Pheidippides and the curriculum – how not to expire at the Acropolis

Pheidippides and the Curriculum

Pheidippides arrived at the Acropolis to deliver one single piece of information, shared that knowledge and promptly expired.

Many of us know the story of him running that distance from Marathon, across treacherous and rocky terrain to Athens but not as many of us may know that Pheidippides was in fact no ordinary runner or solider. He was a hemerodromos: known as “day long runners”, specialists in the Greek military. These men covered incredible distances on foot as they carried out their duty as long distance messengers.

Pheidippides may sometimes feature in the taught curriculum we share with our pupils but he can also teach us about our curriculum.

He delivered one message.

He had a clear destination, a clear mission, a clear understanding of who was to be his audience.

He ensured that the message had utter clarity and was understood by all who were assembled to hear its delivery.

How often in our curriculum conversations are we focused on that kind of precise simplicity? How often do we focus on ensuring the knowledge we have selected for inclusion in our curriculum is succinct and focused enough that it can be understood without misinterpretation or bafflement by anyone on our delivery teams?

There is so much discussion, debate and frankly verbosity when discussing curriculum. Curriculum is important work but it need not be shrouded, clouded and obscured by often unnecessary terminology or multi layered almost impenetrable language and approaches. By needlessly over complicating our wider work, it means that the enduring clarity and precise simplicity (the kind with which Pheidippides delivered his history changing message) is actually lost to many.

A well crafted and securely sequenced curriculum with clear direction, and an unswerving focus on ensuring everyone actually understands it, is a lynchpin of the work of schools. But some of the work around obtaining this clarity, direction, coherence and sequencing is currently having a potential exhausting Pheidippides effect on the wider work of schools. In devoting huge swathes of our energies to curriculum development, we run the risk of arriving in Athens at the educational Acropolis utterly depleted with no energies left to focus on the broader aspects of our work.

It is also that lack of clarity about what matters which means that for some colleagues, especially those in primary, curriculum conversations can leave them feeling close to breaking point like the exhausted Pheidippides.

Pheidippides also knew the importance of time and that ultimately the time he had to deliver his crucial message was finite. He travelled in a clear direction to a specific end point with a lucidity around the information his intended audience needed. His message was simple. It was well understood and landed with the right people in the right place at the right time.

Time is also finite in schools. There are only so many whole staff meetings, INSET days, PPA time, release time, phase meetings and other release opportunities in which to develop and refine the full bandwidth of what needs developing across the school in everything from safeguarding to behaviour, pedagogy, coaching, mentoring, induction and everything in between.

We need therefore to be strategic. What do we really want for our pupils to achieve and be proficient in? If we had a magic mirror in which to see our pupils at the end of phase, what would we want to see?

Let’s take primary:

What do you want the child at the end of primary to be proficient in? If you had to name your three top academic things which would help them unlock the remainder of their academic journey, what would they be?

I am not one to place a bet but I am fairly certain that reading, writing and a proficiency with number would be front and centre in most people’s answers regardless of the phases in which they work and whether they are educators or not.

And it is important to note these are not yet licked in many schools or indeed for all pupils. Many primary pupils arrive in secondary not yet “secondary ready” in terms of reading, writing and Maths.

Teaching early reading, early writing and early maths truly effectively is difficult. It is a specialist domain all of its own and the associated specific subject and pedagogical knowledge is complex, nuanced and hugely broad. Just like Pheidippides being trained as a specialist hemerodromos, the teaching of primary requires specialist approaches. The ECF and CCF and the new NPQs are interestingly very light on the specifics of these though, and even the teacher standards themselves only give a fleeting wave to the development of early literacy and mathematics in one or two of their bullet points. But these are the foundations, the keys and the building blocks of all future education. Without reading fluency and an ability to organise ideas in writing and understand basic mathematical concepts then children’s journeys through secondary are going to be akin to the difficult journey of Pheidippides over rocky, treacherous and exhausting terrain.

This is not to say wider curriculum is not important. Curriculum is a critical component of success. Developing cultural capital, working to level the playing field, ensuring children have that (as Claire Sealy describes) “carefully curated introduction to the world” are all core parts of the school’s work but its focus is currently skewed.

Whilst we focus all our energies on designing the wider curriculum we need to be mindful of potentially what we are NOT doing. Is our approach actually serving that final end of phase child? If proficiency in reading, writing and Mathematics are the keys which further unlock learning at secondary, are we losing sight of our core messages in primary as we seek to broaden the scope of our specialist primary work to replicate the multiple subject specialisms in secondary?

In the new inspection framework, primaries are being asked to be hugely specialist in everything as per a secondary setup. This is whilst simultaneously having their own specialist primary domain which makes up the core of their work absent or mentioned only fleetingly in national documents but nevertheless still utterly necessary in their day to day practice. Conversely, secondaries are set up with specialist teachers in specialist departments with a remit to develop their individual subjects as a team with a clear unencumbered focus. Primaries are generalists who do not have the same opportunity to focus on individual subjects with the same clarity, yet are inspected with the same handbook.

It is a little like expecting a small café to function in the same way as a large restaurant kitchen. In the restaurant kitchen there are separate sections for preparing the starters, mains, desserts and even sides or patisserie. There are expert chefs at each station and they can perfect their individual crafts without the distraction of the additional demands of the other sections. A small café does not have that same delineation or organisation. It would be madness therefore to compare the two or when inspecting them, to judge them using the same criteria.

In that small café there is also not the opportunity to devote as much time to developing individual specialisms in the same way as in the restaurant kitchen. Whereas the specialist can devote all of their professional development time to honing their individual skill and knowledge, the café can only develop so much. As Pheidippides knew, time is finite.

And this is where he comes in again. He was clear about his message and the needs of his audience. He knew which messages mattered and he was utterly focused on securing their delivery.

In primary, as we endeavour to work on our wider curriculum we must not be seduced away from or dissuaded from our focus on securing success for all in core subjects, which we neglect at our peril.

It has definitely not been right that the twin beasts of English and Maths have often dominated staff training and school development to the potential detriment and borderline neglect of the wider subjects in recent years, but in the current dominant narrative around wider curriculum development we must not forget their importance.

If we take development time away from developing deep and thorough expertise in the teaching of early literacy and early maths to focus on the wider curriculum then we must be truly clear about why we are doing it.

It is of course true that every child deserves a broad, balanced and well thought through wider curriculum but equally every child deserves fluency in reading, writing and mathematics.

Curriculum development time in primary is ultimately finite and we cannot afford to pretend that we can run 12 marathons at once, nor should those evaluating our effectiveness expect us to.

We are notionally trying to develop up to 12+ subjects or areas as a single staff with the same time budget as individual specialist secondary departments. It is no wonder so many colleagues are finding themselves exhausted in the Acropolis.

 If we are to be like Pheidippides and deliver a key message really clearly but without his subsequent expiration then we need to have more conversations about how to become specialist primary curriculum “hemerodromos”, specialist colleagues in the day long design and delivery of the primary curriculum – a primary curriculum which must have utter clarity and focus on ensuring the core messages of primary land with our primary pupils. If we achieve this we can then watch them transition successfully to secondary and, as Pheidippides did, shout, “Joy to you, we’ve won!”

They will not have a second chance to run the primary marathon.

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