Curriculum impact: pupil progress, outcomes and preparedness

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2021.  You can download the full supplement for free on the SecEd website here.  

In September, I wrote a two-part article on the subject of curriculum impact (Bromley, 2020a; 2020b). In those pieces, I argued that test and qualification outcomes are no longer the sole lens through which a school’s “impact” should be viewed.

I argued that the purpose of education is not solely to get pupils qualifications, though these are clearly important; but rather to genuinely prepare pupils for what comes next – be that the next stage of their education, employment or life.

In practice, this means that schools need to provide for a pupil’s broader development, enabling them to discover and develop their interests and talents.

It means that our school curriculum needs to develop pupils’ character including their resilience, confidence and independence, and help them keep physically and mentally healthy.

It means that at each stage of education, our school curriculum needs to prepare pupils for adult life by equipping them with the knowledge and skills they need to be responsible, respectful, active citizens who contribute positively to society, developing their understanding of fundamental human values, their understanding and appreciation of diversity, celebrating what we have in common and promoting respect for all.

It stands to reason, then, that if the purpose of education is to prepare our pupils for the next stage of their education, employment and lives, the way we measure our “impact” must go beyond mere outcomes.

Indeed, if we are to provide a broad and balanced curriculum that is ambitious for all and tackles social justice issues, then we should measure the impact of all of this. As such, I believe that the purpose of “impact” is at least threefold:

  1. To evaluate the effectiveness of the way in which the curriculum is designed.
  2. To evaluate the effectiveness of the way in which the curriculum is taught.
  3. To evaluate the pace of pupil progress, pupil outcomes, and pupils’ preparedness for their next steps.

In those earlier articles, I explored the first two of these purposes. In this article, I would like to explore the third and final purpose…

Pupils’ preparedness for their next steps

In order to evaluate the extent to which our school curriculum prepares pupils for the next stage of their lives, we need to understand where pupils go next and whether or not this represents a positive step in the right direction and is ambitious and challenging. Here, we might review our provision for character education, RSE, PSHE, and fundamental human values. Enrichment opportunities such as the Duke of Edinburgh award and other outward-bound schemes, as well as the development of oracy skills, perhaps through debating societies, might also form part of this picture.

However, when considering the kinds of experiences young people should be afforded through our school curriculum, we need to avoid it becoming a box-ticking exercise. Here are some further considerations…

The hidden curriculum: Although it is tempting to focus on how the taught curriculum (in other words, that which takes place in planned lessons) helps pupils prepare for the next stage of their lives, we should not forget that pupils are also informed by messages sent through the “hidden” curriculum, those parts of the educational experience that occur in the spaces between lessons. In other words, we need to consider what the words and actions of all the adults in our school say to pupils about what values and attitudes matter most in life, and about how to behave as a citizen and employee.

Explicit or implicit: We should also consider whether or not the skills that pupils need in order to be prepared for the next stage of their lives should be taught explicitly or implicitly, which is to say in isolation as “transferable skills” or through a subject discipline as a domain-specific skill. Critical thinking is not, for example, a transferable skill because it is impossible to be critical about something on which you have little or no background knowledge. You must first acquire deep knowledge on a subject before you can be taught how to think critically about that subject. However, a school may decide that some skills are indeed transferable because they are used in many subjects across the curriculum and in similar ways. Take, for example, structuring an argument, working in a team, giving feedback to a peer, internet research, note-taking, and so on.

Careers & pathways: Information, advice and guidance including impartial careers guidance is vital. If pupils are not appropriately and expertly advised about the paths they can take, how can they be expected to take the right paths and be prepared for whatever awaits them?

Transitions: We need to consider how our school curriculum helps pupils adjust to all the changes they face while in education. This includes the transition between schools as well as between the various phases, stages and years of education.

Creating the culture and systems

All of the above advice is contained in my book, School and College Curriculum Design 3: Impact, the third book in a series. The first book is about “curriculum intent”, all the planning that happens before teaching happens. It explores the why? and the what? of education. The second book is about “curriculum implementation” – all the teaching that happens next. It explores the how? of education – the way in which teachers translate curriculum plans into classroom practice.

This final book is about “curriculum impact” – the “how successfully?” of education. In the book, as well as considering how we evaluate the effectiveness of our curriculum planning and teaching, I also set out how schools can develop the culture and the systems required to make all of this happen.

Part of this is what I call my “golden triangle”, the three apexes of which are: quality improvement, performance development, and professional development. The second apex is performance development, a term I prefer to the more commonplace “performance management”.

Performance development

For too long and in too many cases, teacher performance management was synonymous with an annual lesson observation. The lesson judgement – which usually took the form of a single number from 1 to 4, modelled on the Ofsted rating system – determined whether or not a teacher successfully passed their appraisal cycle and thus could escape the sanctions of “capability” and instead – where relevant – be rewarded with pay progression.

Thankfully, this is not as commonplace today as it was, say, five or 10 years ago. But it is still not unheard of and, even if graded lesson observations have ended, for too many teachers, appraisal cycles are still won or lost in a lesson observation.

This is problematic because lessons observations alone – no matter how professionally and pragmatically they are carried out – do not enable us to accurately judge a teacher’s effectiveness in the classroom, let alone their entire professional contribution.

To do that, or at least to do it better, we would need to triangulate what we see and hear in classrooms with other sources of information, not least our teachers’ professional judgement.

In other words, we should measure the quality of teaching – if we need to measure it at all – in a holistic rather than an isolated way. And even then, we must accept that we will not come close to doing it justice because teaching is highly complex and judgements about its relative quality are fraught with difficulty.

My argument is simple: we should move away from performance “management” and towards performance “development”. In other words, we should avoid instigating a pass/fail system of appraisal that assumes teachers are either good or bad. Instead, we should strive for a system that recognises the complexity of the job, accepts that people have good and bad days, that many more factors affect pupils’ progress and outcomes than an individual teacher, and that the goal is to help everyone – no matter their career stage – improve over time (while acknowledging that everyone is human, and no one is perfect). In summary, performance management should:

  • Recognise the fact that teaching and learning are highly complex and cannot be reduced to a checklist or rubric.
  • Accept that a teacher’s performance is not uniform – they have good and bad days and an ineffective lesson does not mean failure.
  • Acknowledge that pupil outcomes are affected by many factors beyond a teacher’s control.
  • Aim to help every teacher to improve, no matter their career stage or training needs.
  • Promote collaboration rather than competition, and incentivise team-working and joint practice development.

Performance management – if it is to “measure” anything – should measure a teacher’s willingness to engage in professional development activity and improve over time. As a natural progression from this, it is reasonable to assert that an appraisal system could consist simply of one CPD target per year and be reviewed at the end of the cycle on the extent to which a teacher has engaged in CPD activity, tried new approaches and evaluated impact.

I accept that most schools want more than this and so I explore other possible methods in the book including the professional portfolio approach and the balanced scorecard. I also explore various frameworks for summarising the job of a teacher.

Professional portfolio: This method is not to be confused with a tick-box approach which mandates subject teams or teachers to self-assess against a fixed set of criteria, often feeling the need to engineer evidence where none exists. Rather, it is about teams and staff taking genuine responsibility for their own development and taking their professional practice seriously. A portfolio should be a living document, added to throughout the academic year so that it becomes a true record of developing practice as well as a means of reflecting on that practice, rather than being hurriedly compiled the day before an appraisal meeting.

Balanced scorecard: This works when criteria are quantifiable rather than qualitative and a means of aggregating a range of data – the wider the net is cast, the more accurate, fair, and holistic the picture of the quality of the provision will be.

Of course, such systems are premised on the understanding that no measure of teaching, learning and assessment is perfect because education is complex, and that data is more than a spreadsheet; it is a conversation. In other words, the data recorded in a portfolio or scorecard is the start of a discussion not its conclusion. Through discussion, data can be converted into meaningful information that will support improvements in teaching, learning and assessment – and thus outcomes for pupils.



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