It is difficult not to sense the paradigm shift taking place in relation to the school curriculum. Building on the work of the national curriculum review of several years ago, the growing adoption of evidence-informed practice (drawing on cognitive science and sociology), and the latest Ofsted inspection framework, there is momentum behind what some refer to as the ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum.
The terminology is imperfect; it almost invites criticism from those who, with some justification, are sceptical of what might appear to be the latest educational fad. However, whatever our unease about the label, the evidence supporting the adoption of knowledge-rich practices is not easily dismissed. A good synthesis of which can be found in Dylan Wiliam’s (2018) book ‘Creating The Schools Our Children Need’.
But despite all the blogs, tweets and conferences blossoming with fertile debate about the importance of knowledge, and its foundational relationship with skill, there remain significant blind spots in the system that must be addressed.
Location, location, location
Some of these gaps are locational. For example, one might wonder how many of the audience at educational conferences have not already heard numerous assertions from keynote speakers about the important role played by knowledge in the curriculum. However, while there are undoubtedly many who are ‘in the loop’ in this regard, we must also remember that the curriculum conversation is not evenly distributed.
In part this is because our school system is complex and uneven. People, and thus schools, are not distributed evenly through these isles. There are around 25,000 schools in England, staffed by around 450,000 teachers. Not all enjoy the same access to the curriculum conversation: access to CPD and support can differ according to location. For example, it can be easier to find professional development in London than it is in Cumbria. At a recent conference in Manchester the speaker was shocked to find a group of school leaders from Devon were in attendance. They explained that it was sometimes necessary and more cost effective for them to fly the length of the country to attend CPD.
The implications of this, however, are less about one-off conferences and more about everyday access to the curriculum conversation, without which teachers can easily become isolated. In some cases whole schools can become isolated, which can be a limiting factor in entry to professional discourse and the development of curriculum expertise. Collaboration and partnership is one means of addressing this problem.
What do teachers gain from working in partnership? It’s the subject meeting they can attend on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s the school they can visit so you can observe an expert colleague in action, or perhaps to offer their own expertise and support. As much as anything collaboration provides the opportunity for subject leaders and teachers to discuss, debate and refine how they think about the curriculum and how it is enacted. I was privileged to be a part of a long standing professional subject network and saw first-hand the benefits it brought. So too did Ofsted, who wrote a best practice report on it a few years ago.
It’s also important to sustain these conversations over time. A one-day conference event can provide a useful weathervane as to the direction the educational winds are blowing, sometimes serving as a powerful impetus for change or means of checking your thinking. But they don’t always reveal the granular level of detail necessary to put meaningful change into practice. We’ve seen some of that in recent months; there are plenty of us speaking at conferences advocating the importance of knowledge in the curriculum, but what does that mean if you’re a head of maths, as opposed to a head of music? Or if you work in a primary setting, as opposed to a secondary school? This isn’t to say people shouldn’t attend such conferences – they can be vital – but whatever insight is gleaned must be deepened and sustained over time.
Developing deep understanding through professional development takes time. We risk a lamentable irony here if we accept the notion that development of pupils’ understanding requires careful sequencing over time but fail to apply the same logic to the development of teachers and leaders. We know that the most successful CPD is not a one-off (Weston & Clay 2018). It has a temporal quality, chasing key threads over time as we deepen understanding and improve practice. Again, this can be achieved through deliberate networks and partnerships.
Which brings us to the third of our blind spots: our relationship with knowledge itself. As suggested above, our relationship with knowledge is not identical to one another. In fact, the way we select, discuss and use knowledge is inescapably an expression of what we consider to be the basis of what is/not legitimate (Maton 2014). The scientist who is able to explain how photosynthesis works understands something about how knowledge is deemed to be legitimate in science. The artist who explains why they consider the works of Jackson Pollock to be more than random paint splatter knows something about how knowledge is deemed to be legitimate in art. This is the work of disciplines – the tacit rules through which legitimate knowledge, and legitimate knowers, are established. The way in which knowledge is legitimated within each subject is not necessarily the same. Maths is different to History. RE is different to design & technology, and so on.
This poses possibly the greatest challenge to curriculum development. In order for there to be productivity and accountability it is expedient to have ‘leaders’ – those who establish the practices which should/not exist within the school and are accountable for the impact of such decisions. Where practices and decisions depend on knowledge that is not highly specialized, or where specialized knowledge is required and has been effectively developed, this need not be an issue. However, it can be problematic when those making key decisions lack the specialist knowledge necessary to do so. But is it realistic to expect school leaders to have expert specialist knowledge of every curriculum area? Probably not.
This is why middle leaders play an important role in schools in relation to the curriculum. Indeed, Ofsted (2019) noticed during their curriculum research that in some secondary schools curriculum quality was strong because of highly skilled middle leaders, rather than because of school leaders’ curriculum expertise.
So, does this mean that senior leaders are no longer important in the brave new curriculum-focused world? No, quite the opposite in fact. We know that within-school variation tends to be greater than variation between schools (Thompson 2020). This means that, in curriculum terms, most schools are likely to have subject areas where there are highly skilled teachers and practices are effective, and others that are less so. If left to their own devices this situation is unlikely to rectify itself and variation will continue. Leaders need to lead in order to address this. But what action should be taken?
Leaders can improve or exacerbate the issue, depending on what they do. Given what has already been said about the fundamental differences between subjects in how knowledge is structured and legitimised it is crucial that leaders don’t fall back on unhelpful generic practices if these undermine the subject itself. Clearly there are some issues where practice and pedagogy can be generalised without compromising the integrity of the subject. For example, managing behaviour in the classroom does not necessarily require tailoring to the knowledge-structure of the subject.
However, we might want to think twice about insisting that all subjects in a school share a common scheme of work template, or assessment structure. After all, your maths teachers might prefer to use a highly granular approach detailing the specific and consistent steps all pupils should follow in a given order. This might look different on a page to the geography scheme of work in which teachers may have flexibility over things like the case studies they use to draw out and exemplify particular knowledge. Moreover, a history scheme of work might, for example, feature columns in which particular substantive and disciplinary knowledge is outlined. In technology this distinction might be less useful.
None of this means that subject leaders and teachers should be left to flounder. Rather it means that leaders need to think carefully about where generic intervention should be deployed, and where subject specific support is necessary. It may well be that this sort of awareness is in itself a type of domain-specific knowledge that leaders must develop. As Tom Rees suggests, “An implication of domain-specific leadership is that school leaders should develop deep educational expertise in areas such as curriculum or teacher development” (Rees 2020). My guess is that collaboration and partnership are more likely to yield the development of such knowledge among leaders.
Also, given what’s already been discussed above, notions of ‘support’ and ‘development’ should take into account spatial and temporal factors. E.g where can this subject leader/teacher/department get support? Over what period is this support required and available?
In concrete terms this might be about looking to national subject associations and experts. Equally, it might be about joining or establishing regional subject networks. And it may well be about ensuring such partnerships endure over time so as to support ongoing development and curriculum renewal. Such relationships might also be achieved at whole school level through formal partnerships across schools.
Underpinning all of the above is theory. We should embrace this. Some people mistakenly take the word ‘theory’ to mean mere speculation, as if it is equally likely to be wrong as right. The assertion that knowledge is intrinsic to learning is not dogma or ideology – it’s the product of rational dialogue between theory and data. Ofsted’s research summary captures much of this (Ofsted 2019). Does that mean it’s an immutable fact? No. But it’s not necessarily guesswork either.
The idea that knowledge is not structured the same way across the curriculum, and thus requires some specialist understanding, is not mere supposition either. It’s a theoretical position underpinned by empirical evidence (Bernstein 1996). As such, we ought to have some other compelling theoretical position if we are to ignore this. That’s different to the somewhat tiresome refrain of “in country X they do something different, so the knowledge-rich curriculum must be the wrong approach”. Looking at what’s going elsewhere without understanding the underpinning theory tells us much less than we might think. We end up looking at surface features and missing the foundational thinking (or lack of). It’s a bit like going shopping without a shopping list: you’ll come back with something, but it probably won’t come together too well.
Too often people rail against what they consider to be a ‘knowledge-rich fad’ because they’ve mistaken it to be a matter of pedagogy, reduced to cliches about rote learning or uncritical memorization. Or, they reject ‘powerful knowledge’ because their understanding presupposes power is derived from the origins of knowledge (which is ironic given Young’s thesis is quite the opposite). Or, they advocate strongly for what they consider to be powerful knowledge because of its origins (usually born of a conflation with cultural capital or cultural literacy). Whether rejecting or advocating ‘powerful knowledge’ we ought to understand what it means.
By making theory more explicit we make it easier for us to have meaningful and productive debates about curriculum content and structure. This doesn’t have to be intimidating. As Christine Counsell demonstrates so well, curriculum theory can made accessible and relevant for curriculum planning at macro level as well as within the classroom. I had the pleasure of watching her speak to a group of leaders a week ago. The session was inspirational because she communicated it well, and also because it was built on compelling theory.
We simply have to get better at theorising about the curriculum if we are to talk about it with confidence.
Despite the challenges outlined above there is much to be optimistic about. There is fundamental and positive change taking place in our education system, not least of which is the rightful positioning of curriculum as at the forefront of the work schools do for the common good.
However, it is increasingly clear to me that in order to deliver on the promise of this paradigm shift, partnership within and across schools is now the essential condition for success.
The means of developing curriculum expertise outlined here is specialized, it is geographically distributedand it is sustained over time so that the curriculum is constantly debated and renewed to reflect the best that we know. This ongoing dialogue between professionals is democratising in that it is open to all educators, whether a head teacher or an NQT. It is ethical – it is undertaken in the best interests of children, inducting them into ways of seeing the world that are both built on and broader than their own experience of the world. This might resonate with Ofsted’s agenda, but this is not the primary reason for this work.
It is difficult to imagine how such a dialogue can exist without deep and sustained partnerships. More than ever, it is essential that leaders at all levels seek to establish the sorts of collaborative relationships that will allow the curriculum blind spots identified above to be resolved.
If you are in the fortunate position of enjoying a good degree of curriculum expertise in your school or department, spare a thought for the school – perhaps not too far from you – that is not as well placed. Does your responsibility extend only to your pupils, or might we take a collective step forward on behalf of all young people?
What are you doing within your school, or group of schools, to build high quality curriculum collaboration?
How are you leveraging this to do better by the pupils in your school and elsewhere?
Bernstein, B. (1996) Pedagogy, Symbolic Control & Identity: theory, research & critique, Chapters 3 and 9. London, Taylor & Francis.
Maton, K. (2014) Knowledge and knowers. Routledge.
Ofsted (2019) Education inspection framework: Overview of research.
Rees, T. (2020). 2020. A new perspective for school leadership? https://www.ambition.org.uk/blog/
Thompson, D. (2020). Are we looking in the right place to improve attainment? https://ffteducationdatalab.org.uk/2020/01/are-we-looking-in-the-wrong-place-to-improve-attainment/
Weston, D. & Clay, B. (2018). Unleashing Great Teaching. Routledge.
Wiliam, D. (2018) Creating the Schools Our Children Need: why what we’re doing right now won’t work, and what we can do instead. West Palm Beach: Learning Sciences International.