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Knowledge is power – we must teach it to our children

Published on 26/03/19

Giving pupils access to the best that has been thought and said will ensure every child has the same advantages as the educated elite.

Five years ago, in the midst of turning around some of our high schools, I took some of our principals on a trip.

Using money from some consultancy work I’d done, we paid for a small group to fly out to America and drive across country to meet Dr E D Hirsch. His book, Cultural Literacy, had struck a chord with me. As teachers we were already doing lots for our pupils, but how could we really leverage the emancipatory power of our curriculum?

Today, Hirsch’s ideas are widely known: a knowledge-rich approach that gives every child the same advantages as the educated elite – access to the best that has been thought and said, and not as a way of reinforcing old traditions, but as a springboard for them to generate and grow their own ideas in the future.

That group of principals, which has expanded as the Inspiration Trust has grown, sat down together and agreed we needed to take a fundamental look at our curriculum, shifting to a rich, subject-focused, more carefully sequenced approach. We think this is crucial to helping our most disadvantaged pupils succeed.

It was always important that this wasn’t something being done to our schools, but that our principals, subject leaders and teachers were intimately involved in. So, right from the start, we were clear that while we needed a central education team to kickstart the work, they would spend significant time in classrooms.

Teachers have always thought deeply about their lessons, but not necessarily about how to secure knowledge year on year. Performance tables can encourage us to focus narrowly on technical literacy and numeracy, when what’s needed is a wider approach that advances those essential aspects through the rich vocabulary and knowledge of history or geography or science.

Professional development of our staff is core to embedding that approach – curriculum change doesn’t work if it is just bits of paper. It has to be a living and breathing thing that feeds off teachers’ passion for their subjects and encourages them to bring that fire into class to inspire pupils. Different subjects will benefit from different approaches.

The initial work led us to a successful bid to the strategic school improvement fund (SSIF) in 2017 to develop a humanities curriculum, resources and training for a group of Norfolk primary schools – ours, plus those run by other trusts and the local authority.

We have had fantastic feedback from teachers on those materials, which give a strong guiding framework for teachers without dictating the meat of every lesson – and our tracking data suggests a direct impact on pupil progress.

We have decided to give away the resources for free. Why? The trust has put in a lot of time and money, but we have also had the support from SSIF and terrific engagement from our partner schools. We think it’s right that, once we have completed the project analysis and tweaked the materials to reflect teacher feedback, we make those resources available.

We’re here to improve education for all children, not just those in our schools, and we’re not interested in spinning off a publishing arm or a consultancy company. Other trusts are taking a different approach and we respect that. We have used great programmes from Ark and elsewhere: they take time and effort to develop.

For us, the real value in developing our knowledge-rich curriculum and professional development is building lively subject communities in our schools, and encouraging conversations about how and what we can teach. It’s about developing our staff as professionals, extending their knowledge and helping them put that to use in the classroom.

That means happier, more confident teachers. And that has to be good for all our pupils.

  • Dame Rachel de Souza is chief executive of the Inspiration Trust