When headteacher Nigel Helliwell decided to introduce engineering into his school’s curriculum, for pupils as young as 7, there was one overriding question: who would teach it?
“I advertised for an engineering teacher,” said Mr Helliwell, who leads St Faith’s prep school in Cambridge. “The advert was very carefully put together because we realised that people would think, ‘What’s going on? There’s no such thing as an engineering teacher’.”
It was a tricky problem, but only one aspect of the difficulties that independent and state school leaders can face when introducing curriculum change. And with flexibility about what to teach now available to the evergrowing numbers of academies, and more curriculum change coming from government, these are difficulties that more and more heads will have to wrestle with.
It ended well for Mr Helliwell. He appointed Susan Passmore, a secondary science teacher who had a degree in engineering. Since September, she has been teaching engineering to pupils aged 10 to 13 and supporting class teachers, who teach the subject to children aged 7 to 9.
Faced with this unique situation, St Faith’s decided that the key quality in a candidate was a passion for engineering and, if necessary, initial teacher training would have been provided. The post was advertised in education and engineering magazines.
Suzanne O’Farrell, the curriculum and assessment specialist for the Association of School and College Leaders, said that ministers’ decision to make the English Baccalaureate (EBac) compulsory for most pupils will mean all secondary schools having to rethink their curriculum and staffing in a similarly radical way. The government wants 90 per cent of students who began secondary school in September 2015 to take the EBac – ie, GCSEs in English, maths, history or geography, science and a language – in 2020.
“The EBac proposals will mostly determine the curriculum for a large number of schools,” said Ms O’Farrell. “The biggest problem for EBac is recruiting language teachers. Schools need thousands of modern language teachers.”
Primaries faced this very difficulty in 2002, when the government proposed introducing languages to the key stage 2 curriculum.
At that time only about a quarter of primary schools taught a language. The Labour government poured money into training, creating resources, a national assessment framework and research and evaluation of the project as it progressed. But it was headteachers who had to manage the project in their schools.
Tony Draper, president of the headteachers’ union the NAHT and head of Water Hall Primary School in Milton Keynes, said: “We spoke to the leadership team in our secondary school about employing language teachers who could start teaching Spanish in primary and take it through to secondary so it would impact positively on the results at the end of key stage 4 as well.
“The Spanish teacher trained up our staff as well, which was just as well because she left and the secondary didn’t replace her. But it enabled us to grow our own.”
Staff training – whether retraining teachers in another subject, or training outside experts as teachers – is perhaps the major consideration when planning curriculum change. But there are others, including planning pupil progression, and assessment.
“Schools always have to think about where [a particular course] will lead to, the benefit that the student will have from learning this,” said Ms O’Farrell.
And at St Faith’s there was another question to consider: why do it?
Mr Helliwell said that the introduction of engineering was inspired by the success of an after-school club in which students built and raced kit cars provided by the Greenpower Education Trust, an engineering charity. “It is a very creative subject,” said Mr Helliwell. “It is timed to fit in with the science and maths curriculum so that children apply the knowledge they have learned.
“We took advice from the University of Cambridge’s engineering department and the Royal Academy of Engineering and wrote schemes of work for children aged 7 to 13. For example, 12-year-olds would build model houses designed to be flood resistant.
“The children work in project teams for one hour a week and they are given an open-ended task. Instead of a teacher saying, ‘I’d like you to do this’, the teacher gives them a problem and the children come up with their own ideas. We assess the success of the design and also how well they work in a team.
“We want to spur children on to do engineering and be inspired by it. But even if they don’t go on to be engineers, creativity and teamwork is highly relevant for many jobs.”
As well as the work going on inside school, Mr Helliwell said that he would advise all heads to take external relations seriously.
“I spent a lot of time on the letter I wrote to parents,” he said. “I briefed parents a year ago and explained what we were doing and why. We had a 100 per cent positive response rate. That is what pressed the green button. It is important to lay that groundwork.”
Handling curriculum change
Nine questions for leaders to ask when introducing a curriculum change:
1 How will you give the staff leading this change the capacity to concentrate on it?
2 How much curriculum time will it take up?
3 What will be reduced or incorporated to make way and will the day be lengthened?
4 Who will teach the lessons and will they need training?
5 How and when will you consult the affected staff and the students’ parents?
6 Are there bodies that can help to ensure that resources and training are high quality?
7 How will students’ achievements in this area fit into their next stage of school?
8 Are there recognised qualifications that need to be incorporated?
9 How will you assess the students’ progress?
Nine questions to ask when introducing a curriculum change:
1. How will you give the staff leading this change the capacity to concentrate on it?
2. How much curriculum time will it take up?
3. What will be reduced or incorporated to make way? Will the school day be lengthened?
4. Who will teach the lessons? Will they need training?
5. How and when will you consult affected staff and parents?
6. Are there recognised bodies which can help ensure that resources and training are of a high quality?
7. How will students’ achievements in this area fit into their next stage of school?
8. Are there recognised qualifications which need to be incorporated?
9. How will you assess students’ progress?