What essential experiences should the curriculum provide?

Exploring what experiences young people should have during their time at school, and particularly what the curriculum should focus on to achieve social justice, this panel discussion at the SSAT National Conference 2019 was chaired by John Dickens, editor of Schools Week. The panel comprised Priya Lakhani, founding chief executive of CENTURY Tech; Andy Roberts, headteacher of Riverside School, a new school in Barking and Dagenham; Tom Ravenscroft, founding chief executive of Enabling Enterprise; and Stuart Kay, schools director at the Youth Sport Trust (YST).

Tom Ravenscroft began with his belief in “the three big things that we want education to do, ensuring: that all young people are equipped with the knowledge and understanding of the world to successfully navigate it; how people make choices (sometimes wrapped up in the language of character or behaviours); and skills – what are they actually able to do as they go out into the wider world?

“There’s a group of essential skills which are worth investing energy into building because they’re not only critical for success beyond education, but really make a difference in the classroom. Using Skills Builder Partnership, we talk about eight skills: teamwork, leadership, problem-solving, creativity, aiming high, staying positive, and speaking and listening.” These skills are incredibly important for social justice, he maintained, and there’s a wide disparity in access to opportunities for young people to build them.

Starting young is vital. “When you start working with children at the age of 3-4 on how to listen, how to build friendships, how to take turns with others, there’s a ripple effect which goes out to build their skills and support learning all the way through their time in school.

“Those six elements are remarkably consistent across nursery and primary schools, secondary schools and colleges that are building these essential skills for all their students. We see students making 60% more progress a year, as assessed by their teachers.”

Providing the missing experiences

Riverside School has among the highest 5% levels of deprivation in the UK, with half of its students receiving pupil premium. “And the other half,” headteacher Andy Roberts added, “can be just as disadvantaged – for example, by their parents working 60+ hours a week as cleaners or taxi drivers, often on zero hours contracts; and by the lack of community, services and facilities.

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“We believe the best way to activate social justice is to ensure all students study a rigorous academic curriculum, for this is the true leveller. I don’t just mean EBacc subjects: while 80% of our students do study the EBacc, the other 20% access high-quality vocational courses combined with a strong academic core to maximise their opportunities post-16. We’re proud that, for two years running, there have been no gaps between the performance of our disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students nationally on all key measures.”

Pedagogy is another key strategy at Riverside to enable socially just outcomes. “All our teachers have two timetabled periods per week for professional learning. Students have to experience the highest quality of teaching and of course develop as effective learners: we teach how to learn from the outset, in year seven.

“Again, we strongly believe music education is not the preserve of the privileged, but a fundamental right for all our students. So in addition to timetabled music lessons, all students are offered free weekly one-to-one or small group tuition with free loan of an instrument. Visiting a prestigious public school recently, I saw a grand piano placed in their main hall, which students played at will throughout the course of the day. Now we have done the same, two to five days a week. We believe that whatever the advantaged student experiences, we must try our very hardest to replicate it, if not better it.

“We forge partnerships with many great organisations like the English National Opera. They brought opera to Riverside many times during the year, and over 350 of our students have been to the Coliseum over the last two years to experience opera. Our students perform jazz with Tomorrow’s Warriors at the Southbank and have sung Freedom Song at Hackney Empire. All students will visit the theatre at least twice in their time here. This is not enrichment, it’s the essential, wider curriculum. And all of that is free. We encourage, cajole, and sometimes conscript young people to participate in these experiences. Because we know they will improve their life chances, we map these experiences and try to plug the gaps to ensure their curriculum experience is complete.

“Our school is in a regeneration zone, so in 2017 we used £350,000 from the Big Lottery Fund to begin building a socially sustainable community, because we wanted our young people to realise they have a voice, are a fundamental part of the wider community, and with the right information, advice and guidance they can shape this place. We have used community action groups’ experience of how to achieve just outcomes. Their successes include acquiring land, setting up a community garden and increasing the frequency of local bus services.

Core skills

Priya Lakhani commented that today’s curriculum is too narrow; it largely excludes “those core (not ‘soft’) skills that we know are really important. As a CEO said to me recently, education is about personal fulfilment and economic independence. We also know the world is dramatically changing. The All-Party Parliamentary Group has looked at learning how to learn, and noted a PwC report stating that while 7.2 million jobs will be created as a result of artificial intelligence, 7 million will be lost. But it’s not the same 7 million people, going from one job to another. There’s going to be these huge disconnects. So what’s really important is that schools have this freedom, and the number one skill, I would argue, is what I like to call learning agility – learning how to learn.

“We must increase agency in learning, so that no matter what they are faced with in the world in the 21st century – automation, AI, big data and blockchain, all these technologies might automate them out of their jobs – young people know how to upskill themselves.”

Stuart Kay and Priya Lakhani OBE
Stuart Kay and Priya Lakhani

As YST director of education, Stuart Kay’s focus has been on transforming PE in school sport, so that it can bring about wider outcomes such as wellbeing and character development. “I’m a dad, and I send my kids to school for three reasons: to be happy, safe and well; to understand themselves, their place in the world, and the unique contribution they can make; and to get outstanding exam results and the currency they need to be successful in the world.

“We know from a survey we did in 2017 that PE is losing its place, particularly in the secondary curriculum. At a conservative estimate, 38% of schools have reduced curriculum time for PE since 2012. Yet our research over the last couple of years has shown that a healthy, active lifestyle is correlated with a quarter of a grade higher in outcomes and a 4-5% improvement in attendance for those that are the most active. So in short, PE and school sport support academic outcomes.

“We believe that PE and sport have the power to give that sense of belonging, aspiration and what is possible. We work with over 100 athlete mentors. We’ve got the Olympics and the Paralympics coming up this year, and they are key opportunities to unlock a sense of achievement if young people aren’t getting it from elsewhere.”

Ofsted’s new framework: help or hindrance?

One question from the audience was: will the new Ofsted framework help or hinder social justice? An impromptu audience vote came out even for both sides, but Stuart Kay noted, “we are seeing in the 1500 or so schools that have been inspected under the new framework that there is a greater focus on personal development, through the deep dives, the arts – and PE and school sports.” To that extent, he thought the new approach should contribute to broader justice.

Share your opinion
Do you agree with the panel’s suggestions? Or, do you believe that other experiences may have a greater impact? Let us know by sharing your thoughts at the end of the article.

Priya Lakhani added: “I think Ofsted genuinely wants… to be a force for good. The problem is that, while no headteacher would ever say no to receiving feedback, I don’t think rankings should ever be published. They should not be in the public domain.”

A delegate who is also chair of his region’s Chamber of Commerce commented that he had asked his chamber members whether they were driven by external inspection to improve the quality of their work. “They all laughed at the question, because it was customer feedback that drove their desire to improve quality. So, in education, who is the customer? Is it Ofsted? Is it the government? Is it employers? Or is it the children, the parents and the community?

A final question from chair John Dickens: If there was one thing that the government could do, one policy to improve social justice, what should it be?

  • Andy Roberts: “Schools should have more money to spend on releasing time for teachers, so they get a higher quality professional learning, and that will improve quality.”
  • Priya Lakhani: “They need to relook at how technology is disrupting the world, and provide students with a curriculum through which they can live and coexist as humans and use human intelligence, rather than essentially doing what artificial intelligence can do far better.”
  • Stuart Kay: “Take the example of New Zealand, who are trying now to measure gross domestic wellbeing, instead of gross domestic product. Let’s learn from that example, and focus on creating and measuring happiness and healthy, happy young people.”

SSAT members can watch: Panel discussion: The essential experiences in the curriculum

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