Curriculum matters: Part 2 – vision and purpose

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here

This is the second instalment in a 7-part series. Read part one here.

In the first part of this series, I explained that, when it publishes its new Common Inspection Framework (CIF) in 2019, Ofsted will shine a brighter light on school curriculums. This, I said, posed a problem because there is no agreed definition of what the curriculum is.

Whereas Ofsted believes it is “a framework for setting out the aims of the programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage”, a means of “translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an instructional context”, and a means of “evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations”, others promote a broader definition of the curriculum which comprises “everything children do, see, hear or feel in their setting, both planned and unplanned” (QCA, 2000).

The notion of an unplanned curriculum is important because pupils learn not solely through their experiences in the classroom, but also from other pupils, and through the accidental juxtaposition of a school’s stated values and its actual practice. As Sir John Dunford (2012) put it: “The school curriculum is not only the subjects on the timetable; it is the whole experience of education.”

The curriculum, therefore, can be found, not just in a policy statement, but in the subjects and qualifications, in the pedagogy and behaviours teachers and others use, in the space between lessons when pupils interact with each other, in approaches to managing behaviour, uniform, attendance and punctuality, in assemblies and extra-curricular activities, and in the pastoral care.

In part one, I defined what makes a curriculum “broad and balanced”. A broad curriculum is one in which there are enough subjects on the timetable – for all pupils – to cover all the experiences deemed important by society. A broad curriculum offers all pupils a wide range of subjects for as long as possible.

A balanced curriculum, meanwhile, is one in which each subject is not only taught to all pupils but is afforded enough time on the timetable. The danger is that some subjects, such as art, music and languages, are squeezed out by English, maths and science.

This week, I turn my attention to writing a curriculum vision. But first I think it worthwhile exploring recent inspection evidence because this might prove useful when considering what Ofsted regards as the strengths and weaknesses of the school curriculum and what, therefore, might be a focus of the 2019 CIF.

Evaluations of inspection reports show that Ofsted regards the following – which I have paraphrased – as strengths:

  • Leaders review the curriculum regularly and check the impact on outcomes for all pupils, then remodel it to help all pupils perform well.
  • Leaders are attuned to research findings, as well as reforms to national curriculum and qualifications, and use this to inform how their local curriculum is developed to improve outcomes and pupils’ personal development.
  • Careers guidance and information is integral to the curriculum and pupils’ progression. The curriculum helps pupils to experience and learn about their options for the future.
  • There is a recognition that challenge is for all, not just the most able pupils.

Conversely, Ofsted regards the following – again paraphrased – as weaknesses:

  • Coordination of numeracy and literacy across the curriculum is poor and, as such, pupils struggle to read and access learning.
  • Support from middle leaders to develop pedagogy is poor – notably in mixed ability classes in key stage 3.
  • Pupils in key stage 3 repeat work from primary school which leaves them bored and frustrated by the lack of challenge.
  • There is a lack of understanding and coherence in assessment, and a lack of oversight.
  • Expectations of pupils are low.
  • The timetable is fragmented and poorly planned, leading to a lack of coherence across the curriculum.
  • Leaders are slow to tackle issues as a result of teacher vacancies and lack innovation to sustain a good curriculum despite teacher shortages.

That, in broad terms, is what a broad and balanced curriculum looks like to Ofsted and how, therefore, they might inspect your curriculum from 2019.

A curriculum vision

Ofsted recommends that, in the run-up to the new CIF, schools should know their curriculum (the design and intent), know how their curriculum is being implemented, and know what impact their curriculum is having on children and young people’s knowledge and understanding.

Let’s begin, therefore, with design and intent – or what I call “curriculum vision”.

The process of curriculum design, I believe, should commence with a clear and shared vision articulating what the school thinks is important and what it regards as the purpose of education. This curriculum vision may be influenced by the school’s existing values, by “the way we do things around here”, and by what makes the school and its community unique.

The vision should also comprise a list of the broad and rich learning experiences each pupil in the school can expect in each subject as well as outside of lessons. The vision should make reference to the hidden curriculum and remember that pupils’ learning is not confined to the classroom – they also learn from each other and from the way in which all the adults in school behave.

I recommend you start the process with a vision because this vision will provide the benchmark against which all subsequent decisions about the curriculum content, structure, sequence, monitoring, evaluation and review can be tested.

Finnish education experts attribute much of their success to the driving force and guiding power of their curriculum vision, which is: to improve access to previously under-represented groups excluded or restrained by poverty, ethnicity, (and) gender, (and) to provide for broader meta-cognitive and interpersonal skills requiring deeper learning to meet the needs of an emerging knowledge society with more sophisticated labour requirements and built-in instability (Sahlberg, 2006).

Here are some questions to consider when drafting your vision:

  • What are the desired outcomes of our curriculum? Are academic outcomes – including high grades and value added – enough on their own? What of progress from individual starting points? What else do we desire for our pupils?
  • What will excellence look like? Will it always look this way? Will it be the same for all pupils?
  • What does social, moral, spiritual and cultural development mean for our pupils?
  • What does employability mean for our pupils? How can we support its development at all stages of education and beyond school?
  • What do we really believe about our pupils, their potential and their destiny? How does this translate in practice? How can we ensure high expectations – and high challenge – for all pupils, not just the higher performing, compliant ones?
  • What, ultimately, is the purpose of education at our school? Why?

It is, I think, the last question on the list that will influence your curriculum vision the most and yet it is perhaps the most difficult question of all…

The purpose of education

In a 2014 speech, Michael Gove – during his tenure as education secretary – set out what he regarded as the purpose of education: “I want every child to be able to go to a state school which excels, which nurtures their talents, which introduces them to the best that has been thought and written, which prepares them for the world of work and adult responsibility, which imbues them with the strength of character to withstand life’s adversities and treat other humans with courtesy and dignity, which gives them the chance to appreciate art and culture, to enjoy music and drama, to participate in sport and games, which nurtures intellectual curiosity and which provides a secure grounding in the practical skills the modern world requires.”

In practice, Mr Gove’s divisive, ill-thought-out policies prevented much of his vision from being realised and rather than afford pupils the opportunity to appreciate art and culture, and enjoy music and drama, the curriculum in many schools was narrowed to the academic suite of subjects contained in the English Baccalaureate. But his vision, albeit undetermined by his own actions, is a good place to start when considering the purpose of education in our schools: to introduce pupils to the best that has been thought and written.

With this last statement, Mr Gove was alluding to Matthew Arnold who, in Culture and Anarchy (1869), argued that “Culture … is a study of perfection (and) seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light.”

In the preface, Arnold argued that culture is the pursuit of “total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is a virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically”.

Arnold – and indeed Gove – was therefore arguing in favour of polymathy and a resurgence of the Renaissance Man – and I think we could do worse than shape our curriculum vision around this Renaissance ideal.

Renaissance of the Renaissance?

The Renaissance is the name given to a period of European history which provided a bridge between the Middle Ages and modern history. The intellectual foundations of the Renaissance lay in “humanism”, a concept that derived from Roman Humanitas and the rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy, such as that of Protagoras, who said: “Man is the measure of all things.”

This new way of thinking came to permeate the fields of architecture, art, literature, politics, and science. As a cultural movement, the Renaissance signalled a resurgence of learning based on classical sources, which contemporaries credited to Petrarch, as well as gradual but widespread educational reform.

The Renaissance began in Italy in the 14th century but had spread to the rest of Europe by the 16th century. During this time, Renaissance humanists studied classical Latin and Greek, and its authors began to use vernacular languages which – combined with the introduction of printing presses – allowed many more people access to books.

The term “Renaissance Man” was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century to describe great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance.

The Italian painter, Leonardo da Vinci – whose impressive array of interests included anatomy, architecture, art, botany, cartography, engineering, literature, maths, music, science, sculpting and writing – is often described as the archetypal Renaissance Man.

Da Vinci and other notable polymaths who lived during the period were called Renaissance Men because they had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. For example, a gentleman or courtier of the era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal.

The universal

The idea of a universal education was essential to becoming a polymath, hence the word “university” was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time, university students did not specialise in specific subjects as is the case today, but rather trained in science, philosophy and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could build their mastery of a specific field through subsequent apprenticeships.

Today, we use the term Renaissance Man – or “polymath” which comes from the Greek “having learned much” – to refer to a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas, and who is therefore able to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems.

If we are to provide a broad and balanced curriculum for our pupils, I believe we should return to this Renaissance ideal. Our curriculum vision should be to provide a broad and balanced curriculum which gives pupils a solid grounding from which, later, they can build their mastery in a specific field. In short, our curriculum vision should be to produce polymaths.

Having fixed on this aim, the big question is: how do we decide what core knowledge is included in our broad and balanced curriculum? And why, in this internet age, does it matter what knowledge pupils learn? Next time I will attempt to answer these questions.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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