Now is the time for English curriculum redesign

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This post is about the draft of our new KS3 English curriculum and the rationale behind its construction. My next post will explain how this curriculum fits in with the method of assessment we have devised to replace the largely ineffectual SATS levels. It will effectively form the third part of my series about the use of multiple-choice questions in English, and will describe how we intend to use the format within a holistic system of assessment.

Like others, for a long while I have wanted to make a step change to KS3, knowing that this represents the best way to raise attainment. Intervention work, early entry or the deployment of the most experienced teachers with exam classes are all very well and are often necessary means of helping students achieve, but they also often lead to artificial, short-term gains and in many cases are effectively papering over the underlying issues. Too often the continual and disproportionate demand of examination success leaves little resource to focus on the root cause of student underachievement. Until now, that is, where national changes to exam structure and assessment measures have made it wise for us to make the time to make our key stage three curricula fit for purpose.

Despite what sometimes feels like an overwhelming amount of change and uncertainty, now really does feel like an exciting and perhaps even defining moment for the future direction of the subject: a chance to shape, particularly at KS3, what we teach our students along with the freedom to assess that learning in the manner that we best see fit. In this regard, we can acts as professionals who understand our subject and the students that we teach. I intend to take advantage of this opportunity-cum-imperative to create an ambitious curriculum, one that will inspire our students and provide them with the knowledge, skills and cultural understanding necessary to achieve success in their lives – up to and beyond their examinations.

This is not simply about choosing a bunch of hard books – though as you will see below the texts chosen are considerably challenging – but more a matter of doing what is right for our students, raising expectations through the roof and, as much as humanly possible, creating a level playing field with those who enjoy more privilege. As I suspect is the case elsewhere, at our school the best English students – the ones who have a ‘natural’ ability to write fluently and who appreciate the underlying concepts and intentions in texts – are the ones who read most widely and deeply. Our most able students are thus the ones who have often got there in spite of their schooling, not because of it, and for who reading challenging books for pleasure is normalised within the home environment. This has to be the case for all our students.

I am clearly not alone in believing that now really is an exciting opportunity for curriculum redesign. Only this morning Alex Quigley brilliantly explained why 2014 holds many reasons to be educationally cheerful. Indeed, in recent weeks and months I have read and been inspired by number of posts exploring different organising principles for new English KS3 curricula, including Alex Quigley’s ‘universal language’ of the story, Joe Kirby’s model of interleaving and revisiting cultural texts, and David Didau’s thematic and sequential curriculum that stretches back and forward across time.  All of these (and more) have helped me to devise what I believe is an inspiring and rigorous curriculum.

Here, then, is the draft version of our new KS3 curriculum.

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Of course, designing a new curriculum is only part of what is needed to raise attainment. Making sure that the texts chosen are taught in an effective way, and that colleagues are well supported and feel confident enough to teach them well is equally, if not more, important. It would be naïve not to expect some considerable anxiety around teaching works like The Odyssey or with spending a term on sonnets with year 7. This is why we intend to invest heavily in providing supportive wider reading material and creating opportunities for joint planning sessions in a similar vein to the lesson study model. 

We have not arrived at this curriculum overnight. Neither do we expect to begin teaching all of these texts from next September. Over the coming weeks we will agree upon the best way forward, making sure that what we implement is manageable and that it really does lead to a step change. I should perhaps make it clear that a lot of the structures and systems that will facilitate the delivery of our curriculum are already in place from previous initiatives. It is also worth noting that we have a supportive headteacher and work in a school where creative and bold solutions to problems are encouraged. I realise that this is not the case for all.

To help make some of the nuances of the draft a little clearer, I have summarised some of the thinking behind the choices taken and provided further explanations of the supporting structures in place.

The Reading lounge

One of the main resources our department has at its disposal is a Reading Lounge, a bright, funky space solely for the purposes of English lessons.  Whilst we would prefer a vibrant library (space it at a premium), having the Reading Lounge at the bottom of the English corridor enables us to ensure time is dedicated to reading for pleasure. Once a cycle year 7 and year 8 pupils will read modern stories that are in some way in dialogue with the texts in the taught curriculum. This approach will enable our students to get the best of both worlds: exposure to important, brilliantly written texts of cultural value and access to exciting contemporary fiction from authors they will already be familiar with. The Reading Lounge texts are in bold italics, and these choices give way to books to take home to read in year 9.

Unitisation

It has become increasingly clear to me that the idea of having a new topic or focus each half term is flawed. For many years this had been our approach. We would try and cram a lot into each six or seven week block and then rush through an assessment in the last couple of days of term, the very time when students were not able to produce their best work. We would then dutifully mark and level these assessments and enter the results on a spreadsheet, where they would remain until report time. A monumental waste of time!

Since September we have been experimenting with termly units at year 7 and 8. Although in its infancy, this less is more approach appears to be helping deepen our students’ understanding, as well as providing teachers with the flexibility to respond to their students’ needs. Without the pressure of constantly having to move on to the next unit or getting the assessment done in time, teachers are better able to respond to the learning needs of their classes and reteach material if necessary.

This past year we have also placed a much heavier emphasis on the process of redrafting. Influenced by some of the ideas in Ron Berger’s excellent ‘Ethic of Excellence’ our curriculum will give our students the time and space necessary to produce their very best work and to be inspired by their own excellence. How redrafting fits in to our wider system of assessment will be addressed in my next post.

Setting

This year for the first time we have started to set from year 7. Whilst I understand the arguments around mixed ability and, in principle, subscribe to the idealism of its intentions, in practice it is no longer tenable with the growing chasm in the ability profile of our incoming year 6. We were finding that at KS3 the most able were not consistently being stretched and the least able were not being sufficiently supported. On the curriculum draft the different numbers in brackets signify our four new sets, which are spread across three bands. As you can see, in some cases we feel that is appropriate for students to study different texts, though we believe that all will be challenged by what we have chosen.

Cultural capital

Whilst this term is bandied around a lot, for me it perfectly captures what I have experienced in my time as a teacher. I really believe that a lack of cultural capital is one of the most significant reasons why our students do not excel in English, but they do more in Maths and Science. I also firmly believe that cultural capital has a value outside of economic terms (see the comments at the end of Joe Kirby’s recent post on how to plan a knowledge unit for a debate around this issue).

The texts and periods we have chosen will provide a solid understanding of the journey of English literature and the development of our present identity. It is far from exhaustive and we are painfully aware that in order to achieve other aims, such as redrafting and an emphasis on explicit grammar teaching, we have had to sacrifice a great deal. Some of this will resurface in year 10, like Frankenstein and American fiction. We have also tried to provide some balance in terms of race and gender. I’m sure for some it will still seem too elitist.

Whilst our students achieve very good English results, they are far from being expert writers and readers and they could do much better. They are well supported in year 10 and particularly year 11 and make very good progress because they work hard and the exam is relatively formulaic. Many would flounder if the exam asked the question in a different format, or if it relied upon responses to more challenging material. Many of our students also struggle to make the transition to A level and almost all find it incredibly difficult to deal with unseen material. Even our brightest students – those who apply for Oxford, Cambridge or medical degrees – are often let down in their applications by their inability to express themselves coherently in the written form.

Our new curriculum is therefore the first step towards developing more articulate, genuinely independent writers and thinkers. We want our students to not be disadvantaged by background and to enjoy as much chance of success as those who attend the very best schools in the country.

This will not happen overnight.

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