Being smart about curriculum

Leading Quality in the CurriculumEncouraging Curriculum Dialogue
Author: Chris Jones, Managing Director CJ Learning Community

We are constantly reminded that the leadership of state (and privately) funded education needs to be more accountable; money needs to be efficiently spent and outcomes need to demonstrate appropriate progress and high aspirations.

Current reading will find anyone interested in schooling aware of the challenge to ‘raise standards’, ‘raise expectations’ and have ‘increased aspirations’ for our young learners. The need for rapidity of change has naturally resulted in practices often being borrowed or replicated because they are ‘used elsewhere’ without the necessary deep or developed understanding of why they were used in their initial context. Surely best practice development is rooted in proven methodology, highly tailored to a current situation or context. My preposition is that ‘to understand is as to improve.’

18CA4079-C8BB-4A0C-AF56-C3E83052D24DA sad result of the constant changes we have experienced in recent years, I fear, is that new teaching staff and some leaders have had insufficient opportunity to embed as deep a knowledge or understanding as is required by these heightened levels of accountability. The longer I taught my subject, the better I felt I understood the nuances of what was needed to be good at it. The stages of development were clearer in my mind and the process of learning became embedded in my behaviours. In recent years, as a response to huge levels of change, many quick fixes – including a reliance on subjects like ECDL and a fevered level of intervention activity – have been employed within the curriculum to fill the gaping hole between outcomes and the new heightened expectations. Some of these quick fixes were entirely necessary, in the short term, for students on their once in a lifetime education journey, but in the long term they have produced an intervention focused mind-set, engendering a shallow understanding of curriculum impact. Thankfully, the days when quick-fixes and using the latest fad to sustain improvement are on their way out. ‘Easy’ option ‘loop-holes’ are no more. The only way to achieve the required standards is to teach a truly deep and considered curriculum.

Another common situation is that school and curriculum leaders talk of practice and developments in their own subject with great confidence and expertise. However when, as so often happens, they are required to sit on line management meetings for or make decisions regarding another discipline, many I speak with say they flounder, expressing little understanding and needing to rely on people with unproven trust or depth of knowledge. Does this sound familiar? We need to provide the space in which the accountability is intelligent, considered and deeply understood by all, or at least by those making the decisions without dis-empowering middle leadership to bring their expertise to the table.

A further all too familiar situation is the subject leader who insists the examination board needs to change from ‘X’ instead of ‘Y’. Personnel change and unknown to them, you approved completely the opposite change last year. The cost? £20,000 in new texts from your depleted development budget, with no alternative as the old texts have been thrown in the skip! So, where will you be next year if this staff member moves on and another middle leader makes a seemingly convincing request? The requirement is for a smarter approach to curriculum leadership. The best decisions are based on good understanding, not transient, personnel-led factors, which result in huge costs in time and resource to change.

Every decision in our education system has a purpose – an educationally driven, highly ethical purpose, if only we understood what that was. You will need to get to what the purpose is and that it is viable, valuable and sustainable. A SMART decision. Then we ask how do we train our curriculum leaders to make these decisions? How can we make them good decision makers and how can we sustain a budget that is both balanced and investment focused?

There are proven, significant methods to solve these concerns. Firstly, by having sufficient funds to consider this sort of investment – to that end I would advocate the curriculum led budget planning methodology inherent to the SMARTcurriculum method, to understand what each element costs. This means there needs to be a clear justification for the elements that cost, not just that we need ‘more teaching time,’ ‘smaller class sizes,’ ‘we need another TLR holder,’ or ‘we need more teaching groups.’ What we need is a better understanding of the cost of each of these elements and better global understanding that a significant investment demands better outcomes.

Secondly, there needs to be real accountability for the constituent parts of the curriculum that are understood by all. One approach I advocate is the Curriculum Board. A panel meeting where the content of curriculum is explored, understood and agreed in a shared and open context by middle and senior leaders. Qualification programmes are not changed until the panel has been presented with a rationale and has agreed such changes. Teaching practices are explained and understood not to circumvent accountability of middle leaders, but to enable them to formulate and present their arguments – ensuring programmes are right for our students and developing a shared understanding of how a synergy of subject leaders can work. Requests to alter a programme of study are measured against the previous collective decision that the existing programme was right for the students in that establishment at that time. Change needs to be an improvement, not a personnel-led choice. Having explored the practice with a number of schools, all report that collective understanding of the curriculum has been transformational.

An additional element might be to require UPS staff to do the research work to present to the Curriculum Board, thereby gaining a real, widely scoped understanding of all available compliant programmes. This practice, incidentally, helps with their whole school responsibility and gives credible assessment criteria for their development. Obviously, with so much programme change experienced over the past 18 months, annual review of this process is encouraged and practised by many partners. Chopping and changing is clearly not good practice, although it is understood when absolutely necessary – as has been the case in recent years when qualifications have changed. The key is in developing a shared understanding and a collective ownership of the decisions made.

Thirdly, a major contributor to the process of qualifications and outcomes comes from a shared understanding of the curriculum. A practice I would advocate is to create a written, shared Curriculum Profile for each subject area. A document that is used by the Curriculum Board to clearly document the learning journey. Before each scheme of work is created, this document outlines the intended learning outcomes, scope and organisational details. I would emphasis this is not the ‘options booklet’ which is a marketing tool when all the programmes have been agreed, in itself it should be a digest of the Curriculum Profile.

Fourthly, every secondary school should explore external subject validation. Examiner contact and scrutiny is well understood these days, but I still come across many examples where the examiners’ processes are not used to inform and improve practice. Examiners and verifiers’ reports are not widely circulated or read, yet many are happy to pay large sums to invite examiners to run training sessions. One example would illustrate this lack of understanding: a school did not understand why coursework marks were significantly changed after three years of stable mark review and submission. When I asked to see the last three verifiers’ reports, they were surprised to find that practice alteration warnings had been given in each of the years – initially two annual reports, couched as advice; the third report upgraded to a required action. Delivery staff were completely unaware of the warnings, because they were unaware of the reports, which were only seen by non-teaching exams officers and not explored by teaching staff. Maintaining good review practice for examiners’ and verifiers’ reports is essential.

Finally, know what is going on in the subject area. I have spoken to many teachers who are union members but not subject association members. Every national curriculum subject has a subject focused association, giving advice and resources, developing a passion for learning in your field. I encourage every curriculum leader to join the associations and we provide a directory of many to ensure that there is always a balanced view: Link to list. Do let us know if you know of others to include. The benefit of this approach is to provide all curriculum leaders with a deep and developed understanding required to make great decisions.

If you are interested in developing some of any of the ideas discussed within your school or Trust, please do contact Nicky on or call 0203 701 2854 and we will arrange for one of our leadership specialists to contact you.