ doesn’t exist in a vaccum.  Spending a lot of time on re-designing curriculum without spending an equal amount of time looking at how teaching and learning and assessment need to change to serve it, and how CPD is going to support these changes will create disjointedness in the classroom.  Subject leaders sitting on their own in a room, rewriting their curriculum plans will not mean that these new plans – even if they are any good – will be delivered successfully.

This brings me to the perennial issue for people working in schools – time.  Successful curriculum change means well-informed subject leaders who understand the need for change. It means a close look and reboot of teaching and learning policies. It means a proper audit of assessment – both summative and formative – and changes to how and when it is delivered. It means a well-thought out CPD programme. And all this is not going to happen in six weeks. In six weeks, curriculum redesign will mean that document in that filing cabinet and a box with a satisfying tick in it.

At my school, we realised there was a need for some big, root-and-branch changes at key stage 3 about three years ago, and that curriculum was a huge part of that.  Three years on and I don’t think we told anyone to do anything. I don’t think we set one deadline. I know that we haven’t asked for one single bit of spurious paperwork to be completed.  And yet there has been transformative change.  It has been slow and there is still work to do, but our approach has led to proper, deep, sustainable change that – most importantly – has been largely owned and driven by middle leaders.

So if we haven’t issued missives and set deadlines, then what, as a senior team, have we done?  Well we have had thousands of conversations – with teachers, with subject leaders, with students and with eachother. We have asked thousands of questions – what are you teaching next term? Why that? Why then? – and got teachers and subject leaders thinking about their curriculum plans. We have walked around hundreds of lessons and identified areas of best practice around short, medium and long-term planning and then, through briefings and meetings, encouraged that practice to be shared.  We have read loads of books and blogs and tweets. We have shared them.  I look back on the last few years and think that ultimately, we lit a lot of fires and left it entirely in the hands of the rest of the staff – particularly the subject leaders – what to do next.  Whilst they were doing that we were thinking about teaching and learning, about assessment, about CPD – laying the ground ready for the changes that were coming, changes being led and driven entirely by our middle leaders.

Of course we knew what we wanted. We wanted a key stage 3 curriculum tightly-focused on content not skills. We wanted a curriculum that was well-sequenced meaning that students’ learnt about things in a sensible order, both within subject disciplines and across all subjects. We wanted rigour and students learning about things that represented the ‘best’ of subjects rather than things deemed ‘fun’ or ‘accessible’. We wanted challenge. We wanted academic writing.  But this isn’t a blog about what an excellent key stage 3 curriculum should be and I realise that I am including no details on exactly what our curriculum looks like – it is a blog about how anyone leading curriculum should – and should not – go about getting to whatever it is that they want to get to.  The point is that all those conversations we started and questions we asked were designed to get subject leaders to think about their own curriculum plans and that they meant subject leaders and teachers identified what they wanted to change, and when, themselves. We created a culture in which people started to talk about curriculum and all that talking meant constant small change, constant review, constant tweaks and re-tweaks and curriculum becoming something – like everything at my school – that everyone was, and is, restless for improvement around.

Don’t do it for Ofsted – they have been so clear about not expecting to see ‘finished products’ but just that schools will have started to think about the actual content being delivered to children; for us, we ran a short briefing to make sure leaders understood what ‘intent’ ‘implementation’ and ‘impact’ actually meant when an inspection was looming, just so they knew what precisely they were being asked about if they did talk to an inspector about curriculum, but that was the only reference to Ofsted in all those thousands of discussions over the last three years. (Interestingly, when one of our two schools was inspected in December, we were asked about our curriculum based around those words whilst last week when the other one was visited I did not hear any of them once!).

Leading curriculum change is constant work. It is a box that is never ticked.  My advice to anyone leading it is to make sure your head knows it is not going to happen overnight. My advice is to get into lessons and see what the current curriculum looks like in the classroom rather than trying to understand it by looking at documents. My advice is to decide what you want it to be and then don’t set deadlines – start conversations.

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