The problem with curriculum implementation – the Forth bridge and gluesticks
For the last few years, conversations around curriculum design have dominated all phases of the sector. No one would ever argue that a high quality curriculum is a not a key driver in raising achievement or that it isn’t a core part of the work of a school. The ongoing refinement, dialogue, revisiting, evaluation, reframing and improvements around curriculum design are the educational “painting of the Forth bridge”. Curriculum is a work which is never done, never ticked off, never complete. It can be structured and sequenced and mapped and assessed but it is never “done”. The world in which we live is dynamic and ever changing, so too are our cohorts of children – we all know how one approach or design can match one group of children perfectly one year or session and then fall utterly flat on a second outing with a different group. Part of the beauty of curriculum development is the ongoing interplay between the needs of the learners; the world in which we live; the evolving knowledge within and around each discipline; and the ways in which we integrate this into our plans.
Our curriculum serves as a well designed bridge between what children currently understand about the world and what we can introduce them to. Its structure and sequencing ensures that they can view these new worlds from informed vantage points and that the vistas to which we introduce them are rich, interesting, diverse and purposeful. As soon as we reach one end of the curriculum bridge however, it is time to revisit and repaint it from the beginning.
Time for curriculum
The process of purposeful curriculum tinkering is time consuming. It requires a deep and thorough understanding of the needs of cohorts; the knowledge and skills within each individual subject; the interplay between subjects; the skills, experience and knowledge of staff involved in its delivery; the rationale behind the sequencing and structure of the model; an understanding of progression; appropriate approaches to assessment; moderation, what constitutes excellence in pupil outcomes; how learning rather than coverage can be ensured and evidenced; how to integrate adaptive teaching to meet the needs of all learners; how to best resource and use resources – the list of requirements is seemingly endless. Sitting underneath that curriculum bridge therefore is a deep ocean of professional skills, knowledge and understanding.
To do this well requires time.
But teaching is a time poor profession, not only in terms of the workloads of individual teachers but also in terms of time available in schools to plumb the depths of each of those curriculum oceans.
Let’s take an average school. There are approximately 38 weeks available to meet to discuss and develop the life and work of the entire school. Let’s say we decide that curriculum is our main driver for all work, so we are going to devote the bulk of our available time budget to focus on this. Let’s recognise that we do need to focus on a wider range of other areas so let’s remove 8 opportunities to ensure that we still cover necessary or generic other areas such as safeguarding, or staff updates or specific school based areas of focus.
This leaves us with 30 opportunities.
Now, each phase in the sector will have its own pulls on those 30 opportunities. Issues relating to exams, assessments, parents’ meetings, different key stages, statutory training etc. However, the fact remains that if you work in a secondary setting, even though you may teach across multiple key stages, those 30 opportunities are spread over only one or maybe 2-3 subjects. In primary these 30 opportunities are spread over 10+ subjects, three key stages and two separate national approaches to curriculum documentation (The National curriculum and the EYFS curriculum) so all of a sudden there are only potentially 3 opportunities a year to refine and develop all aspects of each individual subject’s curriculum, including its design, content, structure, sequencing, resourcing, teaching, assessment and moderation.
Often only an hour staff meeting.
So three hours to do all of the above.
That doesn’t leave time to plumb the depths; it barely leaves enough time to dip a toe in the water.
Now add in the fact that in primary there are no heads of department – no guaranteed specialists for each and every subject to help guide and structure all the necessary pillars of that bridge. Yes, of course each primary teacher will have their own specialism but many primary schools only have 7 classes, yet we have upwards of 10 subjects/areas to lead.
Now add in to this that also there is often no subject leader release time in primary schools.
Thousands of schools are leading subjects, including the joint behemoths of English and Maths, teaching a full timetable themselves with no frees and nothing more than statutory PPA yet they are subject to the same EIF “Deep dives” in their subjects.
Specialist expectations, generalist setups
Now this is not a “who has it hardest” competition. Comparison is the thief of joy and also the cause of unhelpful and unnecessary squabbles and games of misery one-upmanship. However, we cannot keep on comparing apples and oranges or use the same set of scales. Primary and Secondary practice, organisation, infrastructure, staffing, buildings, resourcing, funding, curriculum are two separate yet complementary sides of the same educational coin. However, just as you cannot compare the functioning of the practice of a generalist community GP’s surgery with the functioning of a large hospital with its specialist departments, so too is it impossible and wildly inaccurate to compare or try to replicate secondary models in primary schools.
The enactment of loftily ambitious curriculum documents with their sky high intents, all too often created in ivory towers far away from the primary classroom, fails to recognise that primary schools need a very different implementation model. Take for example, rooms.
In a secondary setting, children move from specialist room to specialist room. The maths room will look very different from the art room and again from the PE changing rooms or the DT room or the science labs. The English room may look similar to the history room or the geography room, but none of them will look like the food tech room or the music room. There are often additional staff employed just to set up and maintain the resources needed to deliver the curriculum effectively – lab technicians, IT technicians, sports’ coaches. Primary schools may have the odd IT tech (often shared between schools though and maybe only in once or twice a fortnight) or a sports’ coach (who invariably covers PPA), but the bulk of all the curriculum has to be delivered in the same room by the same teacher with no transition times or frees between sessions. This means that if you want to “flip” your room from being the Maths room to being an Art room you need to either have your Y1s trained with military precision to help you out or you need to be scrabbling around at lunchtime and playtime, shifting furniture, laying out table covers and hoping no one drops glue all over the Literacy books which are stacked near the sink, or treads pastels into the carpet which everyone needs to sit on again for History later.
The curriculum design for primary needs to recognise that it needs to be enacted in primary classrooms for starters. These are often hugely overcrowded, cramped, have little to no storage and need to serve as everything from drama studio to music room to maths classroom to art department. When writing curriculum documents, often by people with little to no experience in primary classrooms, the logistics of actual enactment are often hugely overlooked.
The need for the primary expert voice
It is a scandal that so many of the voices dominating primary curriculum design conversations with its current dominant narrative of, “subject specialism is god; “topic” is the product of the educational underworld” are not primary specialists. Nor have they ever managed a primary classroom as a full time primary classroom teacher. This means they have no working knowledge of what it is actually like to deliver a full curriculum to 30+ small children in a cramped and under resourced room.
It is an utter scandal that primaries are being told what and how to teach by colleagues who are hugely knowledgeable in their fields but have zero understanding or experience of the practicalities of implementing and delivering in a primary classroom. We can all learn so much from each other across the sector – there are many gifts to give and share but understanding is key.
To insist on subject specialism at primary does seem to indicate little or no working knowledge of how to run a primary room. No idea of how long it takes to teach children the basic routines and norms around things such as handing out gluesticks; how to use scissors or paintbrushes; how to put on aprons; how to tidy away; how to not fiddle with whiteboard pens or not to sharpen pencils into your lap; how to not write on any page you fancy in your book and to ensure you start at the beginning and not the back of your exercise book; how to put your jumper back on the right way after PE; how to fold your clothes up in your space when you get changed so you don’t have to play, “hunt the identical shoe” for half an hour every time you come in; how to glue a sheet in your book; how to sit on the carpet without touching anyone else’s shoes, hair, leg, eyeball. The list of things which need teaching but are not on the actual curriculum are huge. None of these logistics features on the curriculum intent documents yet nothing can actually be achieved unless children master these time consuming everyday primary routines.
What this means in reality then is that curriculum documents written away from the primary classroom often fail to recognise the additional space needed to actually enact the curriculum. This results in hugely overstuffed curriculum documents with every last session of every last week of every last term micro planned and accounted for.
There is no wriggle room for responding the emergencies such as when someone invariably throws up all over the classroom and you need to relocate to the library, or to include the primary rites of passage which everyone expects yet no one accounts for. Events such as the photographer, sports day, harvest celebrations, making mothering Sunday cards or items for the winter or summer fetes, rehearsing a class play, doing cycling proficiency, practising for a class assembly, then themed days such as comic relief or children in need or world book day.
Time in primary is finite.
There are only so many curriculum hours we have and we need to think carefully not only about what we want children to know, understand and remember but also what we want them to experience and what is actually important.
Because the thing about single subject development is that it implies that all things in the primary curriculum have the potential to be seen as equal when they really aren’t.
Whenever we are tinkering with individual subjects, we need to ask what we are NOT doing. By that I mean that for well over two decades in primary now, I have worked or led in multiple schools where just fitting in the associated ongoing development of English and Maths and PSHE has been like trying to pour a pint into a thimble.
Without an appropriately sharp focus on the development of excellence in early Maths and English and, (through PSHE and a focus on child development) a deep understanding of how young children learn develop and grow, we are on a hiding to nowhere. It will not matter what curriculum vistas we create further on down the line for our children to stand on, they will not even be able to get onto the bridge to explore them because the bridge will have been built on foundations of sand.
Knowing what to want
When we talk about developing curriculum at primary, we need to be mindful of what it is we actually want. Yes, in an ideal world, we would of course want a rich curriculum full of a wide variety of well crafted subjects to introduce to children. Of course that is the dream but then there is reality. Children need to learn how to read in order to access any curriculum and they need to be numerate not only to access maths and sciences but to interpret statistics and data across the humanities and wider curriculum. To want to gorge on a rich curriculum buffet whilst not ensuring the main food groups are the bulk of the diet leads to a bloated, overstuffed curriculum which leaves everyone feeling a little sick and lacks the consistent and necessary basic nutrition.
A well crafted primary curriculum is lean, agile and with a crisp focus on how young children learn alongside an anchoring of the tripartite scaffolds of English, Maths and PSHE.
Some may argue that it is perfectly possible to craft a curriculum which is single subject and still leaves room for agile responses. I would argue that simply timetabling that is a nonsense. Anyone who has tried to organise a timetable in primary to include daily Literacy and Maths, at least 2 hours of PE, access to the computing equipment, access to hall time (which is severely impinged by the hall also doubling up as canteen, assembly space, drama studio, theatre, rehearsal space and sports’ hall for every child in the school) and then trying to squeeze in both Art and DT in the same week is a headache and that’s before you’ve even factored in the less “specialist resource” lessons such as History or Geography.
There is therefore logistically good reason why topic or project work where complementary strands of work from different subjects are combined has been the backbone of much of primary practice. Not only are primaries uniquely placed to make deliberate and meaningful connections across subjects to help develop rich schema, but the combining of subjects makes timetabling and logistical sense. Careful planning and delivery to ensure these sessions don’t end up as meaningless homogenous curriculum blobs is of course necessary, but it is foolhardy to discard and discount the awe and wonder of extended periods of time immersed in thinking deeply about “topics” which are hugely engrossing for young learners in favour of a whack a rat constant stop-start of individual subject teaching.
The need for pragmatism not fluff
This is not to say I am somehow a fan of discovery learning or enquiry learning. Far from it. What I am, is a fan of pragmatism and realistic expectations. When you are four or six or even nine, it is really not important to know what lesson you are in and whether you’re in history or geography. It is important that you are utterly absorbed by fascinating things you are learning which are carefully selected and sequenced to support your early development. It’s not important that you can somehow parrot back to an adult in your room what the learning is all about and whereabouts you are in the sequence of it. That’s not your job. What you need when you are four or six or even nine is someone who understands how young children learn and someone who can make that curriculum meaningful and relevant and important to you. You need to be with someone who knows that the greatest gift they can give you is not whether or not you can articulate today’s exact learning at that exact moment in your computing session but it is ensuring you can read, that you can understand number, and function both as an individual and within a group.
Primary is a truly unique phase. It is where children transition from the edges of toddlerhood to the beginnings of being a teenager and a young adult. Children enter primary school often unable to dress themselves without help or cut up their food. They can often not hold a pencil or write a single word or sound or even count objects. They leave being able to write essays, read fluently, calculate efficiently within all four operations and function as part of well ordered, harmonious and supportive groups.
Look them in the curriculum eye
When we look at the four or six or nine year olds we know in our own families and networks we need to look our most beloved of children straight in the eyes ask ourselves, what would I want your curriculum enactment to look like? What would I want your day to be like? What do I want your experiences to be today?
Then we need to look at what we are promoting.
I mean really look.
Look at the messaging given on training and CPD (often not designed or delivered by primary specialists).
Look at the discourse on social media platforms with its often implied direct transference from secondary to primary.
Look at who is influencing primary curriculum design and development at national level and ask for their primary experience and credentials.
We need to look at what we are promoting and ask should we really permit it for our youngest learners. And does it fit with the environments in which these youngest of learners are doing the learning?
We cannot create a “perfect” curriculum for an imperfect primary system and neither should we impose unrealistic expectations around models of implementation and enactment on other people’s children.
The interconnected curriculum
The joy of primary curriculum is the opportunity for interconnectedness. Interconnectedness between subjects but also between home and school, child and teacher, child and community. The beauty of the best and most agile of curriculum at primary is its relevance to our youngest learners. A curriculum which has space to play and to explore and which links to local people, places, everyday experiences and things helps to anchor that child not just within the individual disciplines but within the school and local communities and helps them to feel a sense of belonging. I have seen far too many schools ditch beautiful units of work linked to local history or landmarks or people because it somehow doesn’t “fit” with a national model. This is utter madness. If our curriculum is to introduce our children to the worlds in which they live, where better to start than the places they call their home. In designing loftily ambitious curriculum documents, crafted away from the very young children they are designed to serve, we run the risk of forgetting the element of curriculum service. Children should not be in service to a curriculum, providing evidence of our neat covering off of it all in some skewed accountability merry go round, but the curriculum should be an act of service to our children. It should equip them with what they need, when they need it and be relevant to who they are and where they are. Our curriculum should be a bridge between where they are and where they can go. It is not a single ladder to climb nor a road or tube route to be mapped. It is a bridge from their current point to a clearly articulated destination in the distance.
It is time for the discussion around curriculum at primary to ditch its tube maps and ladders and overly complicated graphics of routes, and its current devotion to individual subject teaching and to return to a few core concerns.
- The effective development of early reading
- The effective development of early Mathematics
- A child development informed approach to PSHE
- A curriculum rooted in belonging and relevance
- Clear and deliberate interdisciplinary interconnectedness (not homogenous topic)
- A realistic approach to implementation
- The uncoupling of the single subject narrative with most effective practice
- An insistence on national primary curriculum design and development being led and steered by experienced primary practitioners
It’s time to build a curriculum bridge over troubled waters.