Curriculum Health Check – Leading a Department 2 (Annual)

Introduction

This is our second instalment of the #LAD blogs, looking at some key ideas, thoughts and/or systems that might be of use to a department lead. This weeks looks at another annual consideration – your curriculum. In reality the curriculum is probably something you want to discuss with your leads multiple times throughout the year or at least comment on with a view to amend at some point prior to the new school year.

As you move through your curriculum there should be the opportunity to give feedback on it I believe. This could be something simple such as the order that some content is delivered. An example that a science teacher might spot is that the lesson on cells should come before the lesson on the heart, due to cognitive load, the schema you want embedded at various points of the course and so on. In layman’s terms, the heart topic will build on the cells materials and as such cells should come first. Now the feedback that is given or received doesn’t have to be a full discussion, even if it is just a note on the planning document you hold. Something that you can refer to at a later point. It is worth noting that we are not dealing with changes of pedagogy. Comments or thoughts along the lines of “I wouldn’t use this activity in this lesson” are not what we are addressing in this section.

Once you have a collection of these useful bits of feedback then you need to go through them all and action any that you feel add to the curriculum as a whole. How do you know what changes will improve the curriculum and which won’t? Two good sources to act as benchmarks for what you may want to consider are; Inspecting the curriculum (Revising inspection methodology to support the education inspection framework.) and National curriculum (The national curriculum for England to be taught in all local-authority-maintained schools). It is worth noting that even though we don’t get into teaching for Ofsted, they have provided a useful set of statements that are used for inspectors. These guiding principles are designed to ensure that an external visitor to your school can have “robust view of the quality of education”;

What are the important considerations for inspectors;

Context Matters
What questions might this bring up in your departments?
– Do all the lessons on your scheme fit into a sequence over time?
– Are there any lessons that are just bolt ons?
– What did pupils know before this current scheme?
– Are you adding to the knowledge/skill set of the pupils from the previous key stage?
– Do pupils know all the material already prior to teaching?
– How are you avoiding the wasted years at key stage 3? See works cited
-As a lead in the department do you know the journey (broad brush strokes only) pupils take through your curricula, from Y7-Y13 for example?

The sequence of lessons, not an individual lesson, is the unit of assessment
What questions might this bring up in your departments?
-Do all staff understand the sequence of lessons that they are teaching and why they fall in that order?
– How do you, as a department lead, know what the quality is across a range of lessons and not just one?

Work scrutiny will form a part of the evidence we use to judge whether the intended curriculum is being enacted.
What questions might this bring up in your departments?
– What do the pupils books look like as evidence, for example have they been following the curriculum as it has been planned?
– Looking at the books can the pupils remember and do more (Ofsted definition of learning) over the course of their work.

Inspectors can make appropriately secure judgements on curriculum, teaching and behaviour across a particular deep dive when four to six lessons are visited
What questions might this bring up in your departments?
– What is the variation between teachers, for example if you were to walk around during any one lesson and visit all the Y8 classes, how would the lessons be similar or different to one another and why?

In each deep dive, inspectors should review a minimum of six workbooks (or pieces of work) in lessons they visit, and scrutinise work from at least two year groups in depth
What questions might this bring up in your departments?
– What work do you look at?
– Does it come from a wide range of classes, year groups and key stages?

Another document that it would be worth cross referencing when you consider your curriculum is the National Curriculum (NC). This document, cited at the end of the book, identifies the programmes of study that must be followed by all local-authority-maintained schools in England. Even if you don’t fall into this category, as I don’t in my current role (being a free school), it is still a useful document. When I think of the pupils I teach, I always ask, what will other pupils, in other schools get taught in preparation for GCSE. It is easier to use the NC when putting together your key stage 3 provision. This is because you can almost be guaranteed that for GCSE specification, they (through their planning, assessment and teacher materials) will cover everything that will be in the exam. It would be very poor form if anything was missing from their own resources. One of the main tasks we do as a department once per year when we go through curriculum amendments and improvements is to go the the NC key stage 3 section and ask the following;

What material is missing from our own schemes that is on the NC and why is it missing?
Are we justified in not having the topic on there?
This sometimes help you realise your own biases. For example, in science, there have been years where we have removed topics on the rock cycle. This has been due to different reasons at different points in time. It could be a dislike of the topic by teachers. There is sometimes the fact that a topic may not be assessed in exams (a poor reason to remove anything from a curriculum) or we feel that it doesn’t benefit us in our goal to help make citizens for the future.
Do we need to add this topic back into the curriculum?
This question is answered different year to year based on the makeup and experience of the staff in your department. Sometimes time may be the biggest factor, do you feel you have enough curriculum time to cover all the items set out in the NC and where you need to reduce time spent on them for the gains made elsewhere.

What additional material is part of our own schemes that is not on the NC and why has it been added?
Are we justified in adding this topic into the curriculum?
The topic that springs to mind easily as I got quite a bit of flack for adding it in (and I will not apologise for yet another science example – it’s all I know) is seasons. On the NC for key stage 3 there is no mention of seasons, why we have them, why they are different from one another and how the hemispheres determine what season you are in at any given point of the year. There was something within me that made me feel the children we teach should know how this ‘works’. Especially with current affairs on climate, I feel that our students would be well placed to understand why some months are warmer than others, why animals migrate and so on. For this reasons I feel that we as department leaders are justified diverging from the NC to teach this content. An eye opening activity that you could do with your departments to ask them the following questions and get some feedback on their thoughts; 1) What topic do you love to teach on our current spec; 2) What topic do you hate to teach on our current spec; 3) What topic that you studied, at any level, do you wish we added onto the specification, just for the sheer joy of teaching that subject?
Do we need to remove this topic from the curriculum?
Again this question will be answered differently year to year but is worth the discussion.

Another area you may want to consider when you discuss this area in your yearly time slot would be to address whether your curriculum aligns with your department/school/trust vision and/or specialism. It is important that those moral imperatives or areas of specialism permeate everything and when you consider all the different ways you engage with pupils (lessons, after school clubs, form time, breaks and lunch) none of them come close to the amount of time that lessons do. As such you have real power to push your vision/specialism with pupils, purely based on the fact that they spend the most time with you as subject teachers.

Resources

Below is a department toolkit to help ask the correct questions linked to summer exam analysis as well as the next steps. Again the toolkit is not exhaustive, merely an aide-memoire for the process.