The Four Pillars

SSAT’s ‘Four Pillars of Principled Curriculum Design’ now has versions for mainstream primary and secondary and special schools. Over the coming weeks, SSAT’s senior education leads, Alex Galvin and Colin Logan, will be looking at each of the four pillars in turn. Today, Colin looks at how the resource developed and focuses on the first pillar, intent.

Almost ten years ago now, SSAT’s Redesigning Schooling project brought together leading academics and school leaders to look at the need for change in a range of educational areas that included principled curriculum design and assessment. Professor Dylan Wiliam contributed pamphlets on both of those areas which are still available on our website.

We followed this up by producing our ‘Curriculum and Assessment: inset in a box’ resource to coincide with the withdrawal of national curriculum levels to highlight the importance to school leaders of the need to review curriculum and assessment together rather than simply trying to invent a replacement assessment model.

Amanda Spielman then became chief inspector at Ofsted and initiated a review into curriculum before introducing a new inspection framework. Around the same time, here at SSAT we started developing our ‘Four Pillars’. There was never any collaboration between us and Ofsted but, remarkably, the two pieces of work ended up having a good deal in common.

Our starting point was to define what we meant by ‘curriculum’. It is much wider than either the national curriculum or even the taught curriculum in schools: it’s the entirety of a student’s experience – everything that happens in and out of lessons, nothing is ‘extra-curricular’.

4 Pillars – Content download

Ofsted’s curriculum review concluded that there was actually very little debate about or reflection on the curriculum happening in schools, alongside which was a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum. For example, when we talk about skills, what do we have in mind? Disciplinary skills, transferable skills, inter-personal skills, life skills…? As a result, there was found to be a lack of understanding of curriculum planning.

These were also areas that we were seeking to support with our Four Pillars. Whether it’s down to Ofsted, the Four Pillars – or both – it’s great now to see that curriculum has retaken its rightful place and is now at the forefront of discussion in schools today.

There is one big difference between what subsequently emerged as Ofsted’s ‘3 I’s’ and SSAT’s ‘Four Pillars’ – the clue is in the names. Whereas Ofsted has intent (everything that happens until the teacher starts talking in class), implementation (what happens in classrooms) and impact (what difference it all makes), our four pillars are intent, content, delivery and experience. In effect, we separated out content and pedagogy from the overall idea of implementation. Ofsted’s framework almost assumes that if the planned curriculum is simply delivered, all will be well, whereas we all know the huge contribution that teaching and pedagogy make to how much students learn.

The Four Pillars don’t describe or prescribe a curriculum. The resource is an aid to self-review: under each of the four headings there are sets of questions that school leaders can first of all ask themselves and then consult with colleagues in order to drill down to find out what drives their curriculum and how effective it is.

In this first article, let’s look at the first pillar: intent.

This is the version for mainstream secondary schools. The primary and special school versions follow a similar format but have questions tailored to the setting.

Beneath each question are some example prompts but these are only suggested starting points and they’re obviously not mutually exclusive.
What exactly is your intent? What drives your curriculum? Put simply, why do you teach what you teach?

How does your curriculum differ from another school up the road or in another part of the country? Are there local issues, gaps in experience, areas of expertise or interest that your curriculum takes account of?

And where did your intent and the planned curriculum come from? Is it the vision of a single person or did it take account of the views of all key players? What are the pros and cons of each approach? Is it clarity and decisiveness versus consensus and ownership? Or imposition versus fudge? There are clearly risks in each of approach, so how is any risk mitigated?

Is your intent fixed or are there planned opportunities for review? Who would be involved in that? Is there a role for student and parent voice?

If a visitor were to ask any of your colleagues – teaching or support staff – why the school taught what it does, how many would be able to articulate – albeit in different ways – what the intent was? They might not all – yet – completely buy into the vision – but do they support it or is it being somehow subverted?

And what exactly do you mean by ‘broad and balanced’, if that is what you are offering. The phrase was another that tended to lack clarity when Ofsted was doing its curriculum review. Most schools referred to it but they didn’t all have a clear idea of what they meant by it or of how their curriculum showed breadth and balance. How does it look from your point of view?

The four pillars, like the 3 I’s, are a continuum, a cycle. They are inseparable, all part of the same whole – the curriculum. Identifying them is just a useful device to aid thinking about curriculum construction and students’ experience of it. They are also a useful way to approach curriculum review in manageable chunks, so, if you haven’t already, you could make a start right away. The three versions are available to members on the SSAT Exchange.

Next time, we’ll be looking at the second pillar, content.

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