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.

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