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Curriculum: it takes a community

Published on 24/02/19

Curriculum. You can’t get away from it these days, it is the word at the tip of everyone’s tongue and the top of the list at every senior team meeting. For many this seems to be a bit bizarre: haven’t we always had a curriculum? What else was happening in those classrooms?

The difference now is that there is a renewed drive for schools, leaders and teachers to become curriculum thinkers rather than simply deliverers.

At The Inspiration Trust we’ve been thinking hard about a knowledge-rich curriculum for the last three years. Inspired by thinkers such as E D Hirsch and Michael Young, the knowledge-rich curriculum with its focus on subjects, powerful knowledge and reducing social disadvantage was a perfect match for a Trust working with schools in high areas of deprivation and with pupils who have often not been able to see their own potential. It works to empower the communities we serve, as Young says:

‘Knowledge […] allows those with access to it to question it and the authority on which it is based and gain the sense of freedom and excitement that it can offer.’

These curriculum decisions and choice of knowledge is not something which can be achieved by one person, or one department or even one school. Just as we serve our local communities, we also serve and are a part of communities of practice. In particular, at Inspiration Trust we have focused on the ‘subject community’ as a key lever in curriculum reform, teacher development and school improvement.

Subject communities are made up of groups of subject specialists (teachers and academics) who are advocates for their subject and engage in fruitful discussion, debate and collaboration to consider the content which should be taught and the best methods for teaching this knowledge. Each subject community has its own rules, language and methods of enquiry and ideally offers equality for all its members regardless of their position. This is why the subject community applies as much to the trainee teacher as it does to the senior leader, and can run across all different levels and types of education.

Curriculum thinking and reform must be influenced by the subject-specific conversations, arguments and research from these communities otherwise we risk imposing a generic model which either reduces everything to ‘activity’ rather than content or is fixated on exam specifications because these are the only guiding structures which every leader understands. Placing a focus on subject communities also means that curriculum thinking will eventually be owned by each and every teacher. Top-down models of curriculum without investment in subject-specific professional development and the opportunity for collaboration, critique and review, are not sustainable. A study of teacher learning communities in subject departments in Hong Kong revealed that new pedagogies were less likely to be sustained by teachers who lacked understanding about the principles behind the project, and who did not have the opportunity to be involved in the project: ‘all they were expected to do was to implement the lesson plans prescribed by the subject leader.’

Whether in the training of teachers on our SCITT course, the establishing of a core curriculum in KS2 and KS3, or in the range of professional development offered to teachers, we are mindful of the need for teachers to be informed and involved. This matters both for the sustainability of the curriculum work, and also for the experience of the teachers. Working with subject specialists across schools and nationally in subject associations, or online networks, allows every teacher to experience professional autonomy even when working with prescriptive material as they learn how to shape the content for the pupils in their class.

Subject communities allow the informal discussions, collaboration and feedback loop which leads to great curriculum choices, including at the level of the enacted curriculum. For teachers who may be a lone member of a department such as in music or religious studies, or for those spread across a number of different subjects particularly at primary, a wider subject community can offer comfort, support and companionship. A benefit of a multi-academy trust is that these groups of teachers are easier to convene, but this still requires a commitment and investment of time into curriculum and teacher development in the long-term as well as the short-term.

Communities must be built and grown, but they must also be nurtured through investment in our teachers and their subject knowledge. It is a brave choice for school leaders to develop models of curriculum thinking rather than simply delivery, but it is a choice which we believe to be essential and is why the subject community is the beating heart of our ongoing curriculum reform.

  • Summer Turner is head of curriculum development at the Inspiration Trust