In 1995, Ottawa – my home town – became known for being more than just the nation’s capital city.
We were now the home town of the globally successful singer, Alanis Morissette. Her album Jagged Little Pill sold more than 30 million copies, won five Grammys and remains among Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums of All Time.
One of my favourite songs on the album is ‘Ironic.’ I’m sure you’ve heard it – “It’s like rain on your wedding day; it’s a free ride when you’ve already paid; it’s the good advice that you just didn’t take…” The song’s lyrics describe various ironic scenes – the fearful flyer who finally boards a plane for the first time, only for it to crash. The 98-year-old who wins the lottery and dies the following day. Having 10,000 spoons when all you need a knife. You know – frustrating, ‘either cry or laugh out loud’ situations.
I’m now of the view that the recent actions of Ofsted – a newly formed entity at the time of the record’s release – deserve a whole new verse in the song of their own.
For almost a decade, Ofsted has harshly penalised schools returning data and performance results in English and maths that they deem to be poor. Ofsted has had a hand in creating floor standards, devising definitions of ‘coasting schools’ and implementing questionable progress measures. These actions have resulted in headteachers being pushed out, teachers being fired and schools being forced into academisation.
England is now seeing its highest ever teacher attrition levels and lowest ever recruitment numbers. There are schools like mine, Three Bridges Primary School in Middlesex, where deprivation, transience, free school meals and EAL are high. We’ve had to invest significant money, development time and support into improving and accelerating achievement across English and maths as a result, because keeping your job hasn’t depended on delivering pupils a substantive education – only results.
In 2018, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, expressed concerns that schools were narrowing the curriculum and that there was an endemic pattern of prioritising data and performance results ahead of the real substance of education. Isn’t it ironic? Don’t you think?
That said, Ofsted’s announcements shouldn’t prevent schools from changing their tune. Building an incredible curriculum is entirely possible, regardless of budget or resources, so long as it’s seen as a two-step process. The first step involves posing the following pair of questions to staff, pupils and parents:
1. What are our aspirations, hopes and dreams for our young people and ourselves, now and in the future?
2. What knowledge, skills and habits of mind do they, or we, need to uncover this?
This will ignite a discussion that can be used to inform the development of a bold, beautiful and bespoke 21st century curriculum. A basic thematic analysis will help school leaders narrow down the thoughts of all stakeholders to common themes that will permeate your curriculum.
The second step – one often neglected – is to engage in deep thinking around subject-specific pedagogical design. This is part of what we at Three Bridges like to call ‘the hidden curriculum’. It’s important that time be given to all leaders and teachers so that they can explore how learners learn best in any given subject, and how your instructional diet aligns with your core values and curricular themes. A curriculum with a focus on equity and global citizenship, for example, might struggle to align with a heavy diet of rote learning and direct instruction.
Incredible learning is a practice of freedom. The interaction between teachers and learners in the presence of knowledge is one aspect of learning, the power relationship between the two requiring intimate attention. Incredible schools won’t merely discuss equity or refer to global citizenship – they’re mindful of those everyday, subtle interactions between teachers and pupils in the presence of knowledge. We must acknowledge that what we learn, how we learn it and who we are as educators are instructional, and that all three of these considerations should form the curriculum of our schools.
What we did
At Three Bridges we found ourselves facing three options when it came to redefining our curriculum:
a) Start from scratch
This would mean building learning progressions for the themes, finding resources that matched them and designing the subject content, units, lessons, resources and everything else, all from nothing. Pursuing this path will involve rebuilding your pedagogy to suit your learners and your curriculum – a massive undertaking, but possible given the right conditions.
b) Source a stock curriculum
This would entail using an ‘off the shelf’ solution containing existing units, lessons and resources all ready to go, aligning them with our new themes and then either going with the instructional design in the prepared lessons or adapting them and using our own.
c) Design a hybrid
Find a curriculum that aligns with our themes, design from scratch the bits it doesn’t have and align the resources provided with our pedagogy.
We chose option C. After examining the broad themes, we found that we aligned most closely with Oxfam’s educational resources. We therefore used those in tandem with some other resource bases to design units and lessons for each subject. We also visited other providers, like the Inspire Partnership and School21, which offered values and pedagogy aligned with our our own beliefs about education as a practice of freedom. We worked with a consultant, Karen Brooke, who supported us in decolonising our content and coaches, including Alex Bell, who helped us to become our very best, as we challenged each other to redefine and redesign what we believed to be possible. The truth is, however, that it’s a never ending journey.
Pitfalls and possibilities
1. Pitfall – Ofsted is coming!
The fear of an imminent inspection can set in, prompting a school to simply buy in the best curriculum they can find and do an INSET or two, before observing, monitoring and scrutinising it in action. This will only serve to tick a box and provide a false positive.
2. Possibility – Use a new map
Develop an idea of the direction you’d like to see your curriculum go in. How many themes should it have? What might the implementation look like? Based on your existing pedagogical practice and underlying beliefs, it should be possible to find a suitable curriculum solution from the options currently out there and identify those schools using them effectively.
3. Pitfall – Ofsted’s ‘intent, implementation and impact’
I’d never heard of these terms before the arrival of the new framework. Getting stuck on those terms and arranging your curriculum around them will almost certainly lead you to a very mediocre place. Do what’s best for you and your school, then fit the terms around that.
4. Possibility – A decolonised curriculum
The curriculum development process gives us all an opportunity to interrogate what we’ve been teaching, especially stories from ‘other’ cultures. What is ‘other,’ exactly? It’s a chance for us to re-examine representations of race, religion, gender and sexual orientation in our programmes of study. How European are they? How white are they? How real are they?