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Who owns the curriculum?

new-blog-bannerTom Middlehurst, Head of Public Affairs SSAT, writes…

Embedding the new national curriculum, new KS2 and KS4 assessments, the removal of levels, Progress 8, the compulsory Ebacc… all of these things inevitably affect a school’s curriculum provision and arrangements.

At a time of such great change in education, with many schools in a period of uncertainty and flux, it’s worth asking: who really owns the curriculum?

Politicians

Education is one of the key public services, along with healthcare, justice and crime, and welfare, that we expect the state to provide – and rightly so.

We all know that a strong education is a vehicle for social justice and can result in a more equitable, contented and successful society. But to what extent should such a vital public service rest in the hands of ministers and civil servants?

Well it’s worth pointing out that, since 1988, education secretaries of state have a statutory duty to publish a national curriculum. In other words, Nicky Morgan is legally bound to put her name to a published document.

However, in the same act that enshrined this requirement in law, are clauses that limit the power of politicians to direct the curriculum (a rarity in government policy).

The 1988 Education Act stipulates that no secretary of state can make requirements about any school’s curriculum arrangements.

The 1988 Education Act stipulates that no secretary of state can make requirements about any school’s curriculum arrangements

Specifically, they can’t tell you how long any subject, topic or unit should be studied for, the order of material over a key stage, or how that material should be grouped or delivered.

So as long as the content of the national curriculum is covered by the end of each key stage, it’s entirely up to schools to arrange that material as they see fit. The entire contents of the science, maths and technology curricula could, for example, be taught through project-based learning – if a school so wished.

So, although the government of the day, rightly, offers the direction of travel – how this destination is reached is really not in politicians’ hands.

However, minsters can of course exert further influence on the curriculum through the accountability regime. Many school leaders responding to SSAT’s Ebacc survey in the summer term voiced concerns that they would need to change their curriculum offer as a result.

So, although technically the government can’t dictate how a destination is reached, they can hold considerable power over this.

With the accountability regime as it is, to what extent do other stakeholders own the curriculum design process?

Employers and industry

ubsTo what extent should curriculum serve the local, national and global economy? Of course we want our students to become economically active members of the workforce, and therefore we need to consider the needs of employers.

Over half of employers still suggest that they cannot recruit enough school, and even university, leavers because they don’t possess the key skills required. This was the subject of last month’s SSAT Annual Lecture, where it was apparent that more needs to be done to embed work-readiness at all stages of education.

Over half of employers still suggest that they cannot recruit enough school, and even university, leavers because they don’t possess the key skills required.

Some schools speaking at the event are undergoing innovative curriculum design work with local businesses to enhance the link between school and work.

For example, a school in West Sussex is working with a local science firm whose business it is to split cells, to ensure that this skill is embedded in the school’s curriculum, through the classroom delivery of its science lessons.

In what ways should we be looking at local and global needs to inform our curriculum design?

HEIs

The American academic E D Hirsch recently argued that the knowledge, content and skills of school curricula should be directed by those in the HE sector.

In this way, subject curriculum would reflect the latest thinking on the discipline – in terms of interpretation, understanding and relevance. It’s an interesting proposition, based on the belief that university academics are the rightful guardians of subject-specific knowledge.

An ambition to pass on the best that has been said and written is central to this vision; and would almost certainly lead to more cohesion between primary, secondary and tertiary education.

But much recent debate has focused rightly on a broader definition of the curriculum than the purely academic.

School leadership teams

Obviously school governing bodies, senior leadership teams, and middle leaders are key agents in curricula.

Taking in a range of factors, perhaps including statutory needs, the needs of employers and the recommendations of HE, school leaders will implement a curriculum through a timetable, options, subject division and schemes of work.

How this looks will vary from school to school and from department to department. These arrangements are sometimes known as the ‘implemented curriculum’ and include any planned experiences and opportunities you intend to give your students during their time with you. So SLT are the figures most often held accountable for a school’s curriculum provision – both by students and parents, and by the schools regulator Ofsted.

A key consideration for the current moment is the extent to which school leaders feel, and should feel, ownership of this.

Classroom practitioners

Back in 2013, Dylan Wiliam introduced an SSAT talk on curriculum design by suggesting that the real curriculum is ‘the lived daily experience of young people’ and that this is ‘always created by teachers’.

lightbulb head 300

The pedagogical decisions that a teacher makes over the course of a lesson affect the lived experience of young people far more than any national curriculum, university or employer wish list, or department scheme of work.

As such, all teachers from the most experienced lead practitioners to NQTs and unqualified teachers are, in a sense, curriculum designers – though this is not officially recognised by government. Deciding in what order to present what information within a discrete lesson is a curricular decision.

Deciding in what order to present what information within a discrete lesson is a curricular decision

So all the stakeholders above have a claim to ownership of the curriculum; but we need to be clear with all our teachers that the real, the important, curriculum is ultimately in their hands.


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