Ellie was a model student: polite, respectful and industrious. And yet she toiled and struggled to match her peers studying English literature A-level. Only with grinding and determined effort did she secure a place at university. The problem, put simply, was that she hadn't read enough literature. Her understanding was beset by gaps in her knowledge.
I have seen the same scenario play out in different ways across the curriculum. For example, many of our young scientists at key stage 5 (ages 16-18) lack a deep understanding of crucial scientific concepts such as the structure of the atom.
The problem is partly a lack of cultural currency. In a lot of families, you simply don't have the experiences - going to the theatre, reading books, taking educational holidays, talking about culture more generally - that would give you a foundation of the big ideas that underpin core subject areas. Although it's assumed that middle-class students tend to have more of this cultural currency in terms of literary, artistic and scientific knowledge, that isn't always the case: Ellie is from a middle-class background but she missed out.
The curriculum at KS3 (ages 11-14) should fill in the gaps but it doesn't. It is too full already and contorted to meet arbitrary progress measures. At our school, we decided that if we were to help Ellie and students like her, we needed to make changes. So what did we do? We began at KS5. And then planned backwards.
I realise that more planning may be the last thing you feel like doing. Curriculum change feels as ever-present as insipid coffee in a time-worn staffroom. And in England, teachers of every subject are awaiting freshly baked GCSE and A-level qualifications. Even more planning awaits.
Yet if we want to help students such as Ellie we must embrace curriculum planning. Fortunately, the new KS3 curriculum gives us the opportunity to do so: removing national curriculum levels and slimming down content descriptors has conferred a great deal of freedom on teachers.
We seized on that freedom. The starting point was asking one essential question: "What do we want an ideal scientist, mathematician or geographer to know, understand and do as they embark upon their future beyond our school gates?"
We took the answers and planned our way back to KS3, searching for a way of better embedding core knowledge lower down the school.
Take English, for example: if Ellie were a fresh-eyed 11-year-old in Year 7, what would she need to know, do and understand in English by the time she left school in order to be ready for university and more? She would need to have a sound knowledge of the chronology of great literature; she would need to understand the magic of metaphor; and she would need to comprehend and control the infinite complexities of the humble sentence.
From this point, we planned where we would address these "big ideas" and when we would revisit this crucial knowledge and repeatedly hone students' skills. The result: the etymology of English, Beowulf and Shakespeare in Year 7; Restoration comedy and revenge tragedy in Year 8; war poetry, Animal Farm and more in Year 9. In effect, the literary texts that we would traditionally teach students at A-level or GCSE were transported into a more challenging KS3.
Now you may walk into a Year 8 English lesson and hear a student just like Ellie talking about comedy conventions: for example, why poor ladies of fashion wore absurd wigs twice as long as their face, or how semi-colons were a vehicle for Restoration comedy.
The strategy has been just as successful in maths. "The issue we had in maths was that the vast majority of our A-level students didn't have the deeper understanding required to be successful," subject leader Matt Smith explains. "We made it our mission to ensure that the building blocks of key topics were moved into KS3, with a focus on deeper enquiry and a mastery of those challenging topics."
This planning approach was "a natural response to the new maths GCSE curriculum", he says, since topics such as equations of circles have been moved back from KS5 to KS4.
In science there have been gains, too. Here, students are going back to basics - subatomic basics to be precise.
"What is the one key concept we would want students in our subject to master in order to be successful chemists? The answer from the whole department was unanimous: the atom," reveals subject leader Penny Hall.
In KS3, the Dalton atomic model is now part of national curriculum requirements, but the science department has gone the whole hog and will teach subatomic particles and electron configuration in Year 7.
You may think all this is too much, too young, or that students would be turned off by difficult and "boring" texts far from their experience. I had similar fears myself. But all my reservations have been quickly disproved. Indeed, the schemes of learning have ensured that the "how" of teaching connects these challenging texts and big ideas with pupils' worlds, interests and knowledge. The sitcom Miranda stumbles comically and meets Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.
Nicola Goodwill, subject leader for English, adds that far from being weighted towards the brightest, this approach "gives all students, across the ability spectrum, the opportunity to study high-quality literature". But she adds that "its success relies on high-quality teaching and differentiation".
Repaid with interest
With these changes, not only are we properly preparing our students for further study and ensuring that the big ideas of subjects are embedded, but we are also creating a challenging curriculum for all. It also confers clear cultural advantages.
"We need to prepare students to have the wider knowledge and understanding of literature they need to succeed," Goodwill says. "By planning a curriculum based upon the breadth of the literary canon and its origins, it means that they should not only be better prepared for their future but, perhaps just as significantly, they are exposed to texts and a cultural enrichment they might not otherwise encounter."
Obviously it is early days and the success of the endeavour will not be evident for some time, but we are confident that this is a step in the right direction. Rather than falling prey to planning fatigue, we feel we have seized the opportunity for curriculum change. By doing so, we will be able to create a better curriculum for a generation of students who follow in Ellie's footsteps.
Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York
Read the TES guide to England's new English curriculum.
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