Managing a curriculum fit for the future involves juggling many key tasks – from handling cultural change, dealing with complexity and creating the right relationships for change, as Dave Allman explains

As curriculum managers gear up for the latest regeneration of the curriculum to be metamorphosed by the forthcoming White Paper (the date of which was still to be announced when CMU went to press), arguably your skills as managers of change are going to be in more demand than ever. Your school’s future could just depend on how well you navigate your curriculum through this latest transformation to keep in step with national requirements. So this month’s Case in Point focuses on how to go about this in practice, with the case study sharing how its success has depended on building in a capacity to change within the whole-school culture and empowering both pupils and staff to play their part in bringing about the changes right for all.

‘Managing curriculum change’, for some, is perhaps the very simplest of matters. Scan the environment, keep up to date with the latest set of requirements and guidance on ‘national strategy’, have a think about how best to disseminate the associated informa­tion (ideally having prepared some sort of strategic and operational plans), politely request that staff get on with the tricky busi­ness of implementation, and at (prefer­ably) predefined times in the future conduct some sort of evaluation into the success or other­wise of the venture under consideration.

Yet in the UK, the security of direction afforded to curriculum managers following the 1988 Education Reform Act is no longer available. The Act and its various successors overwhelmed and transformed the nature of curriculum management, with little attempt made to disguise the imposition of curricu­lum dictation and evaluation.

The new coalition’s May 2010 programme for government promises to simplify the regu­la­tion of standards in education, and target inspection on ‘areas of failure’ (Cabinet Office, 2010, p29). ‘League tables’ are once again to be reformed; since their introduction as ‘performance tables’ in 1994, the number of discrete pieces of information publicly available online about any maintained school in England and Wales has steadily risen from a (relatively) intelligible 18 to 55 in the 2009 tables. The shape of this reform is unclear, and the aspiration to ‘reform league tables so that schools are able to focus on, and demonstrate, the progress of children of all abilities’ (Cabinet Office, 2010, p29) does little at this stage to shed any light. Perhaps there is an element of reflexivity in its promise to publish perform­ance data on educational providers them­selves, rather than solely on the performances of pupils and their schools, as has been the case thus far, but the jury is out. Internal tensions and the normal to-and-fro of political horsetrading have yet to settle. The option to go with the flow, to comply with the received wisdom of repre­sen­tatives of ‘national strategies’ will shortly come to an abrupt halt. Many are left with the question ‘what to do for the best?’

Curriculum in context

Of course, the situation is hardly as straightforward as I have suggested. We live in a world where advice and guidance is available almost instantly (typing ‘manage the curriculum’ brings about just short of 8,000,000 results from a search engine in 0.2 seconds). But for a large proportion of the UK’s current teachers, understanding what is meant by ‘curriculum’ is itself a key problem. It is replaced in the lexicon by ‘course’, and subjected to labels and brands. We buy our curricula ‘off the shelf’.

Schools, then, are buyers in an educational marketplace. Some, perhaps those more enter­prising, are also sellers – exporting their own brand for adoption by others at a price. It was in 2008 that the pendulum began to swing towards schools making their own decisions about their core business. Mick Waters, then Head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, asserted that this ‘new national curriculum’ should be ‘treasured’, that ‘there should be real pride’ in it, and that ‘teachers, parents, employers and the media should all see the curriculum as something to embrace, support and celebrate’ (QCA, 2008). Perhaps, 20 years on from the 1988 Education Reform Act, policymakers have begun to recognise, finally, that:

there can be no effective curriculum devel­op­ment no matter how hard people try from the outside to promote it. (Kelly, 2004, pxiii)

The rhetoric, at least, remains about involve­ment and engagement:

the new secondary curriculum offers schools a real opportunity to innovate … to make the most of the opportunities offered by the new secondary curriculum, schools will need to reflect on their current curriculum … its strengths and what needs to be developed [and] how well … it meet(s) the wider aims of the curriculum. (QCA, 2008)

The coalition Government does not appear to have designs on further curriculum change at this stage. If anything the aspira­tion is to make processes and practices sim­p­ler and more streamlined to enable indi­viduals and schools to explore and inno­vate without the long-held security of the bureaucratic cage. Being held back through the weight of inertia is no longer an option.

All of this is very well at a system level, yet the challenge now is for those who live and work in schools to develop ways of dealing with the complexities of education in the 21st century, in an internet age where information is no longer the teacher’s trump card. Managing the curriculum, and preparing for the future, then, is now not about information; it is about transformation. It is about developing new and innovative ways of transforming information into knowledge, skills and understanding, and this is a challenged faced by us all.

‘Curriculum’ matters

There are occasions in any field of endeavour when practitioners would be best advised to revisit the basic principles underpinning their work, and to consider the conceptual framework that, for some at least, structures their actions. Perhaps this is one.

For Bassey (1999), educa­tion is first about ‘the experience and nurture of personal and social development towards worthwhile living’, and second, about ‘the acquisition, development, trans­mis­sion, conservation, discovery and renewal of worthwhile culture’ (Bassey, 1999, p39). The meanings of ‘worthwhile living’ and ‘worthwhile culture’ are deliberately left open, but the definition provides an entry into the central issues of curriculum theory.

An alternative, possibly more accessible definition of curriculum is that it is:

a concept that refers to everything that happens in a school: what is taught and what is learned, what is included and what is left out. (Briggs and Sommefeldt, 2002, p35)

Complex stuff, made all the more so when we reflect that curricula, nationally and locally, appear to arise out of cultural, political and social contexts ‘as a way of preserving (or creating) the identity of differ­ent groups’. Yet at the same time, culture itself is rarely if ever in a fixed state ‘but dep­en­dent on the collective influences of all stake­holders’ (Briggs and Sommefeldt, 2002, p35).

It is essential that teachers and all involved in ‘curriculum management’ understand that curriculum may be seen to exist on four separate levels – see below.

Understanding curriculum: four levels

  • The rhetorical curriculum – what is stated in policies and statements of aims
  • The planned curriculum – found in schemes of work, syllabuses
  • The delivered curriculum – how it is taught in classrooms or via other media
  • The received curriculum – what is ultimately in the minds and some would say hearts of students

(Middlewood, 2001, p109)

Faced with this level of complexity, and against a backdrop of centralised top-down control of all aspects of the curriculum, including definition, delivery and assessment for the larger part of the past quarter-century, there has never been a more important time for curriculum managers to take a little time out, and to consider ways of doing things differently.

Pressures and positions

Most, and quite possibly all the decisions made in our management of the curriculum are coloured by a vast range of conflicts and tensions within ourselves and others. What we value and consider to be valid qual­i­fications, courses and approaches are not necessarily those that work most effectively with the learning styles and aspirations of our students. Effective curriculum managers take account of this, particularly when we are trying to bring about change.

For example, Burton et al (2001, p21) identify four continua of ‘pressures on the curriculum’ to which those responsible for the leadership and management of education are subject. These relate to the extent to which the curriculum is:

  • student centred/subject focused
  • process based/content driven
  • classroom led/state controlled
  • open ended/target driven.

Each of these has significant implications for leadership and management, and for pedagogy and practice.

To be able to prepare in advance, schools need to build capacity for curriculum change through helping practitioners to understand in detail what the options are. Misunderstan­dings brought about through surface-level awareness of how modes of assessment can work in practice, for example, can lead to dismissal of ideas before they even hit the ground. Resentment can grow through fear of the unknown. Creating networking opportunities between teachers with similar responsibilities and challenges can help reduce anxieties and give new programmes a chance to establish themselves. Regularly, routinely providing commentary for staff on curriculum developments at a national level, and declaring the school’s position, even if it is no more than ‘we will wait and see’ provides valuable intelligence for practiti­oners on what they are expected to do and to prepare for in the short and medium term. At individual subject level, making explicit a requirement that subject leaders research and are aware of the qualifications available from all providers, their strengths, weak­nesses, costs, and training implications, is essen­tial to remain competitive in an environ­ment where schools’ positions in local league tables fluctuate annually as a consequence of their curricular decisions.

Managing curriculum change

Returning to Briggs and Sommefeldt’s (2002) definition of curriculum as ‘every­thing that happens in a school: what is taught and what is learned, what is included and what is left out’, by ‘curriculum change’ I mean a change in educational practice. This might involve, for example, adopting or using new or revised curriculum materials or technologies. It might also involve attempts to bring about changes in peda­gogical practice, for example in teaching style or approach, and the use of different types of educational activities. Perhaps most significantly, it might be about attempting to alter colleagues’ underlying pedagogical assumptions and beliefs. We all have our own worldviews and subconsc­iously trans­late related theories about how the world works into our own actions. Cur­ric­ulum man­a­gers ignore the signifi­cance of this third and deepest form of change at their peril. Creating relationships and a wider school culture in which dialogue about lear­ning, teaching and curricular matters more widely is open and reflective is challen­ging, but is central to sustaining improvement.

Jellison (2006, p42) suggests that one of the central problems encountered in change management programmes is fairly simple, and fundamentally subjective:

Leaders focus on the future and all the benefits that are going to flow to them and the organisation. The rank and file locks into the present, focusing on the costs rather than the rewards of change.

This is hardly a new revelation. House (1974, p73) explains further:

The personal costs of trying new innova­tions are often high … and seldom is there any indication that innovations are worth the investment. Innovations are acts of faith. They require that one believe that they will ultimately bear fruit and be worth the personal investment, often without hope of immediate return.

For Fullan, ‘shared meaning’ is key to success, and change stands or falls ‘at the interface between individual and collective meaning and action in everyday situations’ (2007, p9). To be successful in leading cur­riculum change, he suggests that man­agers must embrace three apparently counter­intuitive findings – see the box below.

Managing change: key issues to bear in mind

  • Behaviours and emotions change before beliefs – we need to act in a new way before we are given insights and feelings related to new beliefs
  • The size and prettiness of the planning document are inversely related to the amount and quality of action, and in turn to student achievement (Reeves, 2006)
  • Shared vision or ownership (which is unquestionably necessary for success) is more of an outcome of a quality change process than it is a precondition for success

(Fullan, 2007, p41)

No curriculum change can be said to have been successful unless it has become part of the natural behaviour of teachers in a school. As Gray et al (1999, pp22-23) point out, ‘implementation by itself is not enough’. So managing curriculum change is about leading and managing cultural change, and this is the case irrespective of whether the change is at a whole-school, individual faculty, year team or any other level. Culture, in its simplest of terms, may well be described as ‘the way we do things around here’, no more and no less. In schools, what we ‘do’ is education, and our ‘product’, if anything, is the curriculum.

However, what makes schools distinct as organisations is that ‘in no other institutions are notions of hierarchy and equality, democracy and coercion forced to co-exist in the same close proximity’ (Ball, 1987, p15).

Within schools, there is a natural tendency for subgroups to attempt to maintain equili­brium, and to maximise their autonomy vis-à-vis the wider school. Over time, groups of individuals develop a set of shared assumptions, and generate their own sense of identity. As a result, to bring about change, managers need to create a motivation to change through ‘unfreezing’ an individual or group’s identity. So let’s look at how.

Managed culture change
Schein (2004) suggests that the way to ‘unfreeze’ the present is to show ‘discon­firming data’ to the group to force a coping process that goes beyond just rein­forcing the assumptions that are already in place. This might be, for example, poor exam results, or failure to effectively support particular groups of vulnerable students.

In this model, based on the psychodynamic theory of Lewin (1951), the data should be con­nected to specific goals and ideals, creating anxiety and/or guilt, and coupled with a means of reinforcing psycho­logical safety to the extent that the group is ‘able to see a possibility of solving the problem and learning something new without loss of identity or integrity’ (Schein, 2004, p321).

Consider, for example, a subject area where GCSE A* to C results, year on year, seem to fluctuate within a band of, say 5%. Nothing much changes, there are few indic­ations of trouble pastorally, and in the school there are bigger problems to be attended to. A critical incident then occurs. It could be inadv­er­tent or willful malpractice, identified by the exam board giving an indication that all is not well. It could be an Ofsted subject insp­ec­tion that challenges inter­nal percep­tions of how that subject area is really perf­orming. Either way, the prevalent view is no longer sustainable.

Curriculum man­a­gers must then decide how to bring about that change. Responses exist on a con­tinuum from sweeping it under the carpet, denial and hoping that the problem will go away by itself through to amplifying and rein­forcing the unpleasant truth as a shared but unavoidable issue that must be dealt with.

This initial stage is inherently coercive, and managers should remember that the effectiveness of coercive styles of leadership is relatively short lived. Once unfrozen, the role of the leader in Schein’s model is to maintain the same level of ‘survival anxiety’ within the group, but also to provide appropriate means for the individuals within it to decrease their ‘learning anxiety’ as they move towards the new ways of working. Coercion should be complemented with or replaced by another style or styles that are more appropriate to this new developmental phase; authoritative, perhaps, seeking to mobilise people towards a new vision of the future. It is also likely that some modelling will be required – pacesetting and remaining cautious of the capacity that affiliation and more democratic approaches have for falling victim to inertia and the attrition of change if applied too early.

For curricular change to succeed, curric­ulum managers need to ensure arrange­ments for staff continuing professional dev­el­op­ment (CPD) fit with curricular aims.

For Schein, once the group culture has arrived at a new desired state, leaders should ‘refreeze’ it, reinforcing the new group behaviour through presenting ‘confirming data’. In this example subject areas given above, practice has now improved. Standards have risen. All is well.

A flaw in this model when taken at face value is that teams are continu­ously building and rebuilding themselves in schools as some staff leave and others join, but it does offer an informed, structured approach that can have applications in some cases.

Deficit models
One alternative is to adopt Kotter’s (1996) approach to leading change. By avoiding eight common ‘errors’ listed in the box below, any one of which could derail a change initiative, curriculum managers might just bring about the changes they desire.

Common errors when managing change

  1. Allowing too much complacency
  2. Failing to create a sufficiently powerful guiding coalition
  3. Underestimating the power of vision
  4. Undercommunicating the vision by a factor of 10 (or 100 or 1,000)
  5. Permitting obstacles to block the vision
  6. Failing to create short term wins
  7. Declaring victory too soon
  8. Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture

(Kotter, 1996, pp4-16)

Avoidance of the first four may help ‘defrost a hardened status quo’ (Kotter, 1996, p21), analogous to Schein’s first phase; avoiding the next three should result in the suc­cessful introduction of new prac­tices (Schein’s second phase), and avoiding the last may ground these practices in a culture of change in the school (Schein’s third phase). In both models, successful imple­men­tation of change is not seen as an end in itself; the goal is ‘consolidating gains and producing more change’ (Kotter, 1996). The strength of Kotter’s approach in schools is that, if turned to positive, affirming state­ments, the checklist can be seen as a route­map on many levels that resonate with pedagogic principles in classrooms as well as in the school more widely.

Another option is to embrace the complexity of curriculum change head-on. Fullan, for example, is adamant that ‘there can never be a cookbook for change, nor a step-by-step process’ (2001, p44). In his view the most important thing curriculum leaders can do is to develop their own understanding of five ‘indep­endent but mutually reinforcing forces for positive change’ that he labels ‘moral purpose’, ‘understanding change’, ‘developing relationships’, ‘knowledge building’ and ‘coherence making’.

Kotter and Schein talk about ‘what’ to do, whereas Fullan gives some idea of ‘how’ to do it on a daily basis. In his view, these five, together with an abundance of ‘energy, enthusiasm and hope’, will bring about exter­nal and internal commitment in others, with the end result that, in any collaborative endeav­our, ‘more good things happen, fewer bad things happen’ (Fullan, 2001, p3). The sub­ject area in the example above became a problem, a ‘bad thing’ with, hopefully, a sug­ges­tion of how to turn it into ‘a good thing’. The question of how will always be a matter of personal preference and judgement, but all decisions about change man­age­ment strategy have to be viewed in the context of the wider environment, and the capacity of leaders to put such plans into practice.

Choosing change

I chose the three approaches above purely because I have seen and been part of each of them being purposefully and deliberately enacted in three different faculties in the same school simultaneously. All three faculties had very different cultures, very different starting points in terms of their effectiveness in delivering their ‘products’ (English, science and ICT), and three curricular leaders employing very different leadership strategies and styles to bring about their intended curriculum changes. Inasmuch as we can be certain about any causal link in a social setting, all three seem to have been effective to an extent. Some have taken a longer time to achieve effectiveness than others, some are more sustainable than others, but all three have made a difference to the quality of education afforded to the school’s pupils.

In all three cases, it seemed that the approach chose itself, being heavily depen­dent on the preferred style of the leader. The preferred style of each was resonant with the way they see the world and the questions they have of it. For one, the question was whether or not it can be known objectively and is subject to scientific experiment and proof (and if so, can that be applied to people and social settings reliably). For another, the question was more about whether all is sub­jec­tive and about making the simple things better, developing relation­ships and valuing whatever contribution members are capable of at the time (encour­aging and nurturing regardless). In the third case, the question was really whether or not change can be planned and managed, with the assumption that if you can manage the time and all the key variables, it is possible to bring about almost any desired curriculum change.

As such, while Fullan (2001, p33) com­ments that advice about the management of change can appear contradictory, and that much of it is ‘general and unclear about what to do’, I’m not so sure. Leadership and management (used here interchangeably), ‘curriculum’ and ‘change’ are all complex concepts, but there are ways forward. The tips in the box right, while regrettably still tinged with contradiction, are helpful here.

Regardless of personal style and world­view, understanding the nature of time is crucial. Grand plans and timelines have their place, but in any change process there will always be unforeseen and critical inci­dents. These are the opportunities to change the game entirely, to stack the odds slightly more in favour of success through bringing more people on board, developing relation­ships and increasing the chance of success.

To ask for help and support is professional behaviour; to fail to do so is irresponsible. No real change is brought about by any single individual; it is about networks, teams and giving others the chance to make a difference. Have the plan, but build the space for working with the people closest to the classroom.

Being prepared for the future

The future holds only one certainty – the pace of change will accelerate. As such, current conceptions of schooling will become outmoded, if they aren’t already. The future will be fuelled by technological advances and societal changes influenced by, if not borne of, those changes.

For those charged with ‘managing the curriculum’, decisions about what types of curriculum are essential or desirable may well become irrelevant. Despite the rhetoric about the England and Wales national curriculum being something to be proud of, to be embraced, supported and celebrated, there is little evidence of the teaching profession being invited to engage in ideological debate about its future direction.

Being prepared for the future in terms of curriculum management is more likely to be about environmental awareness, and managing relationships within and across schools, and with external service providers.

The nature of technological change means that, quite possibly, curriculum pro­viders will be unable to compete with the edu­ca­tional equivalent of open-source soft­ware. Academy freedoms mean that schools will increasingly go it alone, bringing in formal accreditation from a range of sources to fit their own needs. Vocational courses, particularly, operate in this user-defined domain already, with schools defining and designing their own qualifications. Perhaps the dominance of a small number of examination boards will also wane.

In any of these cases, it is possible to prepare for the future by learning about, understanding and experimenting with different strategies for working proactively with change, whether internally generated or externally imposed. Curriculum managers need to understand that their core business might best be described as:

a political process of cooperation, conflict and compromise, based on a tangled web of personal and professional beliefs and values about the nature of education. (Busher et al, 2000, pix)

As such, developing bridging skills and the ability to broker deals, to foster collegiality within and across teams and at the same time improve staff and student performances (Harris, 2000, pp82-83) is crucial.

However, there are some unspoken and potentially limiting factors at large in the realm of curriculum management. In exploring the professional identities of middle leaders, Busher’s (2005) conclusion that those identities are first and foremost about being classroom teachers and not managers has to be acknowledged if we are to better understand how decision making really works in schools. To get to the heart of the matter requires the premeditated seizure of all opportunities for building a collabora­tive learning culture, making arrangements for diverse forms of coaching and mentoring activity within and outside of the formal hierarchy of schools. It is about building relationships that are fit for purpose.

Managing the curriculum and being pre­­pared for the future is about under­standing and proactively engaging with the complex, inter-related connections that are continually being made, unmade and recon­figured within schools. It is about acknow­­l­edging and seeking out new and innovative ways of encour­aging staff, students and all other stake­holders to engage with one another to make decisions that appear to help ensure, as Fullan (2001, p3) put it, ‘more good things happen, fewer bad things happen’.

Curriculum change invariably invokes anxiety of some form, largely because learning new ways of working and doing involves learning how to cope with change. However, the process is a prime opportunity for building effective teams. Introduce a new syllabus, for example, change an exam board, and all those responsible for delivery now have a shared problem. Provide opportunities for appropriate training, ask people to take leading roles in supporting one another through the process, and you have a classic opportunity to build or improve the effectiveness of a team so that, having achieved a victory in one area of their work, they are then able to take on new challenges with confidence.

Learning, leadership and change are inextricably linked. Providing and seeking out opportunities for each wherever and whenever possible, in ourselves and others, is the essence of managing the curriculum and being prepared for the future.

Managing change: top tips

  • Don’t change for change’s sake. It’s fine to build a culture that embraces and thrives on change, but if there is no clear imperative for change, don’t. If there is such an imperative, think about it, consult with others about it, and understand it before acting.
  • Accept that the best ideas are not necessarily going to win the race. Acceptance and the embrace of others are far more important for success.
  • All change processes, in individuals, in sub-groups and in schools as wholes experience some form of trauma as they proceed through ‘the implementation dip’.
  • Often, although not always, the resisters have something valuable to contribute. Listen carefully and act judiciously.
  • Whatever you do, appreciate that this is about culture, about ‘the way we do things around here’. It operates within and beyond the confines of space and time that the employer-employee contract makes explicit.
  • Managing curriculum change is not about checklists; it is about understanding and working with complex­ity. Sometimes, despite the preceding five points, adopting a ‘ready, fire, aim’ approach can be the most appropriate. Context is everything, and strategies for managing curriculum change are rarely transferable. All the more important, then, to build capacity in your school to learn and act with spontaneity, autonomy and confidence.

Dave Allman, Deputy Headteacher, The John Warner School, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, and Associate Tutor, MSc in Educational Leadership, School of Education, University of Leicester