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Curriculum, Leadership

Time to Stop Curriculum Shallowing?

The issue of curriculum narrowing is frequently used within education circles as a pejorative term.  What is less prevalent is balance within the debate; the calling out of the shallowing of the curriculum – the partner of breadth – as a curriculum reality.  It is an eternal tension and dilemma; time is finite.

In designing a curriculum at a whole school level you need to reflect on which subjects to include in the timetable and how long each subject should be given.  The more subjects included the less time each one gets.  Using Year 9 as an example; it’s not uncommon to see Music, Art and Drama all given one hour of curriculum time (if these subjects still exist in your curriculum model).  There’s a breadth but also a shallowness to the curriculum with around 35 hours of teaching for each subject per year.  What are the relative pros and cons of this approach to the curriculum compared to giving pupils the opportunity to choose one to study for the whole year, allowing over 110 hours of teaching & learning time before choosing options for their GCSEs?  There is greater depth but also a narrowing of the curriculum.  I don’t believe there is a better or best approach rather a trade-off, whichever is preferred.  A similar debate could be had for the humanities – History and Geography – study both in Year 9 or one in greater depth? Too often our decisions are simply based on what we have done previously. Beyond the simplistic 2/3 years Key Stage 3/4 model there is a debate about fewer subjects in greater depth or more subjects but less depth. Where does the balance lie?

Photo by John Cahil Rom from Pexels

In designing a curriculum as a middle leader and teaching it; the number of concepts, ideas, books, artists, composers, time periods etc to be covered and to what depth is a key professional determination.  This is often rooted in a view of education; the particular community you serve and the pupils in your class.  The more content you decide to cover the less time available to cover each aspect; depth is sacrificed.  The current educational discourse would have you believe there is a right answer.  However, broader and shallower or narrower and deeper depends on too many issues to be a binary decision.

Solomon Kingsnorth (2019) in a great blog titled Forget Finland. Could Estonia help to reverse our dire results? suggests that the overwhelming majority of pupils can learn anything given sufficient time.  It is the “sufficient time” bit that is key.  This call for mastery is fundamentally undermined when you create a curriculum and examination syllabi that are overfull.  Coverage rather than mastery becomes the key driver.  Kingnorth compares the Maths curriculum in England compared to Estonia (a relatively high performer in PISA) … “In maths, for example, their equivalent GCSE syllabus is almost 83% smaller than ours.  This leaves 10 days per maths objective at GCSE level (compared to our 1.9), with each one resembling a ‘threshold concept’ that will anchor pupils more firmly in mathematical fluency.”

Believing that all pupils should reach the same standard despite very, very different starting points needs a curriculum response; primary and secondary schools in the most disadvantaged communities often have a larger number of pupils who need greater support with literacy and numeracy.  How do you find the additional time to focus on these basics?  The additional time can be found through giving more time to literacy and numeracy within the curriculum or reducing the overarching English and Mathematics curriculums to provide more time to develop and embed the key concepts and ideas.  There’s no easy choice. 

The option too often chosen is to pretend everything is OK and plough on regardless; that just kicks the problem down the line.  Similar thinking is required when you realise that all pupils don’t travel through the curriculum at the same pace. Issues relating to curriculum purpose, principles, planning, dimensions, content, delivery and receipt produce rich and complex interactions hat are held in an eternal tension.  The inspection process is far too shallow and blunt an instrument to ever truly engage with the curriculum compromises that need to be made when you move from the theoretical drawing board to the reality of the classroom.



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