'Despite the avalanche of change, it is still possible for schools to develop a curriculum fit for the 21st century'

When we look at curriculum development, we need positive and collaborative thinking from school leaders, writes one veteran educationist

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When asked what was most likely to blow a politician off course, Harold Macmillan is reported to have replied: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’

Many other politicians will have had the same thought, with their planned policies put on the back burner as they deal with current priorities not of their making. Few politicians can dictate the actions and policies which form their most memorable legacies: Anthony Eden and Suez; Margaret Thatcher and the poll tax; Tony Blair and Iraq; David Cameron and the Brexit vote.

School leaders will be feeling buffeted by events at the present time with funding issues, a ridiculous amount of curriculum and examinations reform, and staff recruitment taking a great deal more of their time than they would wish. Crisis management is part of the unwritten job description of leaders in every sphere of work and the way in which they deal with these high-priority situations helps to define their leadership.

It takes a lot of determination and positive thinking not to be diverted from the core purpose of the school – high quality teaching and learning – while all around you is changing and creating multiple, and sometimes, conflicting, pressures.

Values are at the heart of successful school leadership and help enormously to keep a school on track while the winds of change are threatening to blow the school off its chosen course. Articulating those values on a daily basis provides a bulwark against the power of Macmillan’s ‘events’.

Working in partnership with like-minded schools, which share core values and educational beliefs, is a great way to keep hold of the educational policy agenda in one’s own school.

Yes, schools must prepare pupils well for external tests and examinations, and change their approach when the nature of the assessments change, but the fundamentals of good teaching, learning and assessment remain in place in good schools, whatever new (or recycled) policies emerge from the government or its agencies.

And good schools maintain a strong sense of direction, even at times of great change like the present, working with other schools to develop and implement the changes that they have chosen, not just the ones that are imposed upon them.    

More than just a coherent curriculum

Whole Education, whose annual conference takes place in London on 26 and 27 January is one such group of school leaders and teachers and the theme of the conference is Growing great schools: overcoming challenges to achieve more with less. It is much easier to do this as part of a like-minded group than to be isolated as a single school going its own way.

Writing in the TES on 13 January, Tim Brighouse described school leaders that are developing a ‘whole education’ entitlement for all their pupils as idealists ‘united in their common resolve to do “more than the basics” and share ideas on curriculum, timetable and school organisational practices that enable that to happen’. It is this determination not to be constrained by the national curriculum or examination syllabuses that characterises Whole Education network schools. Held together by common beliefs, they are pursuing different ways of providing a fully rounded education that all young people need and deserve.

Whole Education schools take a broad view of the school curriculum, defining it not as what happens in lessons but as the whole school experience. They recall what Tony Little, the former headmaster of Eton, said – that there are two ‘fundamental truths’ to school life: that young people learn as much outside the classroom as in it, and that they learn more from each other than from adults.

A ‘whole education’ provides opportunities for this kind of learning. It plans the development of skills and personal qualities, as well as knowledge, as part of a coherent curriculum. It aims to make all learners life-ready, work-ready and ready for further learning.

As Sir Michael Barber wrote in 2012 in Oceans of innovation, considering education in Pacific and western countries:

It is clear that education – deeper, broader and more universal – has a significant part to play in enabling humanity to succeed in the next half-century. We need to ensure that students everywhere leave school ready to continue to learn and adapt, ready to take responsibility for their own future learning, ready to innovate with and for others, and to live in turbulent, diverse cities.

This is a ‘whole education’ in an international context.

John Cridland, the former director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, argued at a previous Whole Education annual conference for a greater emphasis on ‘other factors that make a school system successful … that extends beyond the merely academic.’ This is a clear reflection of the way in which employers look beyond paper qualifications for what they seek in recruits to their workforce.

In spite of the pressures on the curriculum from the government and its agencies, it is still possible for outward-looking schools to develop a curriculum that best prepares their learners for life in the 21st century. It requires: a recognition that the school curriculum encompasses the whole school experience, not just what happens in lessons; an analytical approach to the needs of the students; an innovative climate in the school; the planned development of skills and personal attributes alongside knowledge; and a continuing search for the evidence of good practice elsewhere.

School leaders, acting collectively, have more power than they sometimes realise. In planning a school curriculum, leaders will need courage and a spirit of collaboration in order to fulfil the needs of every young person. The Whole Education annual conference opens up ideas on ways of doing this and provides the confidence that it is not only possible but achievable.

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion. His book, The School Leadership Journey (http://www.johncattbookshop.com/the-school-leadership-journey), was published in November 2016. He tweets as @johndunford

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