A quick session on curriculum? You're heading for a fall

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A few years ago we were approached by a very successful, well established group of schools who asked if we could fill a gap in their INSET Day. They wanted us to run a two-hour session on “curriculum”. The brief was that vague as it would have to fit the curriculum agenda of various schools and we wouldn't know who the audience were going to be, so we discussed it and I said no. We had to say no because I felt then and still feel now, that to deal with such a critical theme as 'curriculum' in a few hours would be reductionist; the curriculum is everything a school does and is; it's the lifeblood of a school, its energy and flow. Curriculum is experienced the moment a learner walks through the school gates and encompasses everything they experience until they leave. It’s not something we think you can pull out and treat in isolation, let alone in a single session.  To understand, analyse and evaluate a curriculum is pedagogically complex. If teachers are changing how they teach, they need to think about how objectives are blended, how they describe the learning, how it is structured, planned for, assessed and ultimately led.

Segmenting or deconstructing such a large thing as curriculum and analysing separate aspects without addressing the whole will lead to confusion. To have a single INSET day or staff meeting to introduce a new concept will just make teachers think 'But how does thatfit with thisor "Does this mean I now don't do that?. It could patrionise them because they’re doing it already but under a different name, excite them with its potential, or terrify them with pressure. The patronised ones don’t learn anything new, the excited ones get no long term support and the terrified ones just feel like there’s another thing to consider. It’s not a recipe for achieving anything that will have a lasting positive effect. It actually reminds me of Jenga. You take one block out, have a look at it, stick it back on top and hope the whole thing doesn’t fall over. It's always the same thing, just taken apart and re-ordered. Eventually it all ends up in a mess on the floor.

What schools need is to recognise when a different game needs to be played. When new pieces need to be introduced and which parts need keeping, enhancing or enriching. This is why the most important part of any relationship we have with a school is the conversation that takes place before we even start working with them. We so often find that the issue that has triggered the contact is that one little block. The idea is to take it out, polish it a bit, give it a new name and reposition it. When you dig a little deeper, you see that what really needs addressing is the whole wobbling edifice.

The aim, I think, of every relationship we enter into is actually to be made redundant after a couple of years, slowly stepping back and withdrawing support, perhaps dropping in as a critical friend. It's a bit like stabilisers. We're there alongside, to get the change a school is aiming for to happen. With some support and guidance, and by taking a little weight during the wobbles, we help a school to ride confidently on their own. By the time we finish, we should have given teachers enough confidence, created strong pedagogical curriculum foundations, provided focused and targeted training, inducted NQTs and have everyone flying and buzzing. A school not needing us anymore is the sign of success. I don’t believe that any consultancy, product or scheme of work should create dependency and that’s one of the reasons why our Curious-city curriculum is not subscription, year-on-year. I don’t believe anyone has the right to hold a school to ransom. With Curious-city, or any of our support activities, you don’t buy into the product, you engage with our value system and that’s reflected in our business model. We help schools get that big picture perspective and set them on the path to it in such a way that they can make it on their own.

I know from my time in different school leadership roles that it’s a bigger, harder task to make long-term change sustainable than it is to tackle a single issue. There's a temptation to think that breaking things down into bite-sized pieces is better, but it’s just not that simple. Schools have to get their heads around how the whole fits together before they attempt can take it apart. Otherwise that tower just keeps on toppling over.