Tags: Classroom Teacher | Curriculum Manager | Director of Studies | Learning Mentor | Teaching & Learning Coordinator | Teaching and Learning

The second in a series of articles exploring the innovative ‘Opening Minds’ Curriculum at St John’s School in Marlborough.

Imagine being told by your Head Teacher that the school would be ‘throwing the Key Stage 3 National Curriculum out of the window’. Well, that was what the staff at St. John’s School were challenged with in the summer term of 2001. Further-more, the new curriculum was to be up and running by the beginning of the next academic year, yes, that’s what I said…

That gave us just about three months to effect a change that was to take the Key Stage curriculum by the scruff of its neck, shake it down and come up with a replacement that would be infinitely more appropriate for moving the education of our students into the 21st century. The thought of such a mammoth task being feasible, is enough to bring me out in a cold sweat even today!

However, who could resist the concept of shaking off the restrictions of the National Curriculum in an attempt to take the learning of our students into their own control? It would empower them to acquire knowledge through their love of learning rather than being spoon fed using the tried and tested process of didactic teaching. The idea of cramming concepts and information into young minds without any respect towards our ‘customers’; or even thinking that they might conceive of a better way to make the transition from Key Stage Two to Key Stage Three, seems now to be abhorrent within the new climate of learning at St. John’s.

The inspiration for such radical change came from the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce). Through the ‘Opening Minds’ project it was felt that in order to move education into the new millennium it was necessary to adopt a new slant to what was in essence, an old curriculum model, more suited to the 20th century than the demands of the 21st.

This would see a considerable change in the emphasis of what was taught, by whom, and with what outcomes. Needless to say, it is not a concept that has been welcomed with open arms by all. Those teachers who had been around a long time and remembered the freedom that could be found within classrooms before the advent of the National Curriculum, were able to embrace it with enthusiasm; as did those NQT’s for whom there was no sense of what to expect as they embarked on their teaching careers. The teachers who found it the hardest to cope have been those that have only ever worked within the constraints of the National Curriculum; to expect them to appreciate the freedom we were given by our Head Teacher in 2001 was asking a great deal!

What the RSA had done was to suggest that a school that only provided a curriculum based around knowledge acquired through subjects alone, was failing the child of our changing times. No longer today can anyone be guaranteed a ‘job for life’, in fact, it is expected that the world of work is changing so rapidly that the only thing that can successfully follow the individual through the various paths they may take would be a selection of competences to aid their development and progress, rather than the accumulation of knowledge that can be measured through academic success.

The call went out for volunteers to work on the preparation of a curriculum for Year Seven that was to be based on the competences identified by the RSA, these competences would be:

  • Managing Information
  • Managing Situations
  • Relating to People
  • Citizenship
  • Learning to Learn

Just over twenty teachers agreed to accept the challenge; they came from all subject areas and had they realised what the demands in that first year were going to be, would probably have gone running straight back to the familiar, rather than embarking on a journey that was to have so many highs and lows!

The aim to keep the teaching teams small was paramount to its success, as was the need to ensure subject coverage within each team. Working within small teams it was necessary to move ‘outside the box’ and teach in subject areas other than those one was familiar with. This, perhaps, as one can imagine, caused the greatest con-cern to those involved within the project, and, of course, to those Heads of Departments outside it, who watched sceptically to see how their ‘subject’ would fare. This concern was entirely understand-able as it would rest on their heads when later the Key Stage Three National Tests and GCSE examinations would be taken.

Any student starting at their new comprehensive school can expect to have to face every week at least twelve teachers, each with their own varying demands and standards. In this project, having a limited number of teachers demanded that individuals would be teaching in several different subject areas. A scientist for example taught mathematics and German whereas an English teacher could expect to deliver History, Geography, RE, Citizenship and ICT.

However, all these subjects were in fact secondary to the aim of the project; they were merely a vehicle to deliver the main thrust of the ‘Opening Minds’ concept; which was to embed the competences and so produce a firm foundation for learning that would not just be useful throughout the life of the pupil in school, but indeed, would be the backbone of that child’s development throughout life itself! If we could give the individual the key to a love of learning and then the skills they would need to adapt and change through the demands of their working life, we would indeed have succeeded in our aims. Life long learning was to be the keystone of our new innovative curriculum, the skills our students would acquire would allow them to face the new millennium equipped to face the challenges ahead.

The Birth of a New Curriculum

To be given the task of creating a new curriculum for Year Seven in less than three months was daunting to say the least! However, it was also exciting, stimulating and energising. It allowed colleagues a rare insight into each other’s curriculum areas and encouraged us in the sharing of ideas – everyone had an equal stake in this creation. After all, we had to ensure that in ‘cleaning up’ and tightening the curriculum we did not throw out the baby along with the bathwater!

The Module Approach

Working in six week modules gave us strength in several areas.

  • First, we were able to create an integrated timetable using the umbrella of a title that could be adapted for each subject area.
  • Secondly, a six week timescale was ‘do-able’, not quite so stomach churning as knowing you would need to prepare for a whole year within a very short timescale.
  • Thirdly, it certainly made teachers concentrate on what they thought was really important for them to deliver in their subject area within the year.

In taking time to refer to the subjects, it is important to remember that the key to this curriculum is not the knowledge content gathered through the subject but rather the skills they develop and the way students approach and cope with the challenges they face in the classroom.

The guiding principle behind the competence based curriculum is that it is all about process, not outcome; the journey is the key to its success, not the arrival. Interestingly enough, the demands of the Alternative Curriculum and the thrust of the Key Stage 3 strategy perfectly complement each other.

It soon became evident that some areas could afford to ‘lose’ control of parts of their curriculum, knowing that it would be picked up by others. In fact, so successful has the ‘pruning’ been that from next year we expect to deliver the Key Stage 3 requirements in two years. This will then free up Year Nine for students to embark on an accelerated start to their GCSE’s or else to follow an enriching and broadening programme ready to face Key Stage 4 with greater confidence.

There were three teams each working on a six week module, having produced that, each team went on to develop a second. Subjects were not to appear on the timetable; just the initials of the teacher. Interestingly enough, parents found that very hard to cope with as it was so alien to their own schooldays, therefore the push to discover who taught what, came more from the parents than the students. Throughout the year the students would have the opportunity to study both French and German. A huge task therefore was underway for the MFL Directorate to firstly, teach the languages in a specific module and then, their need to re-write their schemes of work to compliment what each module was focussing on. It was decided at the time that PE would stand outside the modules (though now they are a part of the curriculum and work in a six month cycle, again, using the competences as a baseline).

The Modules

‘Making the News’ ‘Going Places’ ‘You are Unique’ and ‘Higher, Faster, Stronger’ ‘Forests’ and ‘Counting the Cost’

In order to accommodate the year’s work it was necessary for the students to be taught on a ‘carousel’ model. That is, they would work through a six week module and then move on to the next teaching team. Once the first three modules had been covered they would then return to the first team and move through the second series of modules. This allowed staff to see progression from the students they had seen twelve weeks earlier. This has changed over the ensuing years. The two modules. this year have run back to back so that classes remained with their teaching team for three months. Next year the student will stay with the same teacher for the entire year in order to avoid moving around the many teaching teams that are now involved (nine in all who are divided into three bands delivering the modules). This will ensure continuity and can now be comfortably achieved as the materials for each of the modules has been ‘fine tuned’ in order to suit the needs of all subject areas.To facilitate this Directorates have developed a ‘core’ for their subject that must be delivered within each module.The teaching teams have then incorporated the required ‘core’ areas within the development of their six week scheme.

In taking time to refer to the subjects, it is important to remember that the key to this cirriculum is not the knowledge content gathered through the subject but rather the skills they develop and the way students approach and cope with the challenges they face in the classroom.

The guiding principle behind the competence based curriculum is that it is all about process, not outcome; the journey is the key to its success, not the arrival. Interestingly enough, the demands of the Alternative Cirriculum and the thrust of the Key Stage 3 strategy perfectly complement each other.

Therefore if there were a perfect time and place for looking at a new curriculum structure this would be it!

Our Alternative Curriculum expects students to be prepared to take the reins in aiding and extending their own learning. Teachers are not seen as the ‘experts’ and if questions need to be asked students are as likely to find the answers as a member of staff. The modules were designed so that every team member realised exactly what each other was delivering each lesson. Therefore its strength would depend upon the sup-port teachers would offer each other in the delivery of the module.

Each lesson over the six week period was seen as a step along the road of the student’s learning. The teacher was expected to guide the students along their learning pathway. At the end of each lesson all that changed was the torch bearer. There needed to be a smooth route planned from teacher to teacher without any recourse to note the subjects individually. If the students, because of their growing confidence as independent learners, felt the need to move a lesson away from the expected path, then that too would be acceptable; in fact, it was a delight to meander along a slightly different route as it then showed that the students did indeed have a stake in their own learning!

Of course there was a real need, if classes indeed did choose to move off the planned route, for the teaching team to be aware of any ‘diversions’. This was overcome by the use of ‘The Book’, it enabled every teacher to record what had happened in their lesson. It was carried by a named student who made sure that each one of us filled it in – or else! It is testament to the development of their personal confidence that they had no problem in making sure we complied!

So our curriculum was born!

It has indeed been a journey of blood sweat and tears! However, it’s something that I feel privileged to have had a small part in and as it struggles to its feet and starts to stride out into not only the 21st century, but also into Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5. I can look back to May 2001 and give thanks that I was in the right place at the right time… in a school that had the courage to try to improve the quality of the education of its students by devising a curriculum that would be skills led and not content based.

Now all we need to do is light the touch paper and retire… the rest lies with our empowered, enthusiastic students!

This article first appeared in Teaching Expertise, July 2004.

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