Education writer and former head Gerald Haigh talks to Dr Keith Bothamley, deputy head (curriculum) at Horsforth School, and Richard Brown, principal of Minsthorpe Community College in Wakefield, about the new KS3 curriculum

Dr Bothamley, as curriculum deputy, is playing a leading part in the introduction of the new KS3 curriculum at Horsforth. It’s a task he very evidently relishes, believing that here is a government initiative that’s broadly in line with the way that good secondary schools have been thinking for some time.

‘We’re very pleased to see that the new programmes of study are skills and concept based,’ he says. ‘They’re now almost using subjects as vehicles for developing generic skills.’ This, he believes, is an approach that teachers will welcome. ‘Existing trends and developments around Key Stage 3 are already to do with wanting to get more independence into learning, to loosen the assessment process, and to move away from a heavy and sometimes very prescriptive menu of subject knowledge.’

Implicit in all of that, he suggests, is greater recognition of the role of the teacher. ‘It moves the pendulum back towards more professional autonomy for the teacher.’ In common with most others who are involved with the new curriculum, he’s particularly interested in the possibilities for cross-curricular work.  (This is a key emphasis in the way the curriculum revision is presented. Under ‘Building Your Curriculum,’ the QCA secondary curriculum review document says, ‘A curriculum that has maximum impact for learners will use coherent themes to link learners’ experiences across the school.’)

In the past, Dr Bothamley agreed, such initiatives have had mixed fortunes in secondary. After all, the centre of gravity of a secondary school – certainly up to now – has rested in its subject departments. A school can almost be described, in fact, as a federation of largely autonomous departments that compete with each other for money, staff and resources, and measure their comparative performance in terms of their individual examination results (Keith Bothamley called it ‘balkanisation’). Against that background it’s always been difficult to introduce ‘themes’ or ‘strands’. that require subject areas to cooperate.

Emphasis on skills
How, then, might the QCA’s hopes for a more thematic approach work in practice? The answer, he feels, is that in the current proposals the links are embedded in the curriculum, rather than imposed on to the separate subjects as an afterthought. The curriculum’s emphasis on skills, too, helps teachers to think in those generic terms rather than concentrating exclusively on the subject.

‘If they’re going for PLTS (personalised learning and thinking skills) then the focus of the school and the teachers shifts to skills acquisition,’ he says, ‘and it’s easier to make the obvious links.’

As Dr Bothamley himself points out, however, the phrase ‘a thematic approach’ can be interpreted in a number of ways, and a range of approaches to curriculum organisation is emerging in schools across the country.

‘There’s a spectrum. Some schools are looking at delivering elements of the new programmes of study under thematic titles – so for example there’d be no geography lessons on the timetable at Year 7.’ There are, in fact, some quite radical approaches either running or proposed, involving, for example, a project-based foundation curriculum for Years 7 and 8. Glossopdale Community College’s innovative ‘C3’ curriculum, included as a case study on the QCA website is a good example (www.qca.org.uk/secondarycurriculumreview) as is the ‘Tartan Curriculum’ – so called because of the criss-crossing of curricular strands – at Bishop’s Park College in Essex, described on the National College for School Leadership site (www.ncsl.org.uk/media/08C/31/a-new-tartan-for-a-school-leader-bishops-park.pdf)

Implications for middle leadership
It’s evident though, that the more advantage a school takes of the flexibility that the revised curriculum offers, the more it will need to look both at teachers’ curriculum responsibilities and at staff training and development. There are obvious implications for middle leadership, for example, as subject managers are called upon to collaborate with each other, consulting or actually teaching beyond their own areas of subject knowledge.

‘Where schools are combining subjects, moving to a more radical structure, there are big professional development issues,’ says Bothamley.

That’s undoubtedly why some schools – and Horsforth’s is included here – although just as welcoming as others of the overall proposals, are going for a slightly more conservative approach to them. Rather than replacing subjects with themes, they’re keeping the subjects and building links, and commonality of approach, between them.

‘We’re retaining subject areas but going for a common delivery method for core skills,’ says Bothamley. ‘We’ll also have immersion days, off timetable, for areas such as enterprise skills.’

Horsforth’s leadership, however, is ever-mindful of the drive to see the curriculum as holistic rather than fragmented.

‘We’ve asked core subjects to see themselves as part of the whole picture of secondary education and not as ends in themselves.’

All in all, it’s clear that there’s genuine enthusiasm for the revised curriculum in the leadership team at Horsforth. Keith Bothamley didn’t hesitate to use the word ‘excitement ‘ in his summary of what it it’s going to mean for the school.

‘There’s more flexibility, less prescription, more opportunities for self-assessment and peer assessment. We’re confident that it will create excitement and inspire colleagues. It could regenerate teachers in the classroom. All in all, it’s perhaps the first centrally created initiative that gives teachers more freedom to be creative.’

Building on improvements
Richard Brown, a school leader who has single mindedly focused on improving the life chances of young people sees real possibilities in the new curriculum. He would like, though, to see how short-term changes fit into the long-term view.

Importantly, too, he’s determined not to compromise the drive for improvement.
Minsthorpe is a large (1,800 pupil) 11-18 Community College in South Elmsall, near to Wakefield in South Yorkshire. The area served by the college contains a number of former mining villages which, since the effective closedown of the South Yorkshire coal industry, have been at the centre of a determined regeneration policy. The college, through its extensive programme of community links and facilities, has been heavily involved in this, and was praised for its efforts by Ofsted in 2006.

Spearheading the effort, though, has been a steady and successful striving, on the part of the whole staff team, to enhance the life chances of the college’s pupils by improving examination results.

It’s against that background that the views of principal Richard Brown on the Key Stage 3 curriculum review have to be seen. What we hear at Minsthorpe is the voice of an accomplished school leader who’s deeply conscious of the nature of the community around the school, passionately committed to South Yorkshire youngsters and single-mindedly determined to preserve and build on the improvements that have already been made.

Making haste slowly
‘We will be thinking radically but making haste slowly,’ is how he puts it. ‘We don’t want to lose the gains we’ve made. Fortunately there’s quite a long lead-in time and we will use it and not rush.’

It seems likely that this will be the attitude of a number of heads and principals, particularly in schools that are engaged in the continuing effort to show year-on-year improvement in pupil performance. They will want to be sure that they will take the changes on board in a way that provides a firm platform from which to move on.
Among the considerations Richard Brown has in mind is the fact that the management structure changes consequent on the introduction of TLR (teaching and learning responsibility) posts are still bedding down.

‘We were asked to do a major change in staffing structures when TLRs came in two years ago, at a time when we had no vision of what the revised curriculum requirements would be. Now, a lot of schools will have to revisit their TLRs.’

Aside from that, what most concerns him is not so much the nature of the revised curriculum itself – which he generally welcomes for its flexibility – but how it fits with other changes that are happening or planned.

‘I just think that we’re not yet seeing the big picture. There’s a proposal, for example, for young people to be in education or training up to 19, so that the vast majority of them will achieve a “Level 2” type qualification, equating to five GCSE A to C grades.  Now that’s one of the key Every Child Matters outcomes – “achieve economic wellbeing” – and it will be a clear target for us.’

What he wants to know now, though, is how that resonates down the age range.
‘So I take that vision and then I work back – what will it mean for the Key Stage 5 curriculum? For Key Stage 4? And, of course, back into Key Stage 3. The whole of that has to fit together, and we’re only getting sight of it in pieces.’

So, he says, while there are interesting possibilities for Key Stage 3 –’the shorter Key Stage 3, the Year 7 foundation year, all that flexibility which is good and right’ – he doesn’t want to be drawn too soon.

‘You don’t jump to a solution till you see the whole continuum and how it applies to us here. So although the direction of travel is absolutely right, we’re still not seeing all the details in a coherent way.’

One curriculum, two school leaders. What’s the consensus?

  • The flexibility is wholeheartedly welcomed, as is the more holistic view of the curriculum. In this new context, cross-curricular work stands a better chance of succeeding than it has in the past.
  • The changes support what good schools are already trying to do in terms of personalisation, independent learning, self-review, self-assessment.
  • There’ll be less of an artificial break between KS3 and KS4.
  • Radical approaches to curriculum management and organisation become possible and are in place in schools across the country.
  • Some schools, while acknowledging the possibility of new approaches, will prefer to start from within their existing framework.
  • Schools tackling the improvement agenda will not want to risk compromising a record of success by too hastily introducing changes to management and curriculum structures.
  • Heads want to understand how the changes fit into the overall vision for secondary and post-16 provision.
  • There are inevitable implications for management and for staff development. These become proportionately greater in schools opting for more radical ways of organising the curriculum.
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