Make a splash with streamlined learning

10th April 2015 at 01:00
Focusing on the core skills of literacy and numeracy doesn't have to mean a narrow curriculum - and the inspectors agree

"But you only teach numeracy and literacy at your school." I first heard this when my school, situated in a very deprived area on the South Coast, managed to secure an outstanding rating from Ofsted in 2010. Unfortunately, I've heard it many times since as people try to fathom our success. No celebrations, no pats on the back for the achievement, just an accusation. I take it as an insult every single time.

As an experienced professional, I view the idea of a narrow curriculum with disdain and fear. Yet I have to face reality: without the appropriate academic skills, our children's futures will inevitably be stunted.

The brutal truth - away from the league tables, data sheets and inspections - is that our children need to succeed, and for that they need the very best numeracy and literacy skills. Can we achieve this without compromising our principles? I think so. We may have to slim down the curriculum, but this doesn't have to mean students sitting in rows, reciting spelling charts and times tables. We did it differently.

The heart of all learning

The process began ahead of the 2010 Ofsted inspection. We knew that any changes would have to be well-planned, so we set about reviewing the school's strengths and weaknesses. It quickly became evident that the biggest change we needed - of many - was a new curriculum. We had to do far less, far better, building secure foundations that enabled pupils to succeed.

This meant stripping back the content to focus on what would really make a difference: the core skills of literacy and numeracy. However, that did not mean just teaching English and maths. Instead, it meant that English and maths became the core of all learning - students would, for example, write reports in science or use number skills in geography.

All staff had to be on board to weave these skills strategically through their subjects. It was a very creative process: how could we embed literacy and numeracy into everything we did? We pulled together and came up with ideas that we then implemented as a staff body.

It was particularly important to get our pupils reading more. This did not mean shoving books under students' noses and starting the stopwatch, but facilitating reading for pleasure. We did this by bringing it into topics where teachers would not typically use structured reading exercises and where students had a passion for the subject.

Results improved dramatically and - just like the teachers - the children still had smiles on their faces. Lessons were wellplanned, met pupils' needs and, above all, were exciting and fun. Teachers knew what was required of them and understood the progress all children were expected to make. In fact, we called our curriculum a "progression of skills".

Positive progress

Three years after the 2010 inspection, the Ofsted team turned up again. In that time we had refined our curriculum even further. We genuinely believed that we had achieved the "broad and balanced" curriculum required of us, while instilling the numeracy and literacy skills needed to improve results: for the previous two years, all children had achieved level 4 in reading and maths and more than 50 per cent had reached level 5 in both areas.

Ofsted agreed with us. The inspectors' report says: "There is a very strong focus on creating imaginative activities, providing opportunities to investigate and solve problems.[and] a strong focus on getting the learning right in every lesson."

This hasn't stopped the accusations. Other schools see the Sats headlines or hear the rumours and brand us as a school that does nothing other than literacy and numeracy. But now I have the Ofsted document to prove that this is incorrect, to show that we do meet the requirements for a broad curriculum and that we also give our students what they vitally need: core skills.

I hope this serves as a lesson to others: you can be an outstanding school with a focused approach. Too many teachers are given the national curriculum documents by leadership teams and then left to flounder. These teachers struggle to make the curriculum as broad as possible for their students.

Of course, children learn best when teachers excite them in all subjects and inspire them to generate their own excitement. To enable this to happen, though, you do not need to sacrifice core skills. The national curriculum has always been a guide, not a straitjacket. Explore broader themes through literacy and numeracy, not instead of them. Put the child at the centre of everything you do. That means giving them what they need: the skills to succeed.

George Shipp is a headteacher at a primary school in the South of England

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