I often think about two different experiences which have guided me over the years in making curriculum decisions in school – one when I was a pupil, and one as a young teacher.
Firstly, as a pupil in a comprehensive school in Wales, the myriad opportunities afforded us outside of lessons through the competitive house system and school-linked ‘eisteddfod’ competitions (where we were encouraged to develop any creative talents we had and perform on stage), came to define my school experience and enable me to fully appreciate the impact of a rich curriculum experience on a pupil’s personal development.
Secondly, in my first days of teaching French A level in the mid-80s, I found myself discussing with students Gustave Flaubert’s famous phrase l’art pour l’art: art for its own sake, or education for its own sake.
This principle has stuck with me and guided me ever since, particularly as a school leader, to ensure my curriculum principles were based on the idea that curriculum breadth, equality of opportunity and equipping pupils with an appetite for lifelong learning were at the heart of my school’s vision.
What is the purpose of education?
We have been furnished with many answers to this question:
To prepare pupils with the skills they need for the rapidly changing workplace.
To question the knowledge they are given.
To empower them to be able to make choices for themselves in the future.
To ensure they have the opportunity to experience, as Matthew Arnold said, "the best that has been thought and said".
The real purpose of education is probably a combination of all of the above and the challenge of combining these to deliver a curriculum that prepares young people to have the confidence, skills and knowledge to participate, and indeed assume leadership positions in a global society, is a very real challenge in our current climate.
Schools are faced with diminishing budgets which directly impact not only on extra-curricular opportunities for pupils, but on the provision of personal and emotional support some pupils need to ensure they make the most of their education. Curriculum provision itself is narrowing as high-stakes external accountability measures put more pressure on the adoption of a one-size-fits-all approach to subjects offered. Is it right that the key driver for a school’s curriculum should be an accountability measure which is formulated through competition, rather than collaboration between schools?
Preparing our future leaders
No one can argue that we need to prepare students for examinations but we also need to prepare them for more than this, for examinations and beyond, if they are to pick up the mantle and lead future generations. The curriculum that we deliver in schools, and by that I mean the totality of learning experiences and opportunities that teachers, as leaders of the curriculum provided for our students, has to serve them for the rest of their lives; it is the only curriculum they will experience.
As custodians of this huge responsibility, school leaders must be able to determine the curriculum for their own pupils in schools and, the government has an equal responsibility to ensure schools can resource their broad and balanced curricula appropriately. It is not fair on this generation to experience a comparatively impoverished curriculum, when the challenges they face in the future will be even more diverse.
Notwithstanding the current difficulties, schools continue to give students opportunities to develop as rounded individuals, equipped to live and work in a world characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, globalisation and technological innovation. Many offer great sports leaders programmes, peer support initiatives, and a vibrant ethos and culture where students are encouraged to debate, explore global issues and undertake charity work.
Is collaboration an answer?
However, where both time and resources are scarce, are there ways in which schools can collaborate to share teaching resources and learning experiences to make their curricula as rich and empowering as possible?
How often do school leaders discuss the impact and breadth of their extra-curricular provision with other leaders at local heads’ meetings? Is this a forum for sharing some effective practice?
As schools are thinking about managing the transition from modular to linear GCSES, are there teaching strategies, action research projects and resources that could be shared between schools?
What are the effective transition strategies and Year 7 catch-up projects that are working well in schools? Could this be a regular item for leaders to share and discuss?
How are schools developing Key Stage 3 as the bedrock of their rounded provision? Could maximising the potential of Key Stage 3 be another area to share effective practice?
Would schools contemplate videoing some of their most effective practitioners in action and sharing ‘master class’ style resources to supplement curriculum provision in local schools?
Can schools collaborate more in sharing extra-curricular activities: trips, visits, outside speakers and leadership programmes?
Can school leaders share assemblies? These are often really well-crafted and valuable learning experiences supporting pupils’ personal reflection, ethical and topical issues.
Finally, a note of reflection: how often do we ask ourselves, where in our curriculum can we see examples of our school’s vision, and principles? How often do we stop and ask ourselves, “Am I proud of my curriculum, and why?”
Suzanne is leading two breakout sessions at ASCL Annual Conference 2017 at the ICC:
4pm, Friday 10 March: The impact of curriculum and assessment changes for school and subject leaders in the classroom
11.30am, Saturday 11 March: Reclaiming Assessment in the Classroom: what are the right questions to be asking about assessment? A joint assessment project between SSAT, NFER and ASCL
Suzanne will also be leading sessions at Your Curriculum Matters: National Summit on Principled Curriculum Leadership in London, 26 April 2017