Question of Curriculum


Jan 11, 2019

Question of Curriculum

One of the key problems school leaders face is the sense that pleasing the DfE, OFSTED and making your schools fantastic places for students to learn can feel like you are walking a tightrope (albeit a flimsy tightrope that is strung across a fiery pit on one side and hungry crocodiles on the other).  However, for the last ten years the equation has been quite simple: get outcomes wrong and it can quickly mean P45 time for headteachers.  With that hanging over our heads, it is somewhat unsurprising that we have based most of our decisions on what ‘works’ to maximise student outcomes at KS4.

Don’t get me wrong, having a school that enables students have the right stamps on their passport for the next phase of their life is incredibly important, but the aggregation of a cohort of pupils for school accountability has created some perverse incentives.

Into this environment, I was recruited to support GLF Secondary schools as they started to develop their strategic vision of their curricula in April 2018, just in time for the ground to shift.

Ofsted warns that its research into the curriculum has shown that the “depth and breadth of the curriculum is being eroded by some schools”. Jan 2018

So, how was the new boy in GLF going to be able to influence the curriculum in seven secondary schools? Especially when a central tenet of the trust is that every school was autonomous, and further, that every HT was free to make the best choices for their school’s context?  As a MAT, GLF Schools has an overarching “Golden Thread”: this is essentially seeking to ensure that colleagues are valued and developed stronger collaboration is promoted. This will then benefit the outcomes and life opportunities of our students.  It cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ because of the variety of contexts in which our schools operate.  Four of them have converted and joined the trust in the last two years and two are brand new schools.  The MAT also operates across three Education Authorities. 

How did I approach the project?  First, I joined GLF because of its objective of autonomous schools working closely together. Therefore, it was up to me to find the evidence and convince people to come on the journey with me and I remembered this quote from Martin Robinson;

“How we decide what to teach, when to teach it and why we teach it are some of the most fundamental questions we ask in our schools. However, in some instances, important questions about what to teach has taken a lowly position in educational discussions. Instead we focus on how to achieve outstanding Ofsteds and how to become outstanding teachers, which leads to an obsession with pedagogy at the expense of an in-depth discussion about what we teach. Instead of a focus on short-term lesson planning, we need to look at the long term, how we intend the powerful stories of our subject to unfold.”

Secondly, all the research pointed in one clear direction for curriculum leadership…that it was the subjects themselves that had to lead.  It was also a little scary.  Some of the pillars that I had hung onto because I felt that they were ‘evidence’, were crumbling.   Having read Daisy Christodoulou’s “Making Good Progress?” and with the writing and speeches of Christine Counsell, I started to question some of the key performance indicators (KPIs) that I had allowed myself to be guided by. Suddenly, as the GLF Primary maths lead pointed out, I realised that schools were gripped by Stockholm Syndrome. The exact things that had trapped us had now gone, and yet it was the schools themselves hanging on to them.

The blogs of Christine Counsell  helped me formulate this process.  It had to be changing the leadership of the Curriculum from SLT to Subject curriculum leadership by Heads of Faculty, Heads of Subjects and teachers.  It meant that the ‘control’ mechanisms that we had relied on in the past had to be revaluated and we had to find another way to look at the way that a student progresses through a subject, rather than arbitrarily through a Year and Key Stage.

So what is the plan…?






The discussion, development, planning is led by Subject Specialists:

  • What is the intent for your curriculum?
  • What is in the curriculum?
  • Why that set of topics?
  • Why in that order?
  • Does everyone know the big picture and the details?
  • Are we using sound evidence-based practice in our teaching?


The teachers of the subject decide Core Building Blocks

Using the National Curriculum Aims and Purpose, we would:

  • Understand why each block is so important to the future understanding of each pupil
  • Use the correct language and not ‘dumbing’ down from the earliest opportunity
  • Design logical sequences to topics that build on the last and towards the next


The teachers of the subject design the Model of Progression for their subject

Daisy Christodoulou points out:

 “Have we got assessment right, balancing formative and summative information and workload? Do we have clarity on what the assessment is for?  (changing or taking the temperature?); Have we go a sustainable, effective marking and feedback policy in place?  Are we avoiding poor feedback loops?”


“We should record in-lesson progress in the way that is most suitable for the tasks we want to use. And lots of very useful activities are not capable of being recorded as a grade or a fraction of a grade.”(

The subjects would then plan how to teach the key knowledge

Using the work of Shaun Allison and Andy Tharby (Making Every Lesson Count), Dylan Wiliam (Effective AfL), Daisy Christodoulou (Making Good Progress?), Clark, Kirschner and Sweller (Fully Guided Learning) , Yana Weinstein (Memorizing verses Understanding) , Robert and Elizabeth Bjork (Role of Forgetting),

  • Challenge, Explanation, Modelling, Practice, Feedback
  • Role of forgetting
  • Fully Guided instruction
  • Effective use of formative assessment
  • How will we use Summative assessments?
  • Ow will we judge how the students are progression in the different subject curricula across the schools


[1]How does the plan look?


Hopefully, it looks like a virtuous circle!

Subject professionals discussing the building blocks, the approach to teaching and learning and the progression model to their subject.  The teaching happens. With plenty of formative assessment to inform teaching and learning. How students are progressing is discussed by subject teachers, adjustments are made to the next lesson; to the Scheme of Learning or the explanation to a small group of students. It is exactly these discussions are fed back into SLT so that they can support interventions if needed, but also understand if students or one class are not progressing at the same rate as the rest of the year group.  These discussions also take place across the schools with subject leads supporting and developing practice throughout the MAT.  Finally, an agreed summative assessment is taken so that schools can see how their students are progressing against a larger cohort.  Within a larger cohort, progress can be maintaining your position within he cohort as the whole group moves (see TomSherrington’s excellent explanation here).

This plan was presented to the Executive Team and then to the Headteachers.  It is not a quick fix!  These changes will be implemented over the next three years…the first external sign of this approach being successful will be in the outcomes of the students taking their GCSEs 2021/2022.  However, we are hopeful that other measures such as students core knowledge improving, therefore less gaps being retaught, leading to greater teacher job satisfaction and work load reductions will start to feed through earlier than that.

What are the next steps?

Buy in from the subjects using our MAT Monday CPD meetings, led by the Subject Specialists.

Agreement from the subjects on the key knowledge building blocks for Key Stage 3, so they are ready for the cognitive challenge of GCSEs.

The approaches to teaching the different topics and usage and design of a cross MAT summative assessment.

Finally, a frank and honest discussion on formative assessment, in all of it forms, to ensure it is used to change and adapt teaching based on simple tests.  Then how we monitor how students are progressing in a class, across a subject, in a school and across schools without using GCSE grades…watch this space.

[1](images curtesy of,, Jason Ramasami in Making Every Lesson Count and Alamy)


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