Curriculum in a COVID climate

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 119 | Summer Term 2021

As we approach the end of what has been a truly challenging academic year, ASCL Specialist Tom Middlehurst looks at the lessons learned and what next for the curriculum.

In the autumn edition of Leader, I made the case for why curriculum matters more than ever. I quoted the (possibly apocryphal) story of Churchill questioning “what’s it all for”, when a junior minister dared suggesting cutting the arts budget to pay for ammunition.

This term, ASCL, along with several other organisations, convened and curated the Festival of School and College Arts, flooding EduTwitter’s walls with creativity, hope and inspiration. This demonstrates that, despite everything we’ve been through collectively over the past year and a half, we still value what matters as a sector. This is a glorious thing.

So, as we approach the end of the academic year and look ahead in hope (or trepidation?), what have we learned about curriculum, and what really matters, through this experience?

Catch-up is really just curriculum

The terms ‘catch-up’ and ‘recovery’ are controversial: seen by some as necessary to minimise the impact of lost learning; by some as a negative, deficit-based approach; and by others as a distraction from the continual progress schools and colleges are making.

However, the evidence is increasingly clear that pupils, particularly younger children, are behind – or have learnt less – than they would have in normal times. Given the disadvantage gap was a stubborn presence in our educational outcomes pre-Covid, early indications suggest that the pandemic has affected the most disadvantaged and vulnerable the greatest. We therefore can’t avoid discussions concerning ‘catch-up’ or ‘recovery’ however problematic we may find those terms.

What catch-up and educational recovery looks like will depend on your school’s or college’s context. Some schools may choose to focus on teaching missed content; others may concentrate on consolidating knowledge and skills taught during disrupted periods of learning; while others may focus on mental wellbeing, social interactions and intrapersonal skills.

Whichever approach you’re taking, we’re essentially talking about the curriculum: the formal academic curriculum or the wider pastoral one. If the curriculum is, in educationalist Dylan Wiliam’s terms, “the lived daily experience of young people”, then everything we plan to do is a curriculum decision.

Framing discussions about catch-up in this way allows us to focus on what’s really important and to return to first principles:

  • What do we want young people to know, understand and do?
  • How will we teach them this – either formally or through planned but informal experiences?
  • How will we deploy resources effectively to achieve this?
  • ​How will we know if students have learned or embedded these skills and knowledge?

Whether we’re talking about subject content, mental health and wellbeing, interventions or use of additional catch-up funding, we’re ultimately talking about the curriculum.

Disciplinary differences matter

One of the things the last year has shown, particularly when discussing centre-assessed grades (CAGs), teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) and what adaptations should have been made to exams had they gone ahead this summer (and those for next summer’s exams), is that different subjects are structured, taught and assessed in fundamentally different ways.

It’s what’s made discussions concerning optionality and regarding content coverage so difficult. It is, for example, perfectly possible to design an essay question that covers all the assessment objectives in a subject like English literature and history. From a single essay on King Lear, we may confidently say that a student has demonstrated their capacity to work at A* level without assessing them on other literary texts. The same is not true, perhaps, in maths, sciences and languages. Just because you get full marks on questions on shapes doesn’t mean you’ll be equally as successful at numbers.

These questions have played out over the past few months, with departments selecting the evidence they need to reach a ‘reasonable’ TAG – a decision passed on to all 7,000 school and college exam centres.

Moving forward, this should help to highlight that high-level approaches to curriculum and assessment design, whether at a centre or system level, are unlikely to do justice to the diverse disciplinary nature of subjects. Instead, we must strive for nuanced policies that respect the nature of the discipline.

Fetishisation and workload

One of the outputs from the pandemic has been the thousands of hours of recorded and stored lessons either produced by schools and colleges themselves, or by organisations such as GCSEPod, BBC Bitesize, and Oak Academy.

Many members have been in contact to say they feel that using expert explanations of key concepts and ideas (whether produced internally or externally) has helped aide students’ understanding.

The Workload Challenge identified resource-creation as one of the three major sources of teachers’ work. Talking to teachers, many feel it is expected that they create their own resources and worksheets, and relying on textbooks or bought materials would be considered lazy.

One of the great outcomes from the pandemic would be to stop fetishising the development of individual teacher resources. Instead, let’s draw on the wealth of material that has been produced, and accept where a recorded video by an expert may be more beneficial than every classroom teacher trying to recreate it.

That’s not to say classroom teachers aren’t important, but acknowledging where a concept is better explained through existing materials. This will, of course, have a positive impact on workload as well.

The mastery of the thing

My favourite poem, by one of my favourite poets, is Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover, in which he describes the overwhelming awe he feels at watching the eponymous kestrel managing to remain motionless mid-air against the buffering wind, before it swoops down, rebuffing that same wind that helped him keep steady, as graceful as a skater. Hopkins writes, “My heart in hiding stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!”

I think it provides a useful lens by which to consider the curriculum as we (hopefully) begin to emerge from the pandemic.

Since March 2020, school and college leaders and teachers have done extraordinary things to keep students learning – we are in awe of you all here at ASCL. Adapting to remote teaching, ensuring that students have access to devices and internet data and keeping up with the changing government advice.

We have, in some ways, been buffeting against the wind for a year, holding steady and firm. But now is the time to swoop, to show the beauty of the curriculum and to stir, collectively, for the achieve of, for the mastery of the thing.

Tom Middlehurst
ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist
@Tom_Middlehurst

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