Conferences should always leave you knowing more than when you arrived. If nothing else this weekend I could have at least learned quite how much ‘north’ there is in the UK. Fortunately there was a lot more to Northern Rocks 2014, which made it a great day. Hopefully Emma and Debra will continue their fantastic work on the event and will be publishing videos of the various speakers, and I’m sure many more will blog, so I’ll leave the generalities of the day, but thought I would share the outline of my presentation for the many people who weren’t able to make this booked-out event.
Opportunities in the New Primary National Curriculum
I wanted to try to present the idea that although the new National Curriculum at first seemed horrendous (indeed, in its first draft, it was!) and even now seems weighty, that there are some opportunities there for the taking. Despite claims about a slimmed-down curriculum, we ended up with a 200-page document just for KS1/2, and so it’s hard to see the freedoms at first, but there are some glimmers of hope. Firstly, I pointed out that of the 50,000 words, barely 1/3 of the content is actually statutory.
Most primary teachers would agree that the core subjects should be very much at the heart of what we do, so it seems to me reasonable that a good chunk of the statutory content should come in those areas. Of the non-statutory stuff, a lot of it is actually very good guidance and support for teachers. And of the foundation subjects, the freedom is evident. There are fewer than 200 words of content for primary music. The document in effect says to primary schools: ‘teach some art, teach some music, but most importantly, get the basics right’. I think we’d all agree with that, and actually the new document supports that aim. Schools are largely free to choose their ‘content’, as long as they get the maths and English skills sorted.
Even the History that gets such as bad press isn’t awful. It is broadly the same as presently at KS1, and has just 9 topics to cover at KS2, which you can cover in a level of detail of your choosing. Take the freedom and make it work for your school!
It’s true that the English content is far more detailed, but we ought not to forget what has gone before. I posted this image on Twitter a few days before the conference and the reaction was almost panto-like hissing and booing. And rightly so. For the uninitiated among you, the clock was the prescribed structure for every daily Literacy lesson, and the list on the right is the first page of objectives for a single term in Year 5:
We ought not forget where we have been before when we look at the content we’ve been offered now. In comparison to the strict structure of the Literacy Hour and its many objectives, the new document generally is more light-touch. Although the strategies were never statutory, most schools followed them as thought they were; the new structure is very clear about what is statutory and what is not, and schools must take that as face value and make the most of it.
Opportunities in Planning for Progress
One of the big advantages of the new curriculum, I think, is in the moving away from the strategies, in fact. For too long as schools we have fitted our curriculum around the dictations of documents and DVDs from the department. And while many of these were well-intentioned, I think it has left us in a situation which is less than ideal. After the Literacy and Numeracy hours came ‘Excellent and Enjoyment’ and then the renewed frameworks. It has left schools with two main models of planning and teaching, both predicated on the same broad idea that if we keep revisiting topics that the kids will keep making progress. My concern is that we never give the children long enough on any one idea to allow them to secure it, and we’re not good at making the right sort of links. Take a look at these two examples:
On the left is the model for the primary Numeracy framework with units A1 to E3. I never mastered it. I’ve never understood the supposed sequence, and I don’t see how it is meant to help children to create any sort of coherence to their learning. On the right is a fairly typical primary school topic-planning model. I think in recent years – particularly since Excellent and Enjoyment – in primary schools we have persuaded ourselves that we’ve done well with this approach: we’ve moved away from the forced links of the past, and only create ‘meaningful’ cross-curricular links. My concern is that we’ve sometimes elevated the cross-curricular links above the links within a subject, particularly in English. We tend to favour genres of writing that link to the topic, rather than those that link to each other. So we still follow the strategies model of a week on, say, biography, followed by a week on newspapers, followed by a week on poetry, etc. without attempting to make any link between these ideas. I’d argue that we need to look to a model which spends longer on linked ideas, particularly in Writing, that allows children to develop their understanding in greater depth. I’ve tried a model this year in my school where we grouped writing genres by purpose, and focussed on a group of styles over a half-term. It’s not perfect, but it has allowed us to spend longer building up a coherent picture of writing styles before moving on:
In doing this, I think we genuinely allow children to build up a meaningful map of concepts around a model, rather than just throwing separate objectives at them day after day. It also makes target-setting more meaningful (since they will actually get a chance to tackle the target) and can make really good use of good classroom strategies such as learning walls over an extended period.
Opportunities for Meaningful Assessment
Most primary teachers would agree that too often assessment has driven the curriculum. I have written before about how Assessment is not Tracking. The current system of levels does conflate the two, and too often it’s the latter that has been prioritised over the former. I proposed to the audience in the room that actually teachers have the knowledge to carry out meaningful assessment, and it doesn’t need to use pages and pages of highlighted bullet points.
Take Level 4 Writing – that golden goal of primary teaching. On the APP grid there are 22 bullet points to highlight against Level 4. Personally, I think it could be simplified to 5. Of course the nuance is important for target-setting and identifying next steps, but the big picture is far more important than the minutiae. For those of you who have taught in KS2, I set you a challenge. Spend just one minute thinking of what makes a good level 4 writer. Then click on the image below to see how well it matches what I came up with:
Click on the image to see my 5 suggestions
Perhaps what’s most important about this model is that schools can own it. Working together with partner schools or even across whole authorities, teachers can use their wide-ranging professional knowledge and judgement to design an assessment model that works for them.
I genuinely think that among some concerns, there are lots of opportunities in the new primary curriculum, and it is now for schools, leaders and teachers to take those opportunities for themselves to build a meaningful curriculum for their students.
As Mick Waters said at Northern Rocks: it’s time we stopped dancing to the tune of Ofsted or the department. I say, it’s time we make our own music!