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Curriculum, Leadership

Writing a Curriculum Policy: Nuance, Tensions and Competing Priorities

Developing a coherent, vertically integrated curriculum sounds like a great idea.  In reality, it will come with a whole series of compromises.  People might be accepting of these compromises or you might just make everyone unhappy.  Developing a curriculum at a whole school level requires decisions about what will be prioritised and what will be less of a priority.

If you would like to read the prequel to this post; it can be found at (Re)thinking & (Re)writing Your Curriculum Policy; it contains definitions of some key terms used in this blog.

In the same way developing a subject curriculum or one for a year group requires a whole series of decisions about what to include, in what order and, the much more challenging decision of, what to omit; curriculum planning at a whole school level is all about priorities.  For example, why does Mathematics get more time in the curriculum than art, drama and music (sometimes added together) or more than history, geography or religious studies?  This decision has significant consequences for what can be covered in these subjects.  Likewise, the breadth of a school’s curriculum has a substantial impact on the depth of a school curriculum and vice versa; time is finite.

In revisiting our curriculum, I’ve proposed five statements to initiate debate.  The statements are basically descriptions of our current curriculum, at its best.  Our curriculum is in continuous state of development; each year I want it to be an improvement on the last.  Once we’ve finalised our “we believe” statements each one will be fleshed out in a bit more detail.

We Believe a High Quality Curriculum:

  • Is appropriate, broad and balanced; promoting intellectual, moral, spiritual, aesthetic, creative, emotional and physical development as equally important. This must be available to all pupils.
  • Is vertically integrated, to ensure progression, and focused on the big ideas and concepts that underpin understanding within each subject.
  • Is coherent within Early Years; becoming increasingly rigorous, developing intra-disciplinary habits of mind, as pupils progress from Key Stage 1 to 5.
  • At Key Stages 4 & 5, has increased relevance through pupils’ informed choice and allows for a greater depth of study with more limited breadth.
  • Involves systematic development of literacy, in particular reading and vocabulary acquisition and understanding.

Noting the Nuance, Tensions and Competing Priorities

Reading the first and the fourth bullet point together provides an insight into how our curriculum changes over time.  Requiring a “balanced” curriculum to be available to all pupils is not the same as saying all pupils will study one.  For example at A-level (Key Stage 5), a student may opt for a particular programme of study that is largely intellectual with limited or no aesthetic or creative elements.  For all its faults, we used to insist post-16 students followed a General Studies programme to help maintain balance.  That option is no longer available.

Similarly, at Key Stage 4 a balanced curriculum is available to all pupils but some choose, for reasons of personal preference or future career aspirations, to opt for a particular set of subjects, with one or more elements of a balanced curriculum missing.  As the core has always been relatively large at Key Stage 4, I’m more than happy for young people to make an informed choice about one or two options; that is, to have a more relevant curriculum.  Other schools leaders and teachers may not be.  Nowadays, in most schools, I’d guess that six or seven subjects are mandated with pupils having a more open choice of one or two GCSEs.

Whilst pupils don’t start their GCSEs in Year 9 (I’d actually argue they start them in Early Years and Foundation Stage if we get the curriculum right), we do allow some limited choice; balance is maintained as the core curriculum and the limited “options” are organised so that choices are within a discipline rather than between them.

In Year 9, some schools might provide pupils with 5% curriculum time for Art and 5% for Design Technology (a circus involving some or all of graphics, resistant materials, food, textiles and electronics).  Instead, we have 10% curriculum time for either Art or one of the Design Technology subjects sacrificing breadth for greater depth within one subject.  The limited options allow pupils to study both as there is a more open option block.  That has been our curriculum model for the past decade or more.

  • Is coherent within Early Years; becoming increasingly rigorous, developing intra-disciplinary habits of mind, as pupils progress from Key Stage 1 to 5.

Bullet point three (see above) is another example of change over time.  The Early Years curriculum is coherent; that is, the curriculum is planned and delivered to make explicit connections and links between the different experiences offered to the children.  I’ve listened to a headteacher who described their reception curriculum in terms of different subjects; reception children know whether they are studying biology, chemistry or physics.  Our approach is quite different; steadily moving to a more rigorous, subject based curriculum, with the subject matter taught in a way that is faithful to its discipline.  By the end of Key Stage 1 and into Key Stage 2 subjects are more clearly defined both in terms of their rigour and progression within them (vertically integrated).

One final thought, don’t underestimate the professional development needed to ensure a curriculum is successfully implemented and enacted.  It is a huge undertaking; our Trust Business Plan has focused mainly on curriculum development for the past four years; since we formed.  Also don’t underestimate the impact of collaborative curriculum planning on professional development of staff.

The above curriculum statements sit alongside out statement about teaching assessment and learning; they need to be read as a whole.  You can read more about our Teaching, Assessment & Learning Policy here.

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