Teachers must play a part in making curriculum a driver for school improvement – not a casualty of it, writes Tom Rees

In the summer of 2017, I was in the audience at an education conference when the recently appointed Her Majesty’s chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, stood up and told the country’s educators that we needed to talk more about the curriculum. In a large tent erected in the grounds of Wellington College, there were nods of agreement and raised eyebrows for the 20 minutes that followed. The curriculum had become too narrow in schools; too much focus was on terminal high-stakes tests; we needed to get back to the “substance of education”. This was the start of a different conversation by the inspectorate.

Almost two years have passed and the curriculum discussion has gathered momentum. During this time, I’ve been fortunate to attend many conferences and training opportunities to learn more. I’ve also read a lot, argued a lot and visited a number of schools that are doing some remarkable work in this area. I’m under no illusion that all teachers have had such opportunities. As education director for our multi-academy trust, it’s been a privilege to be allowed the time and space to learn, albeit with the responsibility to pass on learning back to my colleagues and create a strategy across our schools. Although there is a wealth of articles, blogs and books that I can recommend to others, there’s no substitute for hearing first-hand from experts in their field.

Even in 2019, with the ability to discuss with educators across the country on social media or watch Ofsted training videos on YouTube, there’s nothing like hearing it from the horse’s mouth and no better professional development in my view than discussing and debating with people who really know their stuff.

Why disagreement matters…

It’s easy to shy away from debate in education. Taking a position on an issue or opening our ideas up to critique by others can expose vulnerability and invite criticism, something to which our profession can be sensitive. But speak up we must. Disagreement is important, particularly as we are presented with new evidence or more convincing arguments; we must be part of the conversation.

Of course, it can be much easier to avoid inconvenient truths and to surround ourselves with “like-minded” people. Without testing our ideas and beliefs or opening them to scrutiny, we risk existing in an echo chamber where our opinions become entrenched. Social media is a good example of this and whilst I’ve learned so much from online discussions about educational issues in recent years, debates often become tribal and polarised, not moving beyond the sensational soundbite or the clickbait headline.

As Professor Daniel Muijs, head of research at Ofsted, said recently: “We must escape the tyranny of the algorithm that only ever gives us more of what we already know or desire. Opening minds is a key role in education.”

We should create cultures in schools where informed debate can take place, and teachers can put their ideas and beliefs (rather than themselves) under scrutiny in order to get better. Clashes of ideas, not people, are how we can make progress.

The curriculum conversation

There are many different views as to what should be “on the curriculum” and this question provokes many different opinions of those both within and beyond school communities. The curriculum is also subject to political pressure and influence from industry; an element of “curriculum defence” is both understandable and important here when many of society’s failings are often too easily left on the doorsteps of schools to solve.

Because of this diversity of opinion and schools of thought, there can be no single “right” answer to the questions that organising the curriculum throws up. Inevitably, we will never achieve consensus on what “a curriculum” should look like in every school.

But this does not mean that we should stop arguing about it. An ongoing pursuit of school leadership should be to develop a broad, rich and rigorous curriculum with a purpose and structure continuously open to debate, critique and improvement. We can learn from mistakes of the past that any attempt to improve teaching without due attention to the substance of what is taught is likely to be counterproductive.

Above all, we have to see the curriculum as a driver of school improvement, not a casualty of it.

This curriculum debate needs teachers, just as much as it needs leaders. This is why teachers and leaders are talking about curriculum at #EducatingNorthants next weekend.

Bringing the debate to the shire

On Saturday 30 March, the University of Northampton will host the greatest education conference ever. Educating Northants will feature four floors, 23 strands, 115 sessions, 130 presenters, 25 exhibitors and 600 delegates. The conference will be a platform for more than 50 local teachers to share their ideas and practice; it will also feature some of the most renowned and respected voices from across our education system including Christine Counsell, Tim Oates, Sir David Carter and Daisy Christodoulou. Contributions will also be made by organisations including Ofsted, the Chartered College of Teaching, Ambition Institute and Oxford University Press.

The opportunity to bring together so many incredible educators in one building is a rare treat and none of our speakers are charging for their time. I couldn’t be more excited about sitting with 600 colleagues in my home county and taking part in one of the most important conversations of all.

Tom Rees is the executive headteacher at Simon De Senlis Primary School and the education director at Northampton Primary Academy Trust

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