The curriculum has exploded

I love it when the word explosion is used in reference to something positive.  It makes me think of fireworks, champagne and party poppers. I’m pretty sure that Chris Jones, Head of Research at Ofsted was being positive when he said that ‘the curriculum has exploded’ in his September 2018 blog – I hope so anyway.

I also presume that Chris was inferring that the curriculum has exploded into or onto something. A bit like when Michael Fordham asks for words like ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ to have an object (“there is always something being taught and something being learnt”), I’d prefer ‘exploded’ to be followed by an adverbial phrase because my mind naturally asks, ‘into what?’ or ‘onto what?’

It’s not that the sentence ‘the curriculum has exploded’ necessarily needs an adverbial; as a sentence it makes sense all by itself.  It’s just that without a qualifying adverbial it sounds too negative.  ‘Exploded’ on its own suggests destruction, obliteration, irreparable and irrevocable damage. That’s not what Chris means, is it? The curriculum hasn’t been obliterated.  On the contrary, it has been revived, reignited, renewed.  It has, in fact, exploded into educational thinking, into leadership discussions, into inspection frameworks and onto the agendas of governing bodies everywhere.

This is good news, of course, but not without risk.  There are warnings that a new inspection framework is once again driving change, and that inevitably this means schools will be reactionary and buy ‘off the shelf’ solutions.  The thing is, I’m not sure I care.  I don’t care what it is that drives change and I don’t care if schools buy ‘off the shelf’ solutions.  I’m just really glad that curriculum is being discussed.

I’d love, hand on heart, to say that curriculum has always been discussed. I know that’s what many people think, but I’ve searched my soul on this one and in my twenty years in teaching I have never encountered curriculum conversations like the ones we’re having now. Maybe they were happening elsewhere, but they definitely weren’t happening in the schools where I worked.

Sure, we would have conversations about specification coverage, where to fit in the ‘Me, Myself and I’ topic (has to be first term of Year 7, right?) and who’s going to write the scheme of work for Holes.  But is that really a curriculum conversation? No. What we should have been asking was ‘why?’ Why do we feel the need to start a child’s experience of Secondary education with a sub-standard, generic topic with low-challenge autobiographical tasks and self-portrait drawing opportunities? (cross-curricular, you know).

I’m not averse to this topic, by the way.  And I know schools where it’s done brilliantly – and with clear intent.  The point is that we never asked about intent, we never considered our rationale. We just did what we always did.

The curriculum conversation we’re having now is pushing all of us to raise our game.  I like that.  As I said earlier, if that comes as a result of a new inspection framework, I can live with that.  Not only are some schools around the country having challenging conversations about intent, they’re also moving beyond that into sequencing and coherence.  This type of conversation wasn’t happening in senior leadership teams ten years ago (in my experience) but it is happening now.

What I have noticed in some schools is that the language of curriculum conversations has changed.  Whereas before, curriculum conversations were dominated by the words in the green box, these days I’m hearing more words from the blue box.

Curric words

The vocabulary we have to describe our curriculum intent, to articulate our curriculum implementation and to clarify our curriculum’s impact has opened up a whole new world of precise and intellectual engagement with the thing that matters most – what children learn. The words in the blue box are just a selection of the terms being used by senior and middle leaders in many schools now; a marked difference to the terms in the green box which were high frequency words in curriculum conversations not too many years ago, and in some schools, still are.

Schools are at different points in this crazy curriculum journey. Some are way ahead of the game, others are just joining in.  We could insist that each of them has the lengthy and in-depth discussion about intent. We could ask them to use the words in the blue box. We could ask them to design their very own curriculum which reflects their very own community, is aligned to their very own values and is created by their very own teachers. But that will take ages and the only losers in that temporal traffic jam will be children.

Perhaps we need a more realistic and practical approach to our curriculum conversations. If not, we are in danger of not only re-inventing the wheel, but re-inventing thousands of slightly different types of wheel. If we denigrate off-the-shelf curriculum solutions, we inadvertently pressurise schools into doing everything themselves.  That’s fine if you have the expertise, the capacity and the resources, but what if you don’t? What if you’re a school rated inadequate, with a falling roll, not enough teachers and poor outcomes? Wouldn’t it be better for those schools to be given a tried and tested curriculum, tied up in a bow, ready to be unwrapped and used immediately?

I understand the argument for creating a curriculum that reflects the community, builds on students’ existing cultural capital and captures the unique qualities of the school’s character and history.  I wish this for all schools. But this is an ideal that assumes all schools are at the same starting point. It’s the ultimate example of differentiation I guess, which is ironic.  Perhaps schools should be given a different worksheet tailored to their ability.

The point is that curriculum conversations shouldn’t be about creating a finished product.  Our curriculum should be iterative, constantly being refined and questioned.  Schools that decide to go for Complete Maths, Ark English Mastery or the entire Inspiration Trust curriculum when it becomes available (for free!) should do so with justified pride. Why? Because they’ve made a strategic decision about what their teachers and their students need right now.  It doesn’t mean they won’t be in a position to have the deep and meaningful curriculum conversations in the future. It just means they recognise where they are on their journey. I respect that.

A school which is not ready, but goes ahead and curates a curriculum conversation about intent, implementation and impact, will create a ticking time-bomb.  And if it goes ahead and does that work alone, without the contingent expertise, support or resources, then the curriculum really will explode, but not in the champagne, party-popper sense. It will be a site of disconnected fragments, craters and dust.

This is the story of #EducatingNorthants

It’s been two days since #EducatingNorthants and only now am I beginning to process what we did.  When you’re on a steam train going non-stop in a certain direction, you don’t have time to put yourself in the shoes of the passengers on station platforms.  You don’t have time to look at the journey from an outsider’s perspective, all you can do is look ahead, keep the fire stoked and focus on the destination.  You don’t even get time to look at the view.

But now, two days later, I’m taking in the view from the point of arrival, and I’m looking back at the map of the journey and feeling super, super proud.  As I trace the route back to the beginning, I begin to appreciate what we’ve done.

This is the story of #EducatingNorthants.

On 21st June 2018, Tom Rees was at a meeting of Northampton town educators discussing the current state of affairs in county education. Following months of rumours about the state of the local authority, news was emerging about financial mismanagement and the council’s plans to move to two unitary authorities.  Education and Children’s Services were not part of that conversation and educators were worried.  Despite that, like a lighthouse in a storm, Tom tweeted this:

toms tweet

You can always rely on Tom to be a beacon of hope.  He and Helen Scott, Dean of Education and Humanities at the University of Northampton had, I think, just decided on a date and venue and put it out there to see what would happen.  I saw his tweet and, along with a few others, tweeted a reply:

Tom tweet thread

This funny little thread was the start of something big.  Jennie wanted in. So did I.  Leigh Wolmarans was keen to provide the ‘reason we do what we do’ (i.e. ‘some young people to blow people’s minds!’) and Teach Northamptonshire was keen to support us.

After that,  we held a brief meeting in July where we sat down and said, what is this thing we’re doing and why are we doing it? We made a few sketchy plans, held together with enthusiasm mainly, and then the summer break happened.

I’ll be honest, there was a point when I wondered if anything would come of it. There were four of us at that point… me, Tom, Jennie and Helen. A few others like Leigh, and Cristina Taboada-Naya from Brooke Weston had also said they’d love to be involved, but it was all so… vague.  All we knew was that we needed to flip the narrative, engage education professionals in a conversation about the future and be the change we needed to see.

What happened next was all down to a freak combination of social media, personal networks and some negative press. Whilst Northamptonshire County Council was hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons, I was by the pool in Majorca setting up a Twitter handle and making a basic website.   Tom, Jennie and I all had access to the handle. We all started raiding our contact books and asking anyone and everyone we knew in education if they would come and speak.  And they agreed.  Why? Because it was pretty damn obvious to anyone with half an eye on the news that Northamptonshire was in a state.  We needed help.

That’s when the train started moving, slowly at first, but gradually picking up pace.  We had a line up, we were tweeting out big names and people were getting very interested.  We were getting messages from all over asking how to buy tickets, how much were they, what time would it start, would there be lunch?  We didn’t know the answer to all of those questions, but throughout Autumn we kept up the momentum of announcing speakers and generating interest.

We met again as a group, just three of us – and then again with Helen Scott.  Parallel to the organising of the conference, which was beginning to come together into some semblance of reality, something else was happening. The political situation in the county was going from bad to worse and headteachers wanted to have their voice heard. Tom, using #EducatingNorthants as the vehicle, collected over 250 signatories on an open letter to the local authority demanding that our voices be heard.  Then we held an open meeting at The University of Northampton and over 50 headteachers turned up.  We all talked about what we needed to do to ensure the local authority understood the impact that further cuts would have on the families we serve.  We decided to write a second open letter, again with hundreds of signatories, which resulted in a meeting, just before Christmas, when Tom and a few other Heads and CEOs went to see the interim CEO of the council, Theresa Grant.

It’s fair to say that we had got their attention.  #EducatingNorthants had, quite by accident, become a pressure group.  There was a void that needed to be filled.  I wrote about it here.  Heads in the county were galvanised into action, were ready to be part of a movement and wanted to make change happen. They didn’t want or need to wait for permission, they just wanted their voices heard. #EducatingNorthants became their voice.

It was an exciting time, but also fraught.  We had a bit of an identity crisis. Was #EducatingNorthants a pressure group? Were we activists? Was our agenda political? Were we adversarial? We were pitting yourself against the council, but there was something about that that didn’t feel quite right. We didn’t want a fight.  We didn’t want to blame.  We wanted to be collaborative and solution-focused.

Things shifted a bit after that.  We regrouped and talked about what #EducatingNorthants was… was it a charity? Not yet. Was it a business. No way. Was it a pressure group? Maybe. Was a grass-roots organisation with no hierarchy, no political agenda and no profit? Yes. 100% yes.  It may morph into something else in the future, but for now, grassroots was right.  We were volunteers, doing all of this on top of our full time jobs in education, we just wanted to do something positive – and something that would bring about change.

The clarity we gained in January helped a lot.  Yes there probably would be further political action, but we decided to de-couple that aim from #EducatingNorthants while we focused on the positive action of the conference.

As ticket sales closed for the conference (at some point we had figured out how much a ticket would cost and how we’d sell them) we clarified what #EducatingNorthants (in its current guise) stood for:

  • Collective, grass-roots action on professional learning and development for teachers.  i.e. collaboration which transcends the boundaries that currently exist in our fractured system.
  • Everyone is welcome – this is about our county’s children, so anything we do is about education from 3-19, and in every phase, type and designation of school and college.  If you’re in the county, you’re in.
  • Non-partisan, positive, proactive activity only – be the change we want to see.  Not adversarial, not blaming, not waiting for solutions or permission.  Proceed until apprehended!

All a bit wordy, I agree.  We settled on #bepartofthecoversation and #everyoneswelcome.

And then the real work began. The work of putting on an event for 600 delegates, 115 presenters, 40 volunteers, 24 exhibitors and a group of incredible young performers. It was a real team effort – we expanded to a team of about 10: Me, Tom, Jennie, Cristina, Helen, Leigh, Esther Gray, Carol Wynne, Jane Clark and Julie Bedster. We had advice and guidance from the wonderful Wendy Pearmain and the support of educators from across the county – and the country.

And in the end, the train that is #EducatingNorthants pulled into Waterside Campus on Saturday 30th March with a huge hiss of steam that blew us all away (apologies for the terrible mixed metaphors).  It was vibrant, it was busy, it was positive, it was exhausting, it was everything we wanted it to be and the feedback since has been overwhelming.

Did we get everything right? No. If we could turn back time and make a few amendments, would we? Of course.  But, for a bunch of amateurs, with no experience whatsoever, doing it all for love, on top of very demanding full time jobs in education, I think we did okay.  Will we do it again next year? Who knows!

The plan now is to engage county educators to say what they want next. What do they want #EducatingNorthants to become? How can #EducatingNorthants help them? How do we all work together to make sure that educational outcomes for young people in our county improve?

The conference was amazing, but it was just one day.  What we really need is action which leads to sustainable change.  I have a few ideas about what that action should look like, but I want to know what everyone else thinks too.  The next few months will be important for #EducatingNorthants.  The conversations happening now are the ones that will define the future direction of travel, and this time the journey will be turbo-powered.

Educating-Northants-30-03-19- (278)
Educating Northants, conference at Waterside Campus, University of Northampton,  Saturday, 30th March 2019