Secondary curriculum design – let’s standardise the basics first

Ofsted’s focus on the curriculum seems to have thrown up two contrasting views, roughly equating to a trad/prog split, on what the ideal secondary curriculum should look like. I have enjoyed reading both viewpoints and deciding where I stand on this. However, I feel that no one has yet addressed the basics.

At one end, we have ideas described by proponents as forming the basis for “a curriculum fit for the 21st century,” but read rather like “a throwback to the 1970s” to those longer in the tooth such as myself.  A grudging nod may occasionally be given to subject disciplines, but the general tenor is overriding enthusiasm for project based learning, topics, cross-curricular work and discrete lessons in various “skills”, which we are informed we are all going to need in the brave new world of the future (as if they were never needed before). Enthusiasts for this approach appear to be Mary Bousted of the NEU, John Dunford of ASCL and various academics such as Guy Claxton. I have written a post about this earlier. In order to attract support, enthusiasts of this approach to the curriculum paint the alternative as an examination treadmill, with students poring over mark schemes, teachers obsessing about target grades and constant interventions with students falling behind. Given that this has happened in many schools recently, it is highly likely that a large teachers will be seduced by a curriculum which appears to reject all of this. Being broadly traditional, I believe those of us who are sceptical about such an approach need to highlight and highlight again the many occasions where it failed in the 1970s and indeed more recently in the borough of Knowsley.

So you would expect me to be an enthusiast for the alternative approaches which place knowledge at the heart of the curriculum, make use of cognitive science and seek to develop long term memory. I certainly do find these ideas more attractive than the alternative, but as a subject leader I am focussed on three mundane, but essential issues for anyone who believes in a subject based curriculum. They are:

a) How much curriculum time do I get overall?

b) How long are lessons?

c) How are the lessons distributed in the different year groups?

Boring, boring, boring I hear you say. But the answers I receive to these questions will have a dramatic effect on what I teach, when I teach it and how I teach it. I often sigh when I read articles and books about methodology in my subject, foreign language teaching. They appear to assume the same rules apply whether you are teaching the subject for over 5 hours a week (as I did when teaching abroad) or whether you are teaching the subject in an after school club for half an hour every week. I would contend this is simply untrue. If I am compelled to teach my subject on one hour a week for example, I have to accept that students will forget target language easily. I then have to accept that students become frustrated because they forget it all. I then have to accept that this frustration will lead to behavioural problems. So do I then spend a lot of lesson time going over the same stuff again and again (leading to boredom at lack of progress), or do I decide to move on to new material (leading to many students forgetting)?

Many countries have standardised lengths of lessons. In Britain, lesson times vary between 35 minutes to 3 hours.

Many countries decree the amount of curriculum time a subject should get, both overall and within a year group. In Britain, the variation in curriculum time in my subject is astounding and I have blogged about this here.

In my conversations with various members of SLT throughout the years, many mention the challenges of putting a timetable together which reconciles the different wishes of each subject. Fair enough. But I would contend this conversation needs to happen at a national level and that guidance needs to be given. Performance management means that comparisons between subjects in terms of “value added” are inevitable. There has to be a move towards a level playing field if fairness is to be ensured. But I accept that this could restrict the freedom of senior leaders to adapt the curriculum as they see fit for their schools.

I am not sure what the answer is. Yet I do believe that the three questions I posed  should be being debated at national level. I repeat them:

  1. How much curriculum time should a subject have overall?
  2. How long should lessons be?
  3. How should the lessons be distributed among different year groups?

It may well be decided there should be no national guidance and schools should be free to do what they like. Fair enough, if these questions have been properly debated at national level. My note of caution would be that, if other countries  have decided to give more explicit advice (in some cases statutory) on these matters at a national level, then should we assume that giving headteachers and governors absolute power over these questions is always a good thing?


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Rebutting the “Stuff the facts – let’s just develop confident rhetoric” argument

Every now and then I see an article which makes me think about what the author is really saying and trying to see if I can agree with it. The article which got me thinking inferred that facts are irrelevant to a debate, as confidence was what mattered.

To quote from the article

“I was horrified (my italics) by a policy developer who tried to defend a knowledge-rich curriculum because “you need facts to win a debate”. He’s wrong – you need confidence. I’ve seen people win debates purely on bravado without an ounce of knowledge”

What horrifies me is that, in many cases, the author of the article is correct. There have been and there still are people who can win debates through sheer bravado. If you look and sound confident, you can go a long way. In my experience, people with a background in sales are very good at this. It’s only after a good few years of experiencing life (one of the benefits of getting older!), that you begin to realise that some people will sound confident about anything at all, whereas the trick is to ascertain whether they really have the facts at their fingertips, or whether what they are saying is just a lot of hot air.

In my 30 years of teaching I have seen many pupils give “speeches” asking to be considered for various positions of responsibility. In recent times, I have had to advise them that making a speech is not the same as an audition for “Britain’s Got Talent”. To be fair, some of their peers see through the confident rhetoric and gimmicks and start asking probing questions. But, equally, I have seen Mr and Miss Narcissist carry the day.

It is also true that I have often wished that the quiet but knowledgeable, thoughtful pupil would put themselves forward, So yes, I agree that we need to develop our less confident pupils in oracy.  Yet I do not want a world where people shout empty rhetoric at each other.

As another article has stated, oracy without knowledge leads to a situation where anger and passion substitute for analysis and exposure to an unexpected piece of factual information can derail the speaker. So yes, we need to develop confident speakers, but knowledge is crucial if ideas are to be challenged and argued appropriately.

Back in 1989 the former headmaster of Westminster School, John Rae, published a book, “Too little too late?” which gave his response to the newly introduced national curriculum. In it, he quotes Harold Macmillan’s classics tutor at Balliol college Oxford saying the following,

“Nothing that you will learn on the course of studies will be the slightest use to you in later life, save only that if you work hard and diligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot and in my view that is the main if not the sole purpose of education.”

The sole purpose of education? I disagree. But “a” purpose of education? Absolutely. At the risk of breaking Godwin’s law,  history is littered with examples of demagogues who used their rhetorical skills to win people over. Those people who dismiss a knowledge based curriculum are not giving their pupils the vital tools they need to challenge the windbags and narcissists. That is what horrifies me.

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Back to the 1960s and 1970s with ASCL

Recently, I spotted a year 11 pupil (I dislike the word student unless used for 6th form or university) with a copy of “Anna Karenina” in her bag. Having studied some Russian, I asked her if she was enjoying it. She was. The book wasn’t on an exam syllabus and the pupil concerned had no Russian background or indeed any connection to Russia at all. She had just heard about the story.

A year 8 pupil I know is able to recite all the English monarchs from William the Conqueror. Just the sort of stuff which would get certain educationalists throwing up their hands in horror about mindless rote learning, facts without understanding etc. Yet this pupil was happy that they got far more out of a visit to the Tower of London as a result.

A year 9 pupil had a copy of a Roald Dahl book in German that he was reading and finding difficult. I said that one of the issues would be the use  imperfect, or simple past tense. He nodded, said he had heard about it and asked when we would look at this tense. In Year 10, I said. “Couldn’t we do it this year”, he asked? He was probably right. In MFL, KS3 textbooks simply don’t introduce tenses early enough. When I was teaching in Germany, the English perfect tenses were introduced in Chapter 3 of book 1 in the textbook I had. His comment gave me food for thought for planning my scheme of work, but I am limited in the curriculum time allocated to me.

I became extremely irritated when I read the following from John Dunford:

What I dislike most about it is the conviction that a knowledge based curriculum is solely about passing exams. I suppose, to some head teachers looking at progress charts and spreadsheets, it is. Therefore it must be tempting to assume that a knowledge based curriculum is simply about poring over the exam spec and nothing else. I guess the advocates of child centred learning have a vested interest in promoting this viewpoint. Once you have convinced enough people that this is what a knowledge based curriculum is all about, you are half way to persuading them to adopt a non subject based approach, topic work, projects and learning how to learn, with the mantra that “this teaches the skills they will need for the future.”

I looked at the Whole Education website. I see nothing wrong with some of what it seems to advocate  eg. networking, collaboration between schools. Yet I disagree with the approaches to the curriculum which seem to be promoted, judging by the examples on the website. I almost found myself shouting at my tablet, “NONE OF THIS STUFF IS NEW”. Back in the 1970s, my local comprehensive was engaged with this. They had merged subjects together to create something called TRENDS, which stood for Talking, Reading, Enquiring, Noting, Discovering Self and Society. Did it last? No. Yet it was just the sort of thing Dunford would approve of, judging by the article. More recently, in Knowsley, the secondary schools were rebuilt to provide a learning environment supposedly fit for the future, with curricula to match. Did the “personalised” approach improve behaviour? No. Did it improve knowledge and skills? No. Are they still doing it? No.

“Tomorrow’s adults will be faced with problems about the nature of which we can have no conception. They will have to cope with the jobs not yet invented. They need a curriculum….that they can see as an organic whole, related to their present and future needs”

This was said by the headteacher of Nightingale County Secondary School in 1966. Over 50 years ago. I know we often look back with nostalgia to our youth, but please let’s not pretend that this sort of thinking is innovative. It isn’t!

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MFL could easily become the preserve of independent schools – despite the Ebacc

So, the Progress 8 scores are out and it appears that despite the Ebacc, MFL entries are falling. Mary Bousted of the NEU makes the following comment in this article:

“The decrease in the proportion of pupils entering the EBacc is largely driven by a decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE. This may reflect the difficulty schools are facing recruiting languages teachers. Or it may reflect a conviction amongst teachers and school leaders that studying computer coding or design technology or an appropriate vocational subject may be a much better use of many pupils’ precious learning time in schools.”

Hmm. I’m not too sure about that. My own belief is that the drop in numbers studying languages could be an over obsession with Progress 8 and the various algorithms used to track supposed progress. MFL tends to suffer in this regard, as even according to Ofqual’s own data, pupils achieve on average half a grade lower in languages than all other subjects. So, according to SLT, far better to reduce MFL to a minority subject, maybe just one language, with a couple of lessons a week in Year 7 and 8 and then made optional at GCSE. Even some grammar schools have gone down this route and the alarm bells started ringing when I was asked if I had seen School X’s MFL curriculum which had gone down that path.

This line of thinking is often justified by the reasoning that it is better that pupils study what they like, rather than what they don’t. After all, children will misbehave if they are forced to do what they don’t find immediately appealing, won’t they? It could put them off education. couldn’t it?  Interestingly, this argument is not made for English, maths and science.

Languages do not have the glamour appeal of the arts and take a long time to master. Once they are optional, the fall in the numbers is quite staggering, as I noticed when I looked at School X’s curriculum model, where less than 50% take a language to GCSE. And School X is a selective school. The percentages are lower in many non selective schools. At the moment languages remain compulsory at GCSE where I work, but I feel myself coming under increasing pressure for it to be optional. I admit it, my progress data is not as good as English, maths and science. Perhaps it should be. We have some pupils who do not achieve a pass. Probably they should. But it comes to something if you are told that you have failed to add value to pupils with B and A grades in MFL at GCSE or A level, because their Attainment 8/ALPS prediction indicated they should have got A or A*.

So does this matter? Well, I would say it does. As someone from a working class background whose parents knew no languages and did not go abroad, I am not sure whether I would have opted for it, had the subject been treated as a Cinderella subject – one language, 2 lessons a week.  Nowadays, when I visit #mfltwitterati,  I see MFL teachers trying to hook students into language learning through a variety of games and activities. Yet often, when I visit their school websites, I find the take up for GCSE is poor. The pupils are perfectly aware that GCSE is hard work. There is just so much to remember compared to everything else. And then you have to apply all that vocab and grammar.

Every now and then in teaching you get one of those moments that make you feel so proud. My most recent was on the school Open Day, when I heard a sixth form student tell some prospective parents that MFL was compulsory to GCSE and that she thought that was a good idea, because, back in year 9, she wouldn’t have opted for it if she had had the choice. She was unaware that I was in earshot. I think her grade was B, which no doubt was below some progress prediction, but she was pleased with it. Time and time again I see pupils far more proud of their C grade in MFL than their As and Bs in other subjects.

A well known independent school on the south coast of England recently advertised for a position of Head of German. The school teaches a range of languages already : French, Spanish, Mandarin and Russian. German had been dropped, but was now being reintroduced for all pupils. Most pupils there take two languages to GCSE. It annoys me that, thanks to an obsession with data, MFL could once again become the preserve of rich people who can afford independent schools, or pupils whose parents tell them to opt for it.


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Progress or attainment?

“You value attainment. I don’t. You have failed to understand that progress rules.”

A well known blogger once tweeted this to me. It is actually quite shocking when you think about it. An educator who says “I don’t value attainment”.

If David Laws’ book “Coalition” is to be believed, he takes the credit for persuading Michael Gove to make Progress 8 the key accountability measure f0r schools. According to Laws, Michael Gove “wasn’t, if truth be told, terribly good with numbers”. Perhaps that was why he was hoodwinked into a measure which I think he would have otherwise opposed. I’m not good with numbers either, but my initial scepticism about Progress 8 (later to become opposition) was rooted in the fact that I didn’t know of any other country in the world which used a similar system. If anyone knows otherwise please let me know.

Then I started to read that I wasn’t the only sceptic out there. Tom Sherrington came out with this article. Then I read this and this from James Pembroke. However, in addition to the points they make, I guess I have 3 main objections.

Firstly, supporters of the Progress 8 measure say that it forces schools to look at every pupil, rather than just those on the C/D borderline. This, I would contend, is impossible. You simply can’t focus everywhere. So isn’t it better to have a real “focus” and an attainment goal “a GCSE pass” at the end of it, rather than try to run countless intervention groups with every student who is below some spurious target grade? I have heard it said that, before Progress 8,  in some schools some departments only taught what was necessary for a C grade, in order to boost the 5 A* – C pass rate. I am sceptical about this, as there is always a kind of informal “competition” in schools for departments to achieve a string of top grades in their subject.
Secondly, the obsession with expected progress leads to the ludicrous situation where a teacher can be told they have “failed to add value” to a student who achieved an A grade at GCSE in their subject, a subject they may never have studied at KS3. I referred to this in a previous post. All those teaching hours, the homework, the marking, the hard work put in by both pupil and teacher simply dismissed in four words. After all, the attainment is irrelevant – what matters is whether they achieved above whatever target had been set. Really? Do we really believe that?
Thirdly, and this is arguably where my selfishness comes in, is the effect the Progress 8 measure could have on the curriculum, if SLTs throughout the country become obsessed with it. It is likely to lead to excessive curriculum time being allocated to English and mathematics, squeezing other subjects lower down the school. At this point someone may say to me, “well your subject is all right because MFL is in the Ebacc and schools will need to boost their Ebacc pass rate as a result of the government’s performance measures, right?” Well, wrong actually. Because of a little known change in the performance measure, namely an “average points score ” for Ebacc subjects, rather than a pass rate. The whole point of a baccalaureate type exam is that pupils need to pass all elements of it. However the government has rowed back from this idea and accepted an average points score, doubtless under pressure from SLTs terrified of compulsory MFL at KS4.

Having taught abroad and seen what pupils achieved there, I actually do believe it is possible for 90% of pupils to pass the range of Ebacc subjects, provided that the curriculum time is allocated appropriately and, crucially, the pupils know they have to pass all elements of it. The one element of the Ebacc which is most difficult to pass? Yes, you’ve guessed it, MFL. Ofqual’s own data shows that on average those that enter GCSE MFL get half a grade lower in the language.

So what you could end up with is even “academic” schools deciding that MFL isn’t worth the bother. Might as well accept a 0 in the MFL slot from the start. Even in schools which make it compulsory, there will be no desire from SLT to support the MFL department by allocating appropriate curriculum time to get their students over the threshold. MFL teachers will be breaking their backs to get the pupils to take the subject seriously, but could be undermined by an SLT thinking it’s not worth the hassle. They are likely to be criticised if a significant portion do not pass it, but may not get support if they beg their SLT to tell pupils to prioritise their weakest subject for intervention (again, likely to be MFL). After all, the Progress 8 Ebacc buckets are easily filled with science and humanities (or all science if students do triple sciences). Maths and English (double points) could end up being massively promoted and MFL could end up with the worst of both worlds, a subject where SLTs might reluctantly enter pupils for GCSE but without the necessary curriculum time or intervention support it may need.

However, I have somewhat strayed from my title, progress or attainment. When I take an exam, I want to pass. I don’t care whether I made more or less progress than whatever some algorithm decided I should have made. I want to pass. When I studied for a GCSE at night school, I passed. I was delighted. I had attained a qualification. I cannot accept a measure which might have said to my teacher at night school that they failed to add value to my education.

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The value of an academic curriculum

I gather some university PGCE tutors are understandably upset when their training of teachers is criticised. I actually enjoyed my PGCE course. Yes – progressive stuff was pushed, but we weren’t forced into it. The conventional view at the time was that moving schools from local control was a bad idea. I remember writing an essay arguing the opposite – that by allowing every school to opt out of local control, we could have a truly national education service (sounds like Labour party policy in 2017!). My lecturer disagreed, but wrote me an excellent reference.

Back in the late 1980s, I was training to be an MFL teacher when communicative language teaching was at its height. The accepted wisdom was that grammar shouldn’t be taught and that children would work out the rule for themselves. A few lecturers had moved to a position whereby it was acceptable to tell children about grammar if they asked about it, but otherwise don’t bother with it. I had assumed that we would be given strategies for introducing the “less able” children to grammatical concepts and terminology, but was surprised to find that this was not the case. “It’s all too difficult for them” seemed to be the premise. I remember that we were all asked to name the textbook used in our schools for teaching German. Mine was “Deutsches Leben” a 1950s tome typical of its epoch (“Werner – let’s look at the map while your mother and Uschi do the washing up”), which was ridiculously out of date in the egalitarian 1970s. The lecturer smiled. “It’s amazing how many people who used these sort of textbooks go on to study languages”, he mused.

Teaching English in eastern Europe in the 1980s, the classes there used a similar textbook to learn English. I was quite embarrassed by it at the time, giving as it did a totally outdated picture of the UK, interspersed with texts about British communists I had never heard of (Harry Pollitt?). By the time they left school, the children were incredibly dismissive of the book and the lessons in it. Yet I remember thinking at the time, “Yes – but your English is superb considering that you have never been outside your country and had no access to UK media”.

There is a danger that if you start defending the past you end up being classified as a Luddite wearer of rose tinted spectacles, wallowing in nostalgia for a bygone age. Not with me. In my 1970s grammar school I remember some good teaching, but I also remember the bad stuff. The bullying which was often ignored because it was thought to make a man of you, the petty rules, the petty tyrannies, the crazy punishments. I am glad that education has moved on from this. However I also remember an atmosphere of scholarship, where the head and the staff respected academic study in itself, rather than just a means to an examination certificate. Staff frequently went “beyond the syllabus” and we certainly did not spend lesson time poring over mark schemes and success criteria.

I get quite irritated when I see very successful people denigrate and dismiss their education. I remember arguing with a lecturer who was convinced that grammar teaching was harmful. “Has it harmed you?” I asked. “Well yes, yes it has. I’m not very creative” was the response. This from a man who had written books and papers on his subject. When you have knowledge of something, there is always a danger that you forget the effort it took to gain that knowledge, or how that knowledge has helped you in your life or career.

I agree with Amanda Spielman about a damaging trend in the education system of today which seems to view the academic curriculum as just a means of obtaining “badges and stickers”. I think she is right to say that Ofsted will focus on the curriculum offered by schools. Yet I fear that she will be told that it is a choice between constant examination preparation, or a “Claxton” curriculum of children learning how to learn. Or she may be told something on the lines that “the curriculum we have is what we deem appropriate for our particular students” and that this will be used to justify decisions to enter students for any qualification which is likely to raise the school’s Progress 8 score, to give excessive curriculum time to English and mathematics, or to discourage students from persevering with subjects less likely to contribute positively to that score (eg. MFL).

As long as Progress 8 exists, the focus of a school will inevitably focus on the mechanics of boosting that score, rather than scholarship. So, in short, before we denigrate the education we received, perhaps those of us who succeeded in that admittedly flawed system of the past (yes, I know, there were plenty who didn’t) should consider ourselves lucky that we went to schools which did not have to worry about such measures and could focus on academic scholarship. The challenge was always to get a larger number of schools to focus on this, hence Harold Wilson’s designation of comprehensives as “grammar schools for all”. I guess a school focussing on the mechanics of boosting Progress 8 is better than a school focussing on some of the more whacky 1970s curricula (project based learning etc). But that doesn’t stop me being nostalgic for a time when an academic curriculum could be prized for its own sake, rather than a tiresome necessity for obtaining exam certificates and a Progress 8 score.



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You failed to add value!

Every time I hear a presentation explaining Progress 8, or indeed any of the various measures used to track so called “progress”, my heart sinks. This could be because I am not a mathematician and do not find such things inherently fascinating. But what I find most alarming is when such measures are presented without the slightest acknowledgement that the rationale behind them may be flawed. That whole business of saying you can predict with accuracy what a child’s attainment at GCSE will be in every subject because of English and maths scores when the child was 11.

It was the same with “levels of progress” I remember. When the government abolished levels I was surprised at how long it took so many people to acknowledge that the whole concept of levels was flawed. For many, the reaction seemed to be “they’ve taken away a means of measuring progress – how dare they!” ASCL was particularly enraged until some brave souls broke ranks and (shock, horror) agreed with Tim Oates that the whole concept of levels might be flawed. Up until that point the statistical validity of the measure was not questioned.

I sometimes wonder if I am alone in finding it somewhat depressing to be told that I and my colleagues may well have “failed to add value” to a student who achieved a string of top grades at GCSE. In my case, modern languages, a pupil often arrives without having studied a language at all at primary. Even if they have, they are likely to have taken the GCSE in a different language (eg. German, Latin) to the one they studied at primary (usually French or Spanish). So a pupil starts with no knowledge of a language and ends up with an A grade at GCSE in that language, only for the teachers to be told they have “failed to add value” to that pupil, if the KS2 SATS indicated a high Attainment 8 score. The fact that we have opened the pupil’s eyes to a whole new way of communicating, that the pupil has gained knowledge and skills in a whole new field of study, the hours spent planning lessons and marking work, even the fact that the pupil may be continuing the subject to A level counts for nothing. And not just in languages. Attainment and academic study in the whole secondary curriculum can be dismissed with “Well, you failed to add value.” Whole fields of academic study reduced to a number. And all because of scores based on KS2 SATs in maths and English.

A similar situation exists at A level, where the ALPS system is used by many schools to predict outcomes based on average GCSE attainment. Apart from the fact that A level study is very different from GCSE study, a student may study a whole new discipline at A level, one they did not study at GCSE. Let’s say they achieve an B grade. But what if their ALPS prediction was an AABB? Again, all your hard work in teaching that student, the conversations you will have had with them, the support you will have provided and the extra knowledge and skills the student will have gained can be dismissed with the withering statement “well, you failed to add value.” The implication is that you as a teacher are worthless.

To me, this is the biggest drawback of making progress an end in itself. It encourages schools to focus, not on the curriculum, but a number. Never mind what the pupil studies – the main thing is the Progress 8 figure the pupil ends up with, as that will effect the whole school’s Progress 8 score. It is no wonder that organisations like PiXL are desperate to find easy qualifications to boost that figure.

I went into teaching because I loved my subject and wanted to use it in my work and hopefully inspire others to study it. For that reason, I never found senior management an attractive idea. Yet I have recently discovered another reason why I could not be SLT. I can imagine delight in my school’s GCSE and A level results. I can imagine delight if (controversially!) those results are better than other schools locally and nationally. I can imagine delight in the range of extra curricular activities offered by my school. I can imagine delight in seeing my school lauded as a beacon of excellence and having parents queue up to enter their children.

But unfortunately, I know I just could not get excited about having a Progress 8 score better than the school down the road. I know I just could not get excited about reducing academic study to a number. And I know I could not be seduced into what Tom Sherrington memorably described as “a vortex of delusional, algorithmic data-worship.”


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