‘Great schools will find ways to teach key content that is relevant to the school’ by Lee Card

This post was originally written for ATL’s #ShapeEducation debate in February 2015.

There are few more persuasive voices in global education at present than that of Andreas Schleicher. Those that have not heard of him will have, at least, heard of his creation some 20 years ago: the PISA tests.

Whilst these four letters may send shivers down the spine of many of you reading this, if we look past the damning indictment on our education system and the worrying proclamation from Michael Gove, who labelled him ‘the most important man in English education’, we may actually be persuaded to listen to his strongly-worded sentiments. This is a man who has, in the past, opposed performance-related pay and has reported that private schools do no better than state schools when social background is taken into account. I’d go onto the battlefield alongside this guy…but more on him later.

When I first approached the title for this piece, I questioned the credibility of the clichéd-sounding phrase ‘fast-changing world’…many of you will have been subjected to the 2006 ‘Shift Happens’ video clip; possibly the most terrifying piece of ‘revolutionise education quick’ propaganda in recent years. I lapped this up a few years ago. Many times since I have used the phrase ‘revolution not evolution’ amidst the soundscape of more experienced, sage professionals stating that quite the opposite was, in fact, the way sideward. Tom Bennett’s blog post The Box: Shift Doesn’t Happen, Ken Robinson, and the creative epiphenomenal imbroglio is a must-read for anyone in need of a good old dose of reality served up in a way only Tom can offer.

That reality to me, as far as the curriculum is concerned, is that great teachers in great relationships with their pupils and their colleagues will find great ways to teach key content. The great school in this picture will have established that the content will be packaged up in a curriculum that is centred on developing the personal skills and qualities of the learners and is relevant to the pupils themselves (I think that this has become known as ‘personalised education’ for some reason in the past ten years…I prefer the term ‘knowing the kids’).  I don’t know if this is a revolutionary way of approaching the curriculum because of a ‘fast-changing world’…I’ve been in education for 28 years, since the age of 4, and it doesn’t seem to me that there’s anything majorly different here from my best experiences as a pupil or as a teacher. However, layered into these base principles we must accept that changes in society deserve recognition in education.

Over the past two years, the school I work in, Cherry Orchard Primary in Worcester, has embarked on what has felt, at least, like a revolution in curriculum design. Whenever I speak to anybody about our work, I ensure that the inspirational Geoff Rutherford and his school, The Wyche in Malvern, are accredited. They are a school a good many years ahead of their time and have influenced much of what we have attempted and I would recommend reading Geoff’s numerous articles on pedagogy to anyone.

At Cherry Orchard, we were lucky enough to take part in the ATL ‘A Curriculum That Counts’ initiative as a case study school. The videos and accompanying documents demonstrate our journey thus far. Ostensibly, we took the macro change of National Curriculum 2014 as an opportunity to engender a deeper, micro change at our school. That change had a few core principles which were intrinsic to its development and will be crucial to its sustainability:

  1. VISION: A clear ‘big picture’ that the School Curriculum is the embodiment of everything you offer within a school and that it incorporates the National Curriculum;
  2. OWNERSHIP & INVESTMENT: All stakeholders are involved in the process and thus take a vested interest and ownership in the product. This also ensures that the end product is fit for your community’s needs.
  3. A SHARED LANGUAGE: For us, this was having a set of clear rhetoric for impact – the ‘Three Rs’ (Reality, Relevance and Rigour) and our ‘School Aims’, which have become the bedrock for everything we strive for. When we have truly embedded this into our school community, the aims will be like letters through a stick of rock in everyone and everything we do, from planning documents and Governors’ meetings to assembly themes and pupil dialogue.

The latter principle leads me onto the words in the title; ‘enable all learners to achieve’. When we devised our School Aims, we did so by asking our community what it was they wanted Cherry Orchard pupils to have achieved after seven years of schooling. These aims reflect, therefore, our hopes, dreams and needs for 21st century citizens. When we discuss achievement now, it goes beyond the previously established norms of National Curriculum sub-levels and statutory content and includes such themes as negotiating skills, cultural awareness, empathy and resilience.

The next step for us here is to create an assessment system that dovetails with our curriculum. Dylan William, who needs no introduction when it comes to the topic of assessment, recently wrote in this Teach Primary article:

‘…before a school decides how it wants to keep track of student progress, it needs to decide what it’s going to keep track of. Moreover, there can be no off-the-peg solutions, because the assessment needs to match the curriculum in place in the school.’

This affords us the opportunity to truly measure what we value rather than just valuing what can be, and has been with increased levels of useless detail, measured.

And so we can now return to Andreas Schleicher. His 2010 article The Case For 21st Century Learning, presents like ‘Shift Happens’ but without the propaganda-like soundtrack accompaniment. Depending on your current stance, both on the elevation of skills and personal qualities within school curricula and of Andreas himself, you may view his article with the same kinds of innocent euphoria or utter disdain as you did the aforementioned video.  Having seen the impact of real-life learning, relevant learning experiences and a central place in the school curricula for skills, aptitudes and qualities both in our own school and at The Wyche, his following words resonate with me as important considerations when designing the very best kind of curriculum for our children today:

‘Education today is much more about ways of thinking which involve creative and critical approaches to problem-solving and decision-making. It is also about ways of working, including communication and collaboration, as well as the tools they require, such as the capacity to recognise and exploit the potential of new technologies, or indeed, to avert their risks. And last but not least, education is about the capacity to live in a multi-faceted world as an active and engaged citizen. These citizens influence what they want to learn and how they want to learn it, and it is this that shapes the role of educators.’ 

Lee Card is Deputy Head at Cherry Orchard Primary School in WorcesterYou can follow Lee on Twitter.  You can hear more from Lee at #TLCWorcs18

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