What are we fighting for?

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 116 | Autumn Term 2 2020

ASCL's newly appointed specialist Tom Middlehurst on the importance of the curriculum.

It’s a great honour to write my first Leader article and it has been a privilege to speak to many members over my first half-term in the role. Having been an English teacher and then working for the Schools, Students and Teachers network (SSAT), leading on its policy and public affairs, I have been immersed in curriculum policy for the last few years.

Since becoming head of policy in 2016, my work has been largely focused on curriculum. Back then, schools and colleges were still responding to the curriculum and assessment changes made by the coalition government, with reformed GCSEs being assessed for the first time that year, followed by the decoupled A level the summer after. The arrival of Ofsted’s new chief inspector the following January heralded a further focus on curriculum. Early on in her incumbency, Amanda Spielman made clear that for too long inspection had reflected a narrow set of historical performance measures and did not reflect the substance of education: the curriculum. Subsequently, Ofsted conducted a series of research projects into leaders’ and teachers’ understanding of the curriculum, and the role that Ofsted had within that. Its findings led to the development of the 2019 Education Inspection Framework and its emphasis on the quality of education, or rather, the curriculum.

Suddenly, the ‘C-word’ was on everyone’s lips; with Ofsted’s weight behind a growing grassroots conversation about what young people should be taught, not just how they should be taught it, curriculum was, rightly, put centre stage.

And then in March 2020, inspections were suspended, and another ‘C-word’ took precedence. So, with inspections still on hold and the date for their full resumption in doubt, does curriculum still matter in our new Covid world?

Yes. Arguably more than ever. Here are five reasons why.

1. Understanding what students know requires a robust curriculum

Different students have had different experiences over the lockdown, and since schools and colleges reopened fully in September. We know there is an imperative to find out what students know, understand and can do, given many of them have been in and out of school and college sporadically since March.

We can only do this effectively if we have a really robust curriculum. Teachers have got to be crystal clear about what they want and expect students to do in different subjects and different disciplines before they can assess these meaningfully. There is no point giving students a vague assessment task if it doesn’t elicit any evidence of what that individual student knows, and can therefore inform future teaching and curriculum design.

2. Composites and components matter

In previous editions of this publication, my predecessor Stephen Rollett discussed the importance of composites and components in the curriculum. The National Curriculum is defined by composites: the top-level skills and knowledge students have to have by the end of each key stage. However, the composite skills can only be taught effectively when they are broken down into components at a local level in the school curriculum.

For example, for music, the National Curriculum states that pupils should be able to “play and perform confidently in a range of solo and ensemble contexts using their voice, playing instruments musically, fluently and with accuracy and expression”. How this is achieved will be determined by the components of the curriculum: which instruments will be taught, and how and in what order. The decision on this will depend upon contextual needs and resources available.

More than ever, schools and colleges will need to break down their curricula into composites and components. It’s not enough to tell a child at home they need to “play an instrument fluently, accurately and with expression”: what do you actually want them to do? Thinking about composites and components in the current situation will only strengthen curricula in the future.

3. Remote learning considerations

All of these issues came to a head when we started to plan and deliver remote learning, a statutory requirement since 22 October. Most schools offered fantastic learning over the past year, but the new continuity direction placed an additional onus on schools.

When planning remote learning, free and existing materials from organisations such as Oak Academy, BBC Bitesize, GCSEPod and other publishers should be used intelligently. How do their resources and schemes of learning reflect your school’s curriculum intent and ambitions? Yet again, you cannot audit the quality of these resources in isolation; they are only of value in the context of your own school curriculum.

4. Issues that matter

Many ASCL members have asked us how they should respond to issues that have re-emerged or gained prominence since March. The killing of George Floyd in the US, and the subsequent marches and debates about the degree to which the lives of people who experience racism are reflected in our curriculum and national narrative, need to be addressed. Schools and colleges will need to respond sensitively to these issues, as well as other issues of diversity and culture.

Is your curriculum a truly inclusive curriculum? What is the overarching narrative it tells? These are big questions that you may want to consider.

5. What are we fighting for?

You have worked tirelessly over the past term to welcome students back in a safe and responsible way. You have battled with government regulations, a lack of testing, staff and student absences, parental expectations and changing guidelines. Many of you have set aside your own welfare, giving up valuable time to yourselves and your friends and families, in order to support the communities you serve.

If we abandon the curriculum now, the entitlement that all young people have to learn the best that has been thought, said and invented, then what has it all been for? We need to keep the curriculum at the heart of our thinking, and retain its breadth, balance and beauty.

In a possibly apocryphal tale, during the war, a junior minister proposed slashing the arts budget to pay for war materials. Supposedly, Churchill looked at him for a long, painstaking moment and replied, “Then what we are fighting for?”

ASCL’s belief in reopening schools and colleges, and helping them stay open, is not as a childminding service for parents, nor because we want to keep young people off the streets. It’s because we believe that all young people deserve access to a full and enriching curriculum, as a matter of social justice. That’s what you’re fighting for everyday – and we’re with you all the way.

We believe that all young people deserve access to a full and enriching curriculum, as a matter of social justice. That’s what you’re fighting for everyday – and we’re with you all the way.

Guidance on remote learning

Tom’s latest guidance paper brings together shared practice on remote learning, informed by the experience and expertise of ASCL members, the DfE’s guidance and the latest research. A checklist at the end of the paper summarises actions and ideas for school leaders to adopt and adapt for their setting. Download the guidance here: www.ascl.org.uk/guidance-remote-learning

Tom Middlehurst
ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist

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