The tricky task of getting MAT campuses to develop a common curriculum

Leaders of multi-academy trusts can find it tricky to align assessment practices and develop a common curriculum. For Sue Aspinall, the key was to create a collaborative approach and foster a sense of shared ownership across her MAT’s three campuses
5th April 2019, 12:03am
How Mat's Can Develop A Common Curriculum

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The tricky task of getting MAT campuses to develop a common curriculum

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archived/tricky-task-getting-mat-campuses-develop-common-curriculum

The task was a tricky one: could I align the curriculum and assessment of the three primary campuses within the British School of the Netherlands (BSN), one being the campus I lead as headteacher? I was sure it would not be easy, but I accepted. And I believe what happened next provides an interesting case study for those doing the same within multi-academy trusts or other groups of schools around the world.

The question was asked of me because evidence was showing that there were significant variations between the curriculum content being taught on the three primary campuses. Individual campus autonomy had, in fact, led to a divergence in learning opportunities for the respective students.

So, what did I do? Intent on leading this as a collaborative process owned by staff at all levels across the three campuses, I began by working with the headteachers and deputy heads to agree a set of curriculum design principles and a roadmap for its creation.

I then shared this vision with the staff of each campus, reassuring them that my role would be to steer the direction of the work of the subject leaders representing each campus.

I promised to build in feedback loops and review processes along the way to check in with how the implementation phases were working for them and their students. One-hour meetings for each cross-school subject leader’s team were scheduled and planned well in advance for the whole academic year. On average, these amounted to one per term, but more were added if needed.

At these meetings, I would sit with the teams and, slowly, we unpicked what was in place on each campus and the direction we needed to take to align our curriculum planning and assessment practices. Key to this being productive was that I invested time in building good working relationships and a level of trust within each team. As such, I got honest answers and better solutions.

Working in different ways

What we found was that each team worked in a very different way and varied significantly in its collective knowledge and understanding of curriculum and assessment. These teams were already used to speaking to each other; in many cases, they were well established and had been meeting for several years, focusing on sharing practice and arranging successful day events to profile the subject area. But curriculum and assessment had not been a focus.

By recalibrating their work towards curriculum planning and assessment processes, I was able to bring more rigor and accountability to their collective efficacy and, hence, more impact on student outcomes.

I provided a structure for the meetings, ensuring each one had a clear purpose and a measurable outcome. This helped to build momentum, empower the subject leaders with the necessary skills and knowledge, and made sure that agreed changes were implemented on each campus. I was able to support this process by creating feedback loops to senior leadership teams. I learned to sense what was needed and fine-tune the level of support and encouragement I provided, depending on what was required by each individual subject leader and team.

And yet, six months into the process, I found the pace of change was slow. Thankfully, I came across some research by Brundrett and Duncan (2011) that suggested this was normal.

It also indicated that the time spent learning about the contexts of each campus, the capabilities, needs and interests of the students and the strengths and expertise of each subject leader was more likely to lead to sustainable change. Perhaps, then, the pace of change was a positive?

Certainly, the teams and I found we had time to begin to use the meetings to share ideas, expertise and new approaches between campuses while also identifying strategic issues that were impeding our alignment; for example, differences in understanding of school improvement models, distributed leadership structures and support systems for subject leaders.

As a leader, this process required me to remain inquisitive and open minded, which enabled me to see things in new ways, allow new insights to emerge and question some of the BSN’s current practices.

We are now one year into the process. All three campuses now use the same English writing, mathematics, science, PSHE and computing studies objectives when compiling their long-term plans.

We are still working on the English reading and oracy objectives and have yet to embark on the foundation subjects. It has not always been easy, but it has been possible, mainly because of how we have approached it.

The greater good

Trusting the subject leaders, facilitating not dictating and purposeful discussions with successful actions have galvanised momentum. There is a sense of being in this together for the greater good of the BSN.

My three most important pieces of advice for leaders working across campuses who are intent on building consistency would be:

Spend time doing the research before embarking on a project. I found it helpful to refer to curriculum innovation research and examples from other schools when engaging staff in the project. By referencing these works and personal experiences I have had, I was able to help staff visualise how ours might look and how it would support their day-to-day planning. I also gave our project a name, the BSN Curriculum Framework, and used this term consistently in all communication.

Get the subject meetings right. I ensured that the subject leaders had clear actions to take between meetings so that they were immediately involved in owning the implementation of the process. As they were required to feed back on these actions at the next meeting, there was a built-in accountability system and a transparent process for monitoring the consistency of their work. We were able to share successes and address challenges on a regular basis. This provided a forum for supporting the subject leaders to develop their leadership competencies while also monitoring the consistency of the implementation.

Keep leadership teams regularly informed. I have found it essential to get leaders together on a regular basis to ensure that everyone remains on the same page, that all are aware of any decisions and developments that have taken place, and all have an opportunity to clarify and comment on the evolving progress of the work. I have learned not to rely on the individual subject leaders to do this feedback, but to chair these meetings myself, to model consistency and reiterate the rationale behind our project’s work.

Sue Aspinall is headteacher of the Junior School Vlsakamp, at the British School in the Netherlands

This article originally appeared in the 5 April 2019 issue under the headline “Singing from the same hymn sheet”

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