How much curriculum should be insisted upon?

Fifteen years ago there were many teachers who focused on knowledge and thought hard about what exactly they should teach their pupils.

I was – alas – not one of the enlightened.  

Instilled with a poorly formed, disorganised and uninterrogated understanding of child centred learning I worked hard at facilitating meaningful learning experiences in my classroom.

There were few fads I did not fall for.

VAK; multiple intelligences; brain gym; learning to learn – I rushed headlong into lots of them. When I did teach knowledge what I taught was often the very last thing I thought of when planning.

My aim was for pupil to rocket up through the plains of basic recall, past the foothills of description and ascend the mountains of analysis and synthesis.

To get them there I spent a lot of time planning the activities children would do in lessons – marketplaces, unstructured group work and self-directed research and I was disdainful of activities designed only to increase how much pupils knew.

Experienced and wise older colleagues tried to put me right but I did not have ears to listen.

I was too young and proud – confident enough to deliver training on all the buzzy ideas I thought I believed in to teachers decades my senior.

When my Head of Department insisted all assessments contained knowledge tests I scoffed and rushed doing the ones I’d been allocated sure this wasn’t necessary.

As my classes neared examinations I felt the first prickling of unease. My GCSE classes seemed to remember very little of what I’d taught them through roleplay and diamond nines. So out of necessity I rescued textbooks from dusty and cobwebbed cupboards. I made summary sheets and began explaining and modelling – at first uneasily and regretfully because I felt this was somehow doing teaching wrong and evidence I’d failed at proper pedagogy.

The years rolled on.

Without me ever really being aware of it happening I stopped being an inexperienced teacher and more and more I found I was not teaching in the way my PGCE said I should.

I was talking more to classes.

I was testing them and becoming less and less swayed by the supposed learning styles and existing interests of my pupils. Although this worked but I kept it quiet. For observations I changed the way I did things to affectionate indulgence from the children in my classes who I am certain understood the game we were all playing when they suddenly found themselves doing activities we never normally did.

Then – and I’m not sure how this began – I discovered the work of people who did not think what I was doing behind my closed classroom door was wrong at all.

I read Daisy Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education and Daniel T Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? Through them I found E D Hirsch who I had heard of but knew only as some vague American child hating ogre to boo at whenever anyone mentioned him.

I was inspired by a lot of what Hirsch said but troubled too – and this led me to Michael Young’s Powerful Knowledge.

I found teacher-bloggers who wrote about what ‘knowledge rich’ meant practically in classrooms. I began to blog myself and through this connected with organisations which provided platforms for teachers to share what worked and evidence it did.

A growing number of people began arguing we had spent far too much time and energy thinking about how to teach and not nearly enough on what to teach. As what felt a lot like critical mass was reached, the word curriculum began to be used more and more.

Rolling pebbles got larger rocks moving.

Suddenly the landscape shifted beneath us all.

Vanishingly small numbers of people now openly say knowledge isn’t the most important thing children should learn in their lessons.

Few admit to having ever said this at all although many teachers – like me – continue to feel this is what they had been told.

The voices of those who had always argued knowledge was of fundamental importance – such as Summer Turner, Christine Counsell and those she trained on the Cambridge History PGCE – began to be amplified and heard.

The knowledge rich approach was adopted enthusiastically by government which caused some understandable pushback given the sort of knowledge that – at least initially – seemed most valued.

Happily, productive recent debate – while fraught and sometimes unhelpfully bad-tempered – has been over what exactly should be taught.

The result has been more representative, more diverse and more exciting curricula that evolve and change. At least in many places.

What was once an insurgency is now the establishment.

The three Is.

‘Knowledge rich approaches’ are now Ofsted endorsed.

Ofsted divides the assessment of quality of curriculum into the now famous – or infamous – three I’s; Intent, Implementation and Impact.

We all know these words very well now.

To Ofsted intention is what a curriculum intends pupils to know, implementation is how well this curriculum is delivered and impact is how intention and implementation combine into positive outcomes.

But this a great simplification. Perhaps an oversimplification.

A great problem lies in any assumption it is possible to draw straight lines from what curriculum planners intend, through how teachers implement their intentions and –  all being well –  to strong outcomes as a result.

If we try too hard to plot these as a straight line on a graph, we are likely to do more harm than good.

The enacted curriculum

Summer Turner – one of the best curriculum thinkers we have – understands this well.

When she writes about curriculum she uses the word ‘enacted’, which encapsulates the inherent complexity well. Her chapter in the ResearchED guide to leadership is brilliant on this. For those who want to go further I can’t recommend Graham Nuthall’s Hidden Lives of Learners enough. Nuthall pays close attention to why children learn what they do and why this can be so different between children in the same class and demolishes the idea it is possible to ever be certain what children will take from a lesson or sequence of lessons.

The enacted curriculum -the curriculum experienced by individual children who study it – is affected by a near infinite variety of intersecting factors.

It is messy and complicated and ultimately what happens in a classroom on a rainy Tuesday afternoon is more important than any piece of paper.

In fact what happens in a classroom on a rainy Tuesday is the only thing that really matters.

There are so many variables. Getting hold of this is like trying to grasp water or catch smoke in a net.

A couple of examples might help.

Let’s begin with two imaginary Y8 history classes in the same school, Gasworks High.

Gasworks High is part of a large and well-resourced Multi Academy Trust. Both classes are studying the same part of a curriculum – an enquiry into trench warfare in the First World War.

Let’s suppose the first class is taught by Laura, the Head of Department who has a masters degree in military history and a longstanding interest in World War One. She is up-to-date on current scholarship and played a major role in planning and resourcing the enquiry which is taught across all schools in the MAT. The second is taught by Simon, an English teacher who knows little about World War One beyond war poetry which he has taught for many years.

While both teachers do their best to teach the same curriculum with fidelity what children remember from the lessons is very different. Most children in the first classroom gain a strong understanding of the trench features, military tactics and can explain reasons the war lasted as long as it did. Children in the second classroom know less about these things but know a lot about the experiences of soldiers on the Western Front.

The curriculum was the same but the two teachers were better at teaching different things because it was enacted differently.

What was achieved was different. Not necessarily better and not necessarily worse. Different.

And there is even greater complexity.

As Sonia Thompson has been saying for many years children do not arrive in our classrooms carrying nothing.  

They come with ‘backpacks’ of knowledge unique to them, which form their interests and affect their motivation towards different topics. The Matthew Effect means children who know something about what they are taught already are more likely to learn more than those children who are encountering something for the very first time. A child with a father with an interest in military history may learn more from military history lessons at school than a child from a background where nobody they know has ever shown much interest in anything that’s happened in the past.

This isn’t all just supposition – Nuthall shows just how complex the process of learning is and how much it of it is affected by factors beyond a teacher’s control – factors they are often not – and sometimes cannot be – even aware of.

All of this means those responsible for planning curriculum are naïve if they assume their intentions can be exactly and cleanly delivered in the classroom in which their work is enacted. What they intend will not be what happens.

So then, what should we do about this?

There is no definitive answer to this question that fits all circumstances.

How could there be? What’s best will vary according to context. Instead of trying I’ve decided to look at two deliberately extreme ‘bets’ schools might make and the advantages and limitations of each. Finally I intend to synthesise these two bets into a number of broad principles which mitigate the most worrisome implications of the first two.

I’m warning you in advance this synthesis will be a bit of a cop out. There will be no neat final answers to type into a pro forma document.

Bet 1: Enforce curriculum fidelity

Curriculum planners wishing to ensure their planning is delivered exactly as they intended could specify all aspects of curriculum to a very iterative level – core, hinterland the whole shebang –  and then enforce fidelity though high stakes quality assurance and robust associated actions.

In some contexts – at least for a limited period of time  – iterative prescription and enforced fidelity might be the correct bet to make.

If – for example – a newly arrived Head of Science at a school at the beginning of turnaround finds she has no subject specialists in her department and the only curriculum is a confetti of disparate worksheets downloaded ad-hoc from the TES website, she may well have no other choice but to specify exactly what should be taught lesson by lesson.

MATS, schools or departments adopting this approach wholescale would have to look out for and then eliminate variation and associated deviation.

They’d have to make sure teachers knew they were not supposed to go off script and keep them on the straight and narrow.

They’d have to make sure all teachers understood their own insights, explanations and opinions were not to be shared– this variation would make things less clear when the aim should be to transfer what was in the head of the curriculum planner to the heads of the pupils them with as little distortion as possible.

Anyone pursuing this aim would have to have a high degree of certainty the curriculum they’d created was a good one and would deliver the outcomes expected if enacted by its teachers in the ordained fashion, and that teachers had the capacity to perfectly enact what was intended.  

Sometimes this evidence might be available – for example with some synthetic phonics and Direct Instruction programmes – but more often it is not, making any such bet something of a stab in the dark.

This bet would mean accountability resting on the planner – if teachers had done exactly what they were told to do then disappointing outcomes would have to be owned by the person or people who designed the curriculum. Those responsible for its design and delivery would have to be, like Sauron’s Eye, constantly watchful on a panoptic scale for unauthorised deviation. Most people like at least some freedom when teaching and without close oversight there would be a constant risk to the model’s integrity through conscious or unconscious subversion.

Advocates of this approach would also have to answer the question as to what to do when children did not remember what they were expected to remember from a previous lesson or topic; a very prescriptive lesson-by-lesson curriculum would seriously reduce or even preclude the possibility of responsive teaching. This might be fine for the children who never drop behind but would be a disaster for those who don’t keep up whether this is through absence, poor behaviour or simple human forgetfulness.

Finally, anyone going for this model would have to be vigilant to the possibility of low morale and disaffection.

While it is not the role of all teachers to be curriculum architects the inherently creative and generative process of enacting a curriculum is one of the most satisfying aspects of the job- insisting on simple replication would be unpopular.

I expect what I’ve said so far has made you feel a bit uncomfortable.

It does me too. It just doesn’t sit well.

This command and control model is open to abuse and is probably more likely than not to result in disappointing outcomes.

This blog post by James Theobald contains helpful thinking as to why trying to make teachers reproduce perfectly what someone else has planned often ends up feeling unsatisfactory.

What James is getting at is when we plan a lesson much of what is planned is an expression of deeper unexpressed thought. This is why lessons so often fall flat when we try to teach them using someone else’s plan and resources.

Without their knowledge and mental models tasks and activities rarely hang together in a satisfying manner, leaving lessons feeling hollow and disjointed even when children have behaved well and tried hard.

I’m sure this is as true for curriculum as it is for lessons – all curriculum is the product of very deep oceans full of hidden currents that planners are often themselves unaware of.

It is often impossible for someone to exactly understand what the designer was trying to accomplish even if the designer fully understood their intentions themselves. Trying to force this often has a considerable opportunity cost  – if we are very iterative and directive about what is taught then we make it impossible for teachers who enact the curriculum to deploy their own mental models, which deprives pupils of their teacher’s true expertise.

Effectively we ask them to think with someone else’s brain.

Let’s return briefly to Laura and Simon in our imaginary history department at Gasworks High. In a very iterative and directive curriculum designed by Laura the children in her class would still know loads about trench warfare but those in Simon’s might well leave his classroom knowing little about trench warfare or about conditions in the trenches, which he would have been able to teach better had he had more freedom.

By making Simon teach what he doesn’t know well and not allowing him to teach what he does know well we could rob children of knowledge he could have effectively taught had he been allowed to.

We don’t have to go as far as this extreme example to identify other important concerns too – one centrally directed curriculum all are expected to follow can mean schools failing to capitalise on strength. A school lucky enough to have an RE teacher with a PhD in the theology of the early Church would be missing a great opportunity were it to prevent this teacher from sharing what he knows.

The more directive we are about curriculum the less agency teachers have in enacting it and the less agile schools and teachers can be. This is a risk with all deficit approaches to improvement – by trying to eliminate what we don’t like we can also destroy what we do.

Such strategies hinder a school or departments ability to play to its strengths and may result in an overall decline in how much children learn, sacrificing inconsistent riches and depth for a quixotic tilt at cold and illusory consistency.

Bet 2: Total autonomy

If trying to tightly control the content of curriculum causes so many problems perhaps then might it be better not to try at all?

Perhaps if teachers were free to teach whatever they wanted to teach they’d deliver what they know best really effectively. This would mean children in different classes in the same year in the same school leaving knowing very different things.

Perhaps that’s fine and we should try to be comfortable with it.

It is just about possible to envisage a context in which this might be a bet worth making.

I’m picturing Old Oak –  an independent school a few miles down the road from Gasworks High.

Here there is a highly qualified and very experienced English department in which there has been very low staff turnover in the past and low turnover expected in the future. In this school children move up with the same teacher so although there is no consistency between teachers everything important is taught at some point. Set changes are rare. Few pupils leave the school and few join after Year 7.

In this scenario letting teachers teach whatever they want might make sense.

It might.

But even if it did there would still be things to worry about.

What happens if someone does leave? How would the incoming teacher know what the classes they’d taken over had learned and what still needed to be taught? What problems might be caused by a system in which class changes were basically impossible? A completely decentralised curriculum would mean no common assessments – how would the Head of Department or anyone else work out which classes and individuals needed a bit of extra help? How is complacency guarded against? Is the curriculum revised?

Doing things this way would also be enormously labour intensive and potentially very limiting – while there are of course advantages to children in having teachers teaching what they know best, this also confines their experience of the subject to that of just one person who no matter how erudite can only ever be one person.  

And this could only ever work in Key Stage 3.

Once pupils began GCSE courses they would have to follow a common curriculum and allowing everyone to do whatever they wanted to before then might have serious ramifications at the sharp end of the assessment years. One might – of course – argue this is a problem with the way we do assessment in this country. While these are fun conversations to have in the pub they aren’t of much use to those of us who need to make decisions in the world we live in rather than the one we would like to live in if we ruled it.

Even in the kindest of contexts I can reasonably imagine handing total curricular autonomy causes very serious problems that make it a questionable bet.

In less amenable contexts the results of this bet could be catastrophic with new teachers fresh out of training expected to design as many curricula as the classes they teach. Some might do this really well. Others, as I did when given too much autonomy early in my career, might end up wasting weeks on activities in which little of substance was learned.  Even if teachers chose areas they knew well this would be extremely labour intensive and leave children at the mercy of the personal whimsy of whoever they happened to find responsible for them. The result of this – even in the very best case scenario – would be inconsistency on a massive, massive scale with no way of working out what was going on anywhere else.

It would make school and systemic improvement impossible and at scale would do the most damage to the already most disadvantaged children.

Neither total control or complete autonomy is an appropriate choice for the development and enactment of curriculum.

Both approaches cause more problems than they solve.

Bet 3: Between the two

All answers – and there are as many answers as there are classrooms in schools – lie at various points between the two extremes.

It isn’t possible to give one satisfactory, universal response to just how much a curriculum should be prescribed and how much left to the teacher enacting it. How much to insist on and how big a blank space should be left will be dependent on the subject, year group, teacher and class.

Very hierarchal subjects might need to be more prescriptive because progression to the next stage of a curriculum can be dependent on mastery of a preceding stage, whereas the benefits of cumulative subjects prescribing less content might more often outweigh the disadvantages of it in a greater range of circumstances.

A year group or class might be given a tighter more iterative curriculum than another because of issues with staffing and associated teaching in previous years.

The pupils of a more experienced teacher might benefit from them having more autonomy in enaction than a less experienced teacher because they are able to make more effective use of it.

But despite all this complexity I think it possible to be guided by a set of principles that frame this persistent problem correctly and might lead to better decisions.

Four Principles

  1. Prescribe the minimum you can get away with.

When I first began recording myself teaching and watching the videos back, amongst the most irritating of my many irritating habits was saying too much was important.

It had the reserve effect to what I intended.

By claiming everything was important I implied nothing really was.

It is easy to do. All of us – hopefully – believe every minute of time in our classroom is valuable.

This is as true of curriculum too – those who plan curriculum do not put in things they think nobody needs to know – they do not set out to deliberately waste time. But – as all teachers know –  classrooms are not carefully controlled laboratories and have no business trying to be.

They are unpredictable, serendipitous places and unexpected things often happen in them.

Sometimes lessons are cancelled because of a trip or because an inspiring speaker comes in. There are snow days and days in which the boiler breaks.

Some teachers are better than others and children in their classes learn more than in those in which practice is weaker. Sometimes it is really hot and although we all try hard not much gets done. There are many thousands of minutes in a year and it is unrealistic to expect children to perfectly remember everything they are taught in every lesson.

Unless intentional decisions are made about what to prioritise and emphasise we can’t have a clear picture of what from the curriculum has actually been enacted and learned, with lots of children likely to remember things that aren’t actually what we intended them to remember.

Curriculum planners need to decide what is most important and make sure this is understood by everyone teaching the curriculum.

They need to understand it is better to teach less well than more badly and the more they prescribe the less likely what they insist upon will be learned. Curriculum planners must also recognise and be alert to the potential of over-prescription and micro-management to limit the ability of teachers to use their own mental models.

They must also be aware insisting on nothing in specific being taught is almost always a terrible decision. The dangers of this are at least as serious as those presented by dictating everything that must be delivered to a very granular level of detail.

How much must be prescribed will of course vary across contexts and there will be circumstances in which a lot has to be dictated – particularly in more hierarchical subjects in which latter content is dependent on the mastery of earlier material, but we should aim to be as lean as we can – if there isn’t a compelling reason why it is important a pupil memorises something then we should not insist upon it. Curriculum planners should be asking themselves why and when pupils need to learn prescribed content. A mark of true expertise is knowing what is essential and what isn’t. If we find this a struggle we should be open to the possibility we do not understand the material as well as we should.

None of this is to say what we don’t insist on being taught isn’t important, or that we shouldn’t think hard about it.

To do so would be to misunderstand why Christine Counsell’s hinterland knowledge is so important – it is what gives meaning and richness.

Hinterland plays a foundational role in the memorable enaction of core and without it we have only impoverished facsimiles. We certainly should be talking about great hinterland and sharing beautiful examples of it but it isn’t something – in most contexts – that benefits from lots of particular aspects being insisted upon – instead all individual teachers should be aiming to find their own rich hinterlands – sometimes alone and sometimes collaboratively.  We should be comfortable with these being different.

Finally we also recognise the different nature of different disciplines means ‘the minimum of what can be got away with’ will vary enormously. And – of course – variations in levels of expertise and experience within the same subject will also affect how much has to be prescribed. 

The less a team knows and the smaller their hinterland, the more directive a curriculum is likely to need to be.

2. Teach and assess what is prescribed.

Once core prescribed content has been decided upon schools must make sure this is taught and what is taught is assessed.

The base for this is teachers understanding of prescribed knowledge within a wider curriculum containing rich hinterland.

This requires clear, unambiguous communication. In many disciplines, perhaps particularly so in cumulative subjects, the winnowing process is likely to be controversial with different members of the same team disagreeing as to what aspects must be emphasised although this will be less contentious if there is a shared understanding of what the curriculum is aiming to do. There is more likely to be acceptance of this – even if grudging – if team members have had a meaningful voice in decisions. If people have been consulted they are more likely to agree to compromise and align themselves with final decisions even when they don’t completely agree.

Alignment is necessary because without personal commitment not all content will be taught well and this will affect how much pupils learn in different classrooms.

With alignment attention can be more focused and less generic. Time can be spent on more specific things – say, for example, getting better at teaching the influence of the Church in the lives of medieval people instead of vaguer and more nebulous content like ‘religion in the medieval world’ which is much harder to pin down and improve at.

Once agreed content has been taught it must then be assessed if a teacher, department or school is to work out how successful it has been. Quality assurance and assessments – both low-stakes examples like daily reviews and higher stakes formal tests – should be aligned to core knowledge to be fair to teachers who teach the curriculum and the children who learn it.

Making sure teachers and pupils know on what material assessment will be focused makes it more likely children will remember the most important aspects of what they have studied. It makes it less likely they will remember things that  – while interesting –  might not really be that useful or valuable.

This problem can be illustrated by the story of King Henry VII’s pet monkey who drove him to distraction after it broke free of its keeper and ripped up his carefully kept financial reports. This is gorgeous hinterland. The point the story is supposed to make is Henry was a careful record keeper and used these records to extort tax from his barons. The records are important. The taxes are important. The extortion is important. The monkey is really interesting and helps us remember the records, taxes and extortion but isn’t the point.

We do not need to know how much children know about Henry’s pets but if we do not guard against it this is just the sort of thing they will end up remembering once what we wanted them to learn has withered away.

But maybe we do want them remember Henry’s pets. We certainly don’t want to stop them remembering his monkey if they find his monkey interesting.

None of this means doing anything as cynical and contrived as telling children exactly what will be on their tests. Principles of good assessment remain the same. Material should be drawn from a larger domain and teachers finding there isn’t enough to do this must consider the possibility they’ve stepped over a line into cynically teaching to the test.

3. Teach more than what is prescribed.

A danger of prescribing a limited amount of content is the implication nothing else is important and the creation of a disarticulated and lifeless skeleton.

Misunderstanding curriculum as just a skeleton is likely to result in formulaic, clinical teaching and the memorisation of facts divorced from context – it would be the straw-man caricature so beloved of the laziest critics of knowledge rich approaches.  

Such pedagogy would be likely to result in ever diminishing returns and less being learned than had a more expansive approach been taken.

To avoid this danger schools need to make sure their teachers know and understand a vital part of planning is working out how to best support core content by framing it within memorable hinterland that adds and enhances rather than distracting and detracting.

The distinction between core and hinterland is not an absolute one – what might be considered hinterland in one context might be core in another depending on what exactly the curriculum is focused on. Just as what we cover is a product of choices we make, what to emphasise should also be the result of intentional decisions.

And we cannot even be sure what we consider to be core and hinterland is what will end up being core, hinterland or ultimately not remembered at all by pupils whatever we think it is.

Let’s return to Sonia’s backpack again for a moment – children do not come into school carrying nothing. They have lots already and are already developing opinions and ideas about what they are interested in and what they learn in lessons may connect with one child in different fashion to how it connects to another.

When curriculum is enacted we may find Henry’s monkey does become core knowledge to some children, along with the core knowledge we’ve insisted on teaching. Who knows? Maybe a child has visited the Tower of London and was fascinated by the ravens they saw there. Henry’s monkey might build on this and kindle a lifelong interest that eventually results in a PhD in Monarchs and their Menageries.

Stranger things have happened and if you ask me Monarchs and their Menageries sounds pretty cool.

The point here is while we can’t predict the fires our sparks will ignite we can make more fires more likely be sending out lots of sparks.

A curriculum that teaches only the bare bones limits opportunities for unplanned but beautiful connections.

4. Devolve curricular decisions making to the lowest level you can.

A couple of years ago the BBC produced a brilliant podcast called “Thirteen Minutes to the Moon” about Apollo 11 – the mission in which NASA first landed human beings on the moon and then brought them back again safely.

Two things struck me.

The first was how astonishing an achievement it was and the second was just how young those who accomplished it were. The average age of Mission Control was twenty-seven.

During the thirteen minute descent of the Lunar Lander, a twenty-six year old recalls having to make a split-second decision on whether to ignore a computer warning or not – at that moment he had the power to abort a mission that had cost billions and billions of dollars and may well have resulted in NASA missing the target set by JFK to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. He chose to proceed with the mission and he was right to.

And NASA was right to trust him to make the decision. Twenty-six or not and however junior or not he was the right person to own the decision. It was his system. He knew it. Nobody else – no matter how expert – was better placed to decide whether to go ahead or whether to abort.

The point I’m trying to make here is those who enact curriculum are best place to design it if they have capacity. This is because they know the ins and the outs – the sticking points – the bits that shine and the bits that need to be worked upon.

Those closet to problems are best placed to solve them and are more likely to be personally invested in doing so too.

For a piece of work completely unrelated to this I’ve spent some time this year looking at institutional goal setting theory, focusing on the work of psychologists Locke and Latham. One of the things they’ve spent most time exploring is the importance of being personally invested in achieving goals. Too often – I think – schools enforce goals without checking whether people even want to achieve the targets set for them.

Generally, it is more likely people will be personally committed to a goal if they have developed it themselves or at least been involved.

This is applicable to making decisions about what to teach broadly and what to focus on within broad areas – if these have been dictated and those who have been dictated to are not invested it is less likely they will enact curriculum effectively.

There is a balancing act to be struck here – one of the advantages of well-resourced and outward looking MATs is the way economies of scale allow for investment in national level expertise with the capacity to develop world class curriculum.

I am lucky to work for The David Ross Education Trust, which is one of these MATs.

This can be really beneficial so long as curriculum is designed in collaboration with and not just dictated to those who will enact it. The most effective large scale curriculum architects understand the developmental aspects of their role –  while they may take the lead in curricular development to begin with the ultimate aim should be to empower and develop subject communities made up of subject leaders and interested rank-and-file teachers to create and revise curriculum of which they are proud and to which they are personally committed.

This is also likely to result in better enactment of curriculum overall because it is more likely those closest to pupils will make better decisions about what to teach and how to teach it than those distant from them.

While this would be the ideal not all departments have the ability or capacity to design effective curriculum, which is why I’ve prevaricated; while it is best to devolve this to the lowest possible level there will be circumstances in which the lowest possible level is not the teacher or even school and it would be unwise to leave people solely to their own devices if they lack inclination, capacity or time to make good decisions about what to teach.

Leaders need to be hard-headed and careful – mindful those right at the beginning of the Dunning -Kruger novice to expert spectrum are unlikely to know they lack capacity.

Deciding how much of a curriculum to insist upon is not easy.

While recent systemic changes mean we are now clearer than have been for a long time about the importance of broad curriculum full of rich knowledge I worry these developments will not have the impact we want them if we aren’t judicious and careful about organising all the material into formats our pupils can digest, being intentional about what to give the most priority to and realistic about what we can know and control in a classroom.

I worry about displacement activity and work that looks great on a paper proforma but has little impact on real children in real classrooms.

We must balance prescription with autonomy, recognising the benefits and risks of each approach within the individual circumstances in which we develop synthesis.

Curriculum is not and should never be a monologue or diktat – it is a conversation in which what its designers create is only one part. Ultimately it is a generative process; the product of interactions between designer, teacher and pupil.

It is messy. It is unpredictable. It is maddening and beautiful.

If we are to avoid retreat into comforting but fantastical illusion we must accept this.


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