A renaissance in curriculum thinking

A renaissance in curriculum thinking
This week, SSAT’s latest publication, SSAT on Curriculum, will arrive in SSAT member schools. Talking to headteachers and senior leaders over the last year, it does feel as though there is real excitement about curriculum discussions – that schools and MATs are revisiting their curriculum models: a curriculum renaissance, if you will.

Why does this matter? In his Redesigning Schooling symposia over five years ago, Professor Dylan Wiliam suggested that after the formation of a national curriculum in 1988, teachers no longer felt in control of curriculum-design. Whether you agree with Dylan’s assertion or not, it is true that curriculum-design has, for a long time, been somewhat neglected from ITT courses; in favour of lesson structures and planning for short term learning cycles. Because most schools, including academies, follow the national curriculum to some degree, little attention has been paid to the macro-questions: what do we want young people to know, understand, and be able to do over their time at our school?

That seems to be changing. In part, this is no doubt due to the high-quality research undertaken by Ofsted; which has informed the draft framework which will come into effect in September. We now know that ‘quality of education’ will consider the intent behind a school’s curriculum, the implementation of that intent, and the impact it has on young people. But it’s also the right time to revisit curriculum. After the huge changes to curriculum, assessment and accountability brought about by the Coalition Government in 2014, we are now entering a period where the reforms are embedded and the pace of change has slowed. In short, there is time to look at the curriculum again.

Of course, there are still many barriers to the successful implementation of a world-class curriculum: a continued squeeze on school finances, a looming (if not arrived) recruitment and retention crisis, and a concerted effort to reduce teacher workload.

Sadly, but understandably, spending on CPD reduced for the first time ever last year; which may undermine attempts to improve teachers’ curriculum-design skills. However, talking to members, we know that many schools are engaged in fruitful dialogues about what the curriculum is for, and how best to arrange it, in other ways. Social media and chalk-face-teacher blogs are also helping to shape the debate at a national level; as well as national organisations including SSAT, ASCL, Parents and Teachers for Excellence, the Youth Sports Trust, CENTURYTech and Lexonic.

Ultimately, these discussions and debates really matter because conversations about curriculum are really conversations about what it means to be an educated person. Amanda Spielman has defined curriculum as the ‘substance of education’. Therefore debates about the curriculum go much deeper than issues of the timetable and exam spec – curricula reflect the deep-rooted principles and ideologies that underpin schools; and the leaders and teachers who work in them.

The free schools programme has seen a flourishing of new types of school with distinct identities, often giving parents and students greater choice in the approach to education they receive. This is a trend we are also seeing in the wider school system of maintained schools and academies; with individual institutions and MATs thinking hard about what their identity is – what sets them apart from the others.

In my role at SSAT I’m lucky to travel the country and meet many headteachers every week and, along with our directors, education team and relationship managers, we see a hugely diverse range of school leadership. I think that as we move into the twenties, that diversity, and clarity of institutional identity, is only going to increase. That’s really exciting.

But a renaissance in curriculum thinking matters most because curriculum, or the experiences we choose to plan for young people, is, in my view, the biggest enabler to achieving social justice. A good curriculum can give the disadvantaged the knowledge, experiences, skills and attributes that their wealthier peers take for granted. A poor curriculum can widen the gap further.

That’s why ‘deep experience’ will be a key part of SSAT’s new campaign for social justice, patronised by MP David Lammy. The next publication SSAT members will receive will be Deep social justice in which Sue Williamson sets out what we mean by this. We hope that both On Curriculum and our upcoming series are of interest and of practical use to you in school.

SSAT Members: Download your digital copy of SSAT on Curriculum

How can SSAT support your curriculum design?
Build personalised, cost-effective professional development days and twilight sessions that meet the specific needs of your school, staff and students using our flexible range of modules which cover the key areas of teaching and learning, leadership and curriculum. Find out more
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