4 steps to a top curriculum (for pupils, not Ofsted)

Curriculum is a hot topic, but it needs to be much, much more than a tick-box exercise for Ofsted, says Mark Enser
24th November 2019, 8:04am


4 steps to a top curriculum (for pupils, not Ofsted)

Ofsted Curriculum: Boy On Scooter With Rocket On Back

There is no quicker way to kill off a trend than for people in authority to jump on board. 

If we as teachers had been quicker to pick up fidget spinners or start running around the playground after Pokemon, I'm pretty sure they would have had the longevity of a mayfly. 

So it is with education and Ofsted.

Curriculum and Ofsted

A few years ago, I noticed there had been a real resurgence in interest in curriculum. More people were talking about how important curriculum planning was and that an obsession with how we teach had detracted from important conversations about what we teach. 

Writers like Christine Counsell, Michael Young and David Lambert were making the case for deeper thinking about the choices we make and curriculum was very on trend. 

And then Ofsted's new framework came along.

The inspectorate started to talk about their inspection focusing on curriculum intent, implementation and impact. They would want to know what was being taught, why it was being taught and why it was being taught at that point in time. 

Knock-on effects

Perhaps inevitably, this has led to school leaders expecting heads of departments to write "curriculum intent statements" for their schemes of work and this in turn, perhaps inevitably, has led to many already overworked middle leaders turning to social media to ask if anyone already has a curriculum intent statement they can just copy and paste. 

Suddenly, discussions around curriculum and intent have become about the need to do things for Ofsted. And this is a crying shame. 

I would argue that teachers should be spending time thinking about what they intend their curriculum to do and then checking to see if it achieves those aims. Not doing this has certainly led to issues within my own subject. 

Failed attempts

Geography is one of those subjects where it can appear from the outside that there are a lot of disparate topics with very little to connect them (why would urbanisation, coastal erosion and food security all be one subject?) This then leads to an idea that they can be taught in any order as each one stands alone.  

I have seen too many programmes of study where "map skills" are taught first in Year 7 simply because it is viewed as an important skill they will need to have, but where these skills are never used again throughout the key stage. 

I have seen tectonics being taught wherever the GCSE options process happens to fall so that they are doing something exciting at this point. 

I have seen topics like the geography of crime being saved for after the options process when some pupils will have decided to drop the subject as a way of keeping them engaged in the final term. 

A better way

This is not a good way to build a meaningful curriculum. 

I'd like to suggest a few key questions that we might like to consider when planning our curriculum to make sure we avoid a lucky dip of different topics, each standing alone and isolated from each other.

1. Where are you going?

The word "curriculum" derives from a Roman word for the route of a race. A curriculum takes our pupils on a journey and as with all journeys we need a destination in mind.

What is the overriding purpose of studying your subject in your school? 

This will shape your whole curriculum. 

If your purpose is to prepare pupils for employment, you will make very different decisions about what to teach them to achieve this aim. You might include more practical applications of the subject and examples of how it relates to the world of work. You might decide to try to develop different soft-skills such as team work. 

If your purpose is to create socially aware citizens then this will be reflected in the content with greater emphasis on topics linked to sustainability or social justice and more time spent for pupils to reflect on these issues and consider the actions they themselves might take. 

If, like me, you see the purpose of education as the passing on of the accumulated knowledge, culture and wisdom of previous generations to the next as their inheritance then you may spend more time considering what to pass on and what to leave out. 

2. What is the content of your curriculum?

The next step is to look at the purpose you have come up with and consider what you therefore need to teach them for this purpose to be realised. 

Which texts will you read? Which periods of history need to be studied? Which aspects of the world will you cover? 

This might also mean making difficult decisions about what to leave out. Time is limited but having a purpose in mind makes some of these decisions a little easier. 

3. What order should it be taught in? 

I have found this to be the key question in structuring our curriculum. If I want pupils to learn about the causes of floods, it would help if they have already studied rivers. 

To understand the work of rivers they need to have encountered processes like erosion. 

If we are going to look at the challenges of living in new urban areas and the pressures on green space, it would help if they had looked at floods. 

I now have a logical order for some of my topics. 

4. How can you weave topics together? 

To create a meaningful curriculum, I want my pupils to make connections between the different things they have been taught. I don't want a feeling that we have finished something so are just moving on. What they learn should be useful in what comes next. 

As such, I need to consider how we can refer back to what they have already learned as they move on to something new. This might mean starting a topic on rivers with a quick quiz on erosion and then using those terms throughout the lesson. 

I might remind pupils of their lesson on the causes of flooding before looking at why cities need to prioritise maintaining green space. Most importantly, I will expect them to refer to these past lessons in their work in future lessons. 

Curriculum intent should not be about writing statements ready to regurgitate to Ofsted. What it should be about is teachers seizing back control of what they teach and why they teach it. It should be about creating a map for the journey we are taking our pupils on.

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. His latest book Teach Like Nobody's Watching is out now. He tweets @EnserMark 


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