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Teaching Issues

The dangers of whole-school curriculum planning days

Yesterday we had an INSET day focusing on curriculum planning.

We enjoyed the second collaborative day whereby the local primary schools attended the secondary school for joint CPD. The afternoons are fantastic!

Fantastic CPD

Secondary and primary classroom teachers attending sessions together, delivered by colleagues. My NQT and PGCE trainee went to an oracy session at a local primary whereby student conversations are scaffolded and modelled for purposeful dialogue. My trainee linked the theory of Vygotsky to the practice he witnessed, top quality training everywhere!

Another member of my department led a well-received session on teaching history at Key Stage 2. Attendees at the session were relieved when they realised teaching history through enquiry made knowledge organisers make more sense. Up until then, they misunderstood the knowledge-rich curriculum to mean learning facts. 

The guest speaker

You may have noticed so far in my account of today that I have left out the morning. Well you’ve probably guessed it… everyone in the Hall to listen to an external guest speaker. His presentation had some very professional photographs and he was a well-rehearsed public speaker.

He was a primary school headteacher, immensely proud of his curriculum and in the process of rolling it out.

The cross-curricular curriculum

So, his curriculum? It starts from a wholesome and well-meaning position. He proposed turning learning objectives into enquiry. It has an admirable ethos, wonderful in fact. Genuinely!

It was all based on sustainability with the ‘golden thread’ of harmony. So far, so good.  It was the rationale for everything, and I mean everything. Even down to the food cooked at lunchtime and the vegetable varieties grown on the school grounds.

This ‘golden thread’ however, morphs into a ‘theme’ across subjects. For what he saw as a golden-thread, I saw as an iron-rod; around which everything must find a way to orbit. Apparently learning the Fibonacci sequence in maths was a missed opportunity to draw it in art. I don’t deny this may well be excellent interdisciplinary work. I’m not completely cynical about the benefits of linking subjects.

The Big History Project in the U.S. in an example of history and science dovetailing, but not one dictating the other. No tail wagging the dog with that curriculum. What I do find back-ward looking was for him to claim that ‘subjects are silos’; and rather than reinforce the differences he wants to blend and blur. 

A dangerous message?

So what? A harmless one and a half hour’s lecture… No! Within minutes in the corridor, three curriculum leaders were saying how they ‘must sit down and see where we cross over’ and then, ‘we could all teach the human body in the same week’. The rationale for this was ‘much better for a student to go to five lessons in a day and hear the same thing, they’ll remember it more’.

I was aghast. Within seconds experienced leaders of curriculum areas had gone from making links to reference pre-existing curriculum plans to rearrange them to align. They completely disagreed with my suggestion that their curriculums should reach their own depths first, before making links. It felt like I was in a noughties nightmare of cross-curricular days on weak themes, or the nightmare of low standards that was ‘Opening Minds’. 

Breaking a 30-year cycle

I may well even have been back at school in the nineties suffering integrated Humanities. However, I have a sneaking suspicion the integrated Humanities course I endured for five years (including GCSE) was actually stemmed from the 1970s. ‘History was too hard’ was the premise. The point is these ideas stick around and do untold damage for years. How often I hear from SLT that schools are like oil-tankers, they take a long time to turn around. That’s years of unevidenced anecdotally-based ‘nice ideas’. Cohort after cohort deprived on enabling knowledge and disciplinary thinking.

In my case, not being able to study history as a discrete subject until the age of 16. My antithesis isn’t in silos being safe or being ‘inflexible’ as was suggested, it is that we’ve seen this 30-year cycle already. What were the primary head teacher’s thoughts on secondary school? His students were ‘frustrated’ once they left their school. The solution? More projects at KS3!

Perhaps he had made his primary school the silo and his alumni’s frustration was not feeling prepared for KS3. Unless curriculum leadership is taken seriously by SLT or curriculum leaders take it seriously themselves, things will not move forward. It’s ok though, the presenter’s school was ‘Ofsted outstanding’… back in 2007 so it’s all good?! 

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About the author
Marc Scruby
Marc has spent the last ten years as History Teacher, School Leadership Team member and now Head of History at Priory School in Lewes, East Sussex. He has also worked as an Associate Teaching Fellow on the History ITE course at the University of Sussex.

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