Jim Donnelly looks at where schools can make a start on curriculum planning, in the light of the new Secondary National Curriculum which gives teachers a more flexible framework in order to raise standards

It must have been a strange feeling for those who were set free after the fall of the Bastille. They were suddenly liberated, in unexpected circumstances and probably without an idea of what to do next. ‘We are free! What do we do now?’

Some school leaders probably feel the same after the ‘arid years’, although many teachers will not be able to remember the time before 1988 when there was no National Curriculum, no Sats (with results delivered on time or otherwise!), no public exposure of the weaknesses of schools (whether real or imaginary) and very little political interference in our schools. 

Some change was inevitable, but what we have had is too much central prescription and too little trust in the professional judgement of schools and their staff. But now a change is taking place, and just as the fall of the Bastille was unexpected for the prisoners, the transformation has been quite sudden and dramatic – albeit not totally unexpected to those who studied history at school! (Whether the lessons of Key Stages 1-3 have been learned when we see what is planned for the 14-19 curriculum is another matter. However, for now let us be grateful that we can at least start putting together a Key Stage 3 curriculum that makes more sense than the present situation.)

First things first
Schools are now being encouraged to take a more holistic view of the child (didn’t they used to do that before 1988?), and this should be the starting-point for the school’s leadership team in deciding the way forward.

Staff need to be involved in this big picture planning if the results are to be seen in the classrooms and corridors of the school.

Focusing on a question
A useful activity to start the process would be to get staff to address the question ‘What would you want a 16-year-old to look like when they leave this school?’ Some prompt words can help provoke the kind of thought that you want. Do staff want young people who are happy? Purposeful? Caring? Kind? Hard-working? Focused on the future? Well-qualified? Groups of around six to10 allow for useful discussion, which then needs to be distilled into a set of goals.

The next stage, then, is to challenge staff to decide how this notional young person will be created, using the resources at the school’s disposal. Resources here include the school budget, but can also include other people who can be brought in to support and contribute to the school’s desired outcomes.

The third stage of this process is to then ask staff, again in groups, to put together a list of the skills and knowledge that they think the average 16-year-old should possess. It is worth trying to think of what staff, parents, the local community (who are not parents), employers and society in general want the young people to be.

Checking out the curriculum
Following this exercise, a designated member of the leadership team could be charged with working with subject leaders, both as a group and individually, to look at the new curriculum requirements. They should begin to focus on how some of the objectives could be delivered in a more coherent way than the present 25 one-hour slots (or a variation of this) that operate in most secondary schools at Key Stage 3 allow. It is worth noting some significant points:

  • The curriculum has been deliberately put together to make it easier for subject leaders to see connections with other subject areas.
  • Schools can look at outcomes over the whole of Key Stage 3. For example, many schools allocate one hour per week for art for each of the years 7, 8 and 9. If one adds this up over a typical school year, this will come out at around 35 hours of taught time (allowing for Inset days, other activities that take children away from their art lesson, and so on). This then equates to about 100 hours over a three-year period.
  • The real measurement should be outputs (achievement levels) as opposed to inputs (the 100 hours of ‘taught time’). Once one starts to think in these terms then the whole 25/30/35 lesson week, based on discrete subjects, makes less sense.

What can the school do?
On the one hand, the school is limited in its power to produce these fully-developed young people. Parents and society in general have a much bigger influence than the school can have, particularly since so much of a young person’s life is spent outside school. On the other hand, schools have young people during their most productive waking hours, particularly if one adds the time spent on school-related work at home. It is up to the school to make the best use of this time.

In the next article, I will be looking at how the Key Stage 3 curriculum can be made more meaningful and how teachers’ lives can become more interesting!

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

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