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Taking a phased approach to strategic curriculum development

July 11, 2022, 6:28 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Take your time when planning and implementing new school improvement strategies, says Lloyd Williams-Jones
Taking a phased approach to strategic curriculum development

As leaders, we are often tasked with effecting rapid school improvement.

This may stem from legacy stakeholder pressures – those of the inspectorate, governing bodies or other external parties such as school improvement advisors, for example, all of whom may demand to see quick ‘results’.

But prioritising pace over sustainability carries risk and has undermined school improvement in many schools around the country.

This is not to say that their leaders haven’t been doing the right thing; the reality is that too much pressure has been placed on many of them to increase the pace and volume of their school improvement work.

They have been placed in an impossible position. We can and should challenge this counterproductive reasoning in a way that ensures sustainable improvement to the curriculum without overburdening leaders and teachers. 

We all have school improvement/development plans, and hours are poured into these each year to ensure that we are focusing on the priorities validated by all stakeholders.

However, while we still create these plans at my school, they have now been significantly condensed into a set of streamlined priorities to avoid the pitfalls described above while continuing to drive development.

Alongside this, we have also developed an overarching, longer-term plan that specifies our phased approach to school improvement. 

Ensuring the needs shape the plan

Firstly, it is important to step back and review the curriculum, through a lens of subject development and status.

In the first instance, I met with our middle leaders and spent time discussing and evaluating where each subject was on its journey. From this, I was able to ascertain which subjects needed a ‘focus’ or ‘spotlight’ (see Nick Hart’s podcast featuring Kieran Mackle, Thinking Deeply about Primary Education.

This decision was determined by whether the curriculum for the identified subject was ‘off the shelf’ or developed in-house. From here, we were able to place subjects into three phases of development.

Some subjects would be focused on immediately in phase one. Others would come later in either phase two or three. We decided that humanities would be at the heart of our project and placed both history and geography into phase one alongside science.

The meaningful links that can be made between these three subjects and the overlap of key concepts made them an excellent springboard for later curriculum development. They were also curricula that we intended to develop in-house rather than customise from an off-the-shelf curriculum.

There’s nothing wrong with a bought-in product, but having the ability to shape a curriculum allowed us to control the sequencing and make local links to ensure that these curricula reflected our community. 

Organisation for implementation – make sure systems are clear

With our subject development priorities in order, we put systems in place to ensure that the curriculum work could be done.

As a leadership team, we carved out protected space in the timetable for curriculum development. Relevant subject leaders were given release time one afternoon a week.

When required, they worked with me or an external curriculum expert to clarify our goals. On other occasions, they used this time to work independently on their curriculum area. The EEF guidance on professional development mechanisms ( supported our work here and continues to be a useful reference point. 

In each phase, some subjects are not focused upon in the way described above. The headteacher and I meet the ‘non-focus phase’ subject leaders to help them with their implementation plans, so that they’re primed for when their subject becomes the focus. This all feeds back to our leadership team.

Having this mixture of distributed leadership and centralisation ensures that things are still being developed, but not at the cost of other priorities.

This also prevents teachers from becoming overwhelmed by too many changes at once. Having weekly time and communication with the ‘phase focus’ middle leaders allows us to determine the ‘active ingredients’ which form the mechanism for improvement; this is then reflected in our phased strategic curriculum development plan. 

Implementing with ‘responsive fidelity’

Beginning with history and geography, our humanities lead worked hard to promote buy-in and outline the ‘why’ of our curriculum development goals.

We wanted to move towards a ‘knowledge-rich’ approach, and it was essential that staff understood what this meant, alongside the vision for implementation. The humanities lead was asked to specify the knowledge that pupils would learn through our history and geography curricula.

The active ingredients here were that this substantive knowledge needed to match our goals for the curriculum and be coherently sequenced. The challenge lay in supporting the subject leader’s understanding through opportunities to play with ideas while still ensuring that the active ingredients were preserved.

This required what we call ‘responsive fidelity’, which entailed being clear in our minds about what needed to be tightly controlled in the final outcome while recognising the temporary slack needed to respond to teacher development needs.

In order for teachers to implement change effectively, we moved to a model of ‘planning days’, whereby each year group team has a day each term to focus on subject knowledge, sequencing and task design for the following term.

This mechanism allowed staff to work together and gave them time to research and understand the knowledge they aim to help children learn.

Revisit, review and refine your curriculum

As we moved through phase one, it was important to build in mechanisms for review. Subject leads carried out surveys with staff and also visited year groups at the start and end of planning days.

This feedback was then centralised back into the leadership team and discussed, allowing us to make decisions related to responsive fidelity. This process enabled us to identify that we needed more work on the design of our units to better support the pupils’ writing of essays at the end.

This resulted in a change to our INSET schedule so that we could focus on the consolidation of sequencing for planning, rather than the intended session on spelling. 

We’re now well into phase two of our curriculum development, but that doesn’t mean that phase one subjects are ‘done’.

They too are now in a ‘non-focus phase’ with leaders being primed for further improvement when they next move back into focus. Teachers still have the dedicated planning days to continually revisit, review and refine the curricula for the subjects they lead. We hope this sustained investment of time and expertise will continue to bear fruit. 

What we learnt
It is often argued that a ‘lesson’ is the wrong measurement of time to frame learning. We would argue that the same principle applies to school improvement. Don’t let arbitrary time frames dictate the pace of your implementation. 

Make sure that you consider the active ingredients of curriculum development through the lens of ‘responsive fidelity’. Stay true to the principles, but allow slack when implementing to match the developmental needs of your subject leaders. Be tight, when it’s right. 

Being responsive and understanding where your staff are on your journey is essential. It’s this that sets the speed of implementation.

We underwent a section 5 inspection in January. The report noted favourably our ‘measured’ approach to curriculum improvement. I believe that by slowing down in the short term, our curriculum development has been built on solid foundations that allow for quicker progress over the long term. Our experiences so far are testament to this.

Lloyd Williams-Jones is deputy headteacher at Staplehurst School in Kent.

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