Reorganising your curriculum into grouped subjects can encourage development in facilitated learning. Jim Donnelly explains

My starting point for this article is the assumption that the process of involving staff and producing an overall outcomes plan for the Key Stage 3 curriculum has already been completed along the lines suggested in my previous article. Getting this agreed is one thing but putting it into practice is another.

I am not going to look in detail at the curriculum – there is plenty of that available on the two websites listed at the end of the article – but rather at how a school can get from the present situation (A) to their planned destination (B). Getting from A to B is not always easy but one hopes that the journey will be a worthwhile one and that schools will be able to look back in five to 10 years with a feeling of real achievement.

A Chinese proverb says that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. I am going to suggest a few ‘single steps’ that can be taken by schools. Although it is theoretically possible to start with the big picture and then plan backwards, this is not possible for many schools. Practical considerations like ordering new books, helping staff prepare for new ways of teaching (or leading learning), getting students used to more freedom than they currently have are all potential barriers. Single steps are likely to be more realistic.

My suggested approach involves grouping subjects into manageable areas and then encouraging them to develop more innovative ways to facilitate learning. This is the approach that is being used at my school, Litherland High School, ahead of it gaining a new building (around 2011) as a single school pathfinder within Sefton local authority.

Departmental cooperation
One can argue for a long time about ‘natural’ groupings for subjects. Traditionally the humanities have been formed from a grouping of history, geography, RE, PSE (and its many offspring!) and, sometimes, English. Many teachers have produced imaginative approaches to teaching within this framework. One point worth making here is that many schools are taking the ‘new’ Key Stage 3 framework as an opportunity to reduce the number of teachers that Year 7 children will encounter when they move on from primary school.

However, one needs to consider whether this in itself is a sufficiently well-grounded approach to curriculum development. One could argue that children need to learn how to make transitions and that there are other ways of ensuring that they do not get ‘lost’ when they move. We can see that similar transition periods will occur at the age of 16 (for at least some) and at 18 (for most) and it could be argued that the best preparation for change in life is to help people through it, as opposed to abolishing it. Preparation is key to the success of this approach.

More significant reasons for grouping subjects in new ways relate to being able to manage projects, which  gives more opportunities for ‘real-life’ and integrated approaches to learning without neglecting to ensure that key knowledge is learned and skills developed.

Varying solutions
Each school will find a different solution but what is outlined here is being planned at Litherland High and is offered as a talking point for other schools. There will be three main curriculum areas at Key Stage 3, as follows:

  • L3 (Language, Living, Learning) and this will draw together the subject matter of MFL (Spanish, Mandarin and French), English, history, geography, RE, personal development (PSHCE), ICT and art. Time allocation in Years 7 and 8 will be 13 hours (out of 25) per week
  • maths, science and technology. Time allocation in Years 7 and 8 will be 8 hours (out of 25) per week
  • PE and performing arts (including music, dance and drama). Time allocation in Years 7 and 8 will be 4 hours (out of 25) per week.

One strong argument in favour of three or four curriculum areas within a secondary school is that a leadership team member can be given responsibility for one area. A decision will be taken later about Year 9, but the current thinking is to offer a limited range of options (possibly within the technology or humanities areas), alongside a substantial core. The idea is being considered of shortening Key Stage 3 to a two-year programme but the government’s obsession with SATs is likely to prove a substantial barrier to this. Who said that the new curriculum represents joined-up thinking!

The first steps
We recognise that the journey from A to B will not be achieved instantly, so initially we are using three hours per week out of the 13 available to L3 to timetable all of Year 7 for a full morning each week. Staff will be allocated to plan programmes of activity for these morning sessions. Examples of themes for these include ‘water’ (led by an English specialist), Islam (as part of a curriculum project with link schools in Yemen and Afghanistan), sport and health (linking with a three-way curriculum project with schools in Korea and Taiwan) and global citizenship (linking with schools in Ghana and Nigeria). The experience gained this year will be developed into wider integration in Year 7 and more integrated work in Year 9.

Jim Donnelly is headteacher at Litherland High School, Sefton. He has just completed 40 years in teaching – two decades pre-1988 and two decades post-1988.

Further information