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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2 Responses to Secondary curriculum design – let’s standardise the basics first

  1. John Hodgson says:

    This is a crucial point that is so often forgotten in discussions of teaching method. These discussions usually assume that the conditions under which teachers work are essentially similar – as you suggest, this is far from the case.

    Liked by 1 person

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