Curriculum design: Curriculum is king

The curriculum is king

[An edited version of Chapter 3 of School & College Curriculum Design 1: Intent, now available in paperback]

The curriculum is in the ascendency – in part because of its centrality to the new Ofsted inspection framework – and this is a step in the right direction because, for too long, assessment, rather than the curriculum, has held the sceptre in education…

Outcomes have been paramount – not just to Ofsted inspections but to the way the Department for Education has measured educational effectiveness and indeed how they have judged individual schools (including in performance tables) and also to the way in which many schools and colleges have been run.

Outcomes data (test and exam results, qualification pass rates and achievements, retention, value added scores and high-grade achievements) have been the primary means by which school and college effectiveness has been judged. Outcomes have often been a focus for senior leaders, too; underpinning teachers’ performance management, and driving teaching and interventions.

The means of assessment have also trumped the meaningfulness of assessment – for example, national curriculum levels became the primary method of describing pupil learning and progress in primary schools and at key stage 3, and yet describing a pupil as a ‘5a’ or ‘4b’ in, say, English, cannot possibly do justice to a pupil’s grasp of complex curriculum content nor does an arbitrary level provide any useful information for pupils and their parents/carers about what a child can and cannot yet do and what that child does and does not yet know.

The real substance of education

HMCI Amanda Spielman has said that, with her inspection framework, she wants to stop teaching to the test and focus on the real substance of education. Put another way, she wants to shift the emphasis from qualifications outcomes – though still important – and onto the curriculum.

In this brave new world, assessment becomes – quite rightly – the servant and not the master of our education system.

I personally hope that, in light of this, schools not only spend time on developing their curriculum provision, re-professionalising teachers and middle leaders as subject specialists crafting ambitious and exciting curricula that reflect the nature of their subject disciplines as well as their school’s and college’s local context, but that this also allows the curriculum to dictate the means of assessment, and not vice versa.

In other words, our methods and means of assessment should be driven by the curriculum and therefore inform us if pupils are making progress through that curriculum, rather than be based on dubious, arbitrary numbers or letters.

When the national curriculum levels were scrapped, schools had the opportunity to design an assessment system that was meaningful and yet many schools replaced levels with levels-in-all-but-name. For example, some schools started using GCSE grades from Year 7 and yet not only was this demotivating to pupils (because they started on, say, a grade 2), it was – if you really think about it – a bit of a nonsense because GCSE grades are designed to assess pupils’ achievements at GCSE not in key stage 3. In short, if you use grades 1-9 to assess pupils in Year 7 then you’re in danger of using a car to cross the Atlantic or an ocean liner to navigate the M25.

If curriculum dictates assessment, however, it will tell you who has and who has not yet mastered certain aspects of that curriculum. For example, who does and does not know certain key concepts – or ‘end points’ to use the Ofsted parlance.

In fact, once you’ve identified the ‘end points’ of your curriculum, these can be converted into curriculum statements or learning intentions which provide a ready-made means of assessment.

For example, if one such end-point of the English Language curriculum is that pupils have mastered the concepts of, say, explicit and implicit meanings (and therefore inference), then we could devise a set of curriculum statements – or checkpoints – through which they each must travel.

For example, they might first be taught to define the words ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit’, then be taught how to identify both explicit and implicit meanings in a non-fiction text. Next, they might be taught to explain why a writer has chosen to imply something rather than state it outright, and perhaps several different ways in which a writer could imply something. Then, they might be taught how to analyse the effects of explicit and implicit meanings on the reader. And so on and so forth.

Each of these ‘threshold concepts’ can become a simple ‘can do’ curriculum statement, assessed simply as ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – for example, “I can define the words ‘explicit’ and ‘implicit'”. This yes/no assessment tells us something meaningful and useful – concrete not abstract. It shows us how well and how quickly a pupil is travelling through our curriculum towards clear end-points. It shows us what pupils do and do not yet know and provides us – and indeed them – with tangible information on which we and they can act. It can inform our whole-class teaching, too – telling us what we need to go back and re-teach or re-cap.

As well as providing meaningful, actionable information to and about each pupil, the data can be aggregated to provide useful information about the effectiveness of the curriculum. For example, we can ascertain at any point, what proportion of pupils have acquired the expected standard or reached the stage we had planned for and predicted. If they haven’t, we know we need to revisit our curriculum model and the teaching strategies we have employed in order to ensure more pupils make better progress in future.

These end-points and threshold concepts will and should look different in each subject, of course. In Science, they may take the form of key (or ‘big’) questions; in Geography, they may be features of the natural or human landscape. It is important, therefore, that senior leaders allow their subject specialists the freedom to devise both a curriculum and a means of assessing that curriculum in a way that best suits the nature of the subject.

Having said this, senior leaders can ask some common questions of all subject leaders, such as:

• What do you expect pupils to know?

• When do you expect pupils to know this?

• Why do you want pupils to know this?

• How will you know when pupils know this?

• What next?

But senior leaders need to avoid the temptation to provide standardised pro forma for all their subject specialists to complete. And senior leaders need to accept that all subjects cannot conform to a whole-school curriculum and assessment mould.

To conclude, the curriculum is king, and this is a good thing because the curriculum needs to take precedence over teaching and assessment. What’s more, assessment should not be based on arbitrary measurements divorced from curriculum content but should measure how well and how quickly a pupil travels through our curriculum and how successfully they learn – in other words, the extent to which they know more and can do more than they could previously.

If we are to take full advantage of this golden opportunity in our schools and colleges to design an effective, relevant, exciting and ambitious curriculum, then we should also ensure that we make our methods and means of assessment meaningful and useful.

The 6-step process of curriculum design…

Our approach to curriculum design – as outlined in the book School & College Curriculum Design: Intent – follows a six-step process as follows…

Read more about it here

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