When my school first became an academy, we took the chance to make some dramatic changes to our curriculum. The biggest of these was completely scrapping subjects in Year 7 and replacing them with a project-based learning curriculum called the learner’s baccalaureate (LBacc).
Avid Tes readers may recall an article I wrote a couple of years ago, outlining the new curriculum and our reasons for introducing it (Tes, 4 September 2015). When I was first commissioned to write the piece, I promised to report back on our progress in two years’ time. Let it not be said that I am a man who goes back on his promises.
Our LBacc is now in its fifth year and is going from strength to strength, despite the numerous changes to the curriculum that have been imposed by the DfE since we first introduced the model. So, how have we kept the momentum going, now that the initial excitement has died down – and in the face of so many externally imposed changes?
1. It’s all about the teachers
Really, it’s all about the children. But the education a child receives ultimately depends on the teachers standing in front of them; whichever systems a school puts in place will be subverted by those teachers in many creative ways. The success of your initiative relies on ensuring teachers take ownership of, and believe in, whichever changes you make. This requires two things that are in short supply in many schools: time and trust.
Although it was expensive, we devoted a whole day to training all 18 LBacc teachers. We reiterated the reasons for the change, and shared solid academic evidence and pupil data from previous cohorts. We encouraged free and open debate, so that teachers felt safe to challenge our thinking.
2. Let go of the controls
Our LBacc is based around six “challenges” that students undertake during the year. This year, the challenges included “Who is the real monster: Frankenstein or his creation?” and “How will we successfully communicate with the aliens when they arrive?”
Each challenge is designed and delivered by a team of three teachers from different departments. We give these teachers a huge amount of freedom, encouraging them to build on their passions, rather than focus on what they feel they must cover.
Clearly, I have my vision of what the curriculum should look like and the megalomaniac in me finds it very difficult to let go of that. But giving my colleagues this sort of freedom has allowed them to come up with ideas that I would never have dreamed of.
Beware: for some teachers, being told to “teach pupils what you are passionate about” can be overwhelming, and can lead to fear. These members of staff need clear scaffolding. I have plans that can be put in place as a last resort. Usually, though, once the doubters start working with colleagues and get used to the freedom, they too become more creative.
3. Accept when you are wrong
When you give staff the freedom to teach to their passions and they begin to come up with ideas that run contrary to your initial intentions, you will also discover that many initiatives that looked faultless in a leadership team meeting melt into disaster when faced with real classroom situations.
Even some of your “non-negotiables” may need to be negotiated.
Since launching our LBacc, we have had to review the assessment system, the grading system, the reporting system, the way that teachers are expected to deliver the curriculum and practically all of the curriculum content. These changes have been made on the back of listening to feedback from parents, pupils and, most importantly, teachers. Although I was initially loathe to give any ground, I can see with the benefit of hindsight that the curriculum is now far better because of those changes.
4. Share the love with other schools
When you are launching an innovative project, validation from peers outside of your school is crucial to ensure that the professional community gets behind you. We used links with organisers of local and national conferences to run workshops and communicate our approach to others.
Sharing your initiatives with your peers forces you to reconsider and reconfirm the validity of what you are trying to achieve, as well as how you are trying to achieve it.
It will also lead to other schools wanting to explore your initiative further.
Representatives from several other schools have visited us to find out about what we are doing in more depth. One school, having read about our approach in Tes, decided to implement its own project-based learning curriculum, and invited me and a colleague to lead their training. This experience was invaluable and we were able to steal many an idea from their staff as well.
5. Reboot every now and again
Remember that any initiative will eventually become tangled up with other school systems and agendas. People may lose sight of why you started doing things this way in the first place and the goals might become blurred. This means a periodical rebooting will be essential to making the reasoning behind the initiative explicit, and to get rid of any faults in the system. For example, as we launched our LBacc for the fifth year, we changed all but one of the challenges, which meant that new resources needed to be created and fresh ideas developed. We also slashed the number of assessed skills from seven to four, and have changed the way that we report on them to make assessment more consistent and rigorous.
The LBacc is now a beloved feature of our school. It has been embraced by staff, parents, pupils and governors. By keeping it fresh, we have managed to maintain a curriculum that fills pupils with a love of learning, even when the government is pushing a content-driven, reactionary education agenda. Sustaining a new initiative so that it becomes firmly embedded in school culture is certainly not easy, especially in the current climate. But fortunately, I didn’t go into education because I thought it was going to be easy.
John Stanier is assistant headteacher at Great Torrington School in Devon