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Turning mirrors into windows: how a challenging curriculum can aid social mobility

Rob Hitch, Vice Principal, Harris Academy South Norwood, writes…

Research coming out of Edinburgh University seems to be confirming what we have always suspected: which subjects are taught, and what is taught in those subjects, has a direct and sustained impact on life chances.

Data from the National Child Development Study to analyse the occupations of people in secondary school between 1969 and 1976 concluded that the curricula these students followed at school accounted for 23-29% of the advantage associated with having a parent from a top social class or a highly educated parent. The study found that this positive effect persisted to age 42.

What does this mean for schools? Firstly, curriculum design and intent are very much on the national agenda. At the Harris Federation Leadership Conference this July, HMCI Amanda Spielman suggested there is much work to do on the link between a challenging curriculum and social mobility. As we retain more knowledge we are better able to see patterns, we become better problem-solvers, and we develop deeper insights about the world around us.

Promoting social mobility has long been The Harris Federation’s mission. The journalist Sydney J Harris said the purpose of education is to ‘turn mirrors into windows.’ Our young people can too easily become trapped by their immediate context, as dreams seem too far from their reality. It is our job to help them see they are capable of more than they have previously thought possible.

Our young people can too easily become trapped by their immediate context; our job is to help them see they are capable of more than they have previously thought possible

At Harris Academy South Norwood we are constantly reviewing the curriculum we offer to ensure no opportunity is denied to our students. Of course, the curriculum has to be matched to the individual, but our foundational principle has to be that our expectations for students are not lowered merely because of disadvantage or limiting beliefs about what is possible. So, for example:

• We now have 340 students in years 7 and 8 studying Mandarin.
• We are offering classics enrichment, with an aim of integrating this into our curriculum fully by September 2018.
• All students in years 7 to 9 at HASN also study religion and philosophy, engaging with theories such as utilitarianism and philosophers like Bentham and Mill.

Equal access to high achievement is liberating.

Harris Westminster, a new academy set up to help students from areas of socio-economic deprivation get to top universities, describes studying classics as ‘opening the door to a world of culture and literature dating from the origins of Western literature through to the pamphlets of the 17th century. Studying Latin and/or Greek will also help you gain a rigorous understanding of the structures of grammar, and the ability to interpret written texts in a sensitive, clear and nuanced way.’

The curriculum at HASN has four key strands. Subject leaders develop their curricula within this simple framework:

1) Long-term learning over short-term performance (content unlocks skills).
2) High challenge leading to social mobility (knowledge and vocabulary acquisition level the playing field).
3) The human with the subject (creating good scholars and citizens).
4) Being work ready (through cultural capital and links with the working world).

Studies on vocabulary acquisition have revealed the gulf that opens up by age nine between the vocabularies of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds compared to their advantaged peers; strand 2 addresses this vocabulary gap directly.

We have tried to ensure high expectations are the core principle for our teachers so our students don’t suffer ‘the poverty of low expectations,’ and the pernicious consequences that come with this.

Last September we decided we were not doing enough work on the third strand. So, with our student leaders, we created a vision of the community we wanted to be. They came up with the words below to help us build the type of behaviour we wanted to see:

Scholars: disciplined and resilient
Citizens: kindness and service
Ambassadors: pride and gratitude.

All of this feeds into strand four, and our attempts to ensure students are informed, and ready for what they decide to do when they leave us. We’ve increased students’ exposure to high achievers from the world outside the gates; this year they have met the British ambassadors to both China and the US.

The curriculum is one of the key levers, perhaps the key lever, we have to improve the life chances of the young people in our care. Recent events such as the Grenfell Tower tragedy have given schools a clarion call to put social mobility at the forefront of our planning; let’s answer that call.

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