Curriculum 22: Rising to the challenge of an ambitious primary curriculum

Curriculum

30th September 2021

Curriculum 22: Rising to the challenge of an ambitious primary curriculum

Following her first blog, How to design, plan and teach an ambitious curriculum, Curriculum Director Melanie Moore explores the demands of implementing an ambitious curriculum and explains how adopting the Cornerstones Curriculum 22 can help schools to manage those challenges.

Curriculum 22: Rising to the challenge of an ambitious primary curriculum

The Cornerstones Curriculum has deliberately ambitious aims for all learners. The Ofsted school inspection handbook states that leaders of good and outstanding schools ‘adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils and including pupils with SEND, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life’.

As schools and Ofsted focus more on the curriculum, there will undoubtedly be increasing demands on senior leaders, classroom teachers and the children themselves. In the following paragraphs, I’ll identify some of the issues you may face when introducing a more ambitious curriculum and explain how adopting Cornerstones Curriculum 22 can help you resolve them.

In my previous blog, How to design, plan and teach an ambitious primary curriculum, I set out the component parts of an ‘ambitious curriculum’. While few would disagree with the premise of, or the provision of, an ambitious curriculum for all, it’s essential to acknowledge the challenges this presents for schools so that they are given the time and support they need to do this effectively.

Cognitive challenge and the differentiation paradox

One of the main principles of an ambitious curriculum is that ambitious learning, particularly knowledge acquisition, should be an entitlement for all children, regardless of their starting points or prior learning. Moreover, it is thought that providing differentiated material for children risks holding them back.

Though a significant number of primary practitioners may disagree with this, it is certainly the current direction of curriculum travel. For many primary teachers, differentiating planning and resources has long been the main strategy for coping with the challenges of mixed ability and, in some cases, mixed-age classes.

In Mary Myatt’s blog, An ambitious curriculum for all, Myatt cites Dame Allison Peacock’s book Assessment for Learning without Limits (2016) to highlight the negative impact of differentiated tasks on learning. She offers this explanation:

‘For many of the ‘lower’ groups, they are offered closed responses – matching parts of sentences, filling in gaps, completing easy worksheets, none of which really stretches them or expects them to do much. Others, by contrast, are given more to do and more is expected of them. While they might have a few closed exercises in order to practise or consolidate their knowledge, they are also expected to do new things with this – constructing their own sentences, coming up with other alternative adjectives in a piece of writing, suggesting alternatives to problems in mathematics. These children are being given more opportunities both to struggle and to gain new knowledge. The others, by contrast, have insufficient expectations of them and as a result, don’t make the same gains as their peers’.

Though some primary practitioners may disagree with this, the research does outline the paradox of attempting to give children more accessible work, whilst in turn potentially diminishing children’s interests, capabilities and capacity.

Supporting children’s learning of an ambitious curriculum

It is crucial then that, when delivering an ambitious curriculum, teachers use their professional expertise to offer the appropriate support for any child or group of children, without the requirement to provide extensive differentiation. Rather than spending time writing differentiated lesson plans or texts, support should be offered through discussion, flexible use of resources and reading information aloud, particularly where the level of a text is too difficult for a child to access independently.

By using Cornerstones Curriculum 22, teachers can use pre-planned lessons and tailor-made resources that are pitched perfectly in line with a robust progression framework. Whilst lesson plans are adaptable, it is not recommended that teachers spend time making extensive changes to them. Even though some lesson plans or resources may seem challenging at first, teachers should consider the different ways they can be used to ensure all children can access the learning intention of the lesson. It is also worth mentioning that teachers adopting Curriculum 22 can refer to the Cornerstones pedagogy to guide their teaching approaches.

In summary, the questions should be ‘How can I deliver this content in a way that makes sense to that child?’ and ‘How can I teach this lesson or use these resources so that all children can access the same knowledge?’

Example of how to offer support for learning 

In the Curriculum 22 Year 6 project Maafa, the lesson Gold, god and glory introduces children to the historical narrative of Portugal and Spain’s interest in Africa and the context for the beginning of the slave trade. The information sheet children are asked to read is certainly challenging. However, in line with the principles of an ambitious curriculum, instead of providing a series of differentiated versions of the text, a teacher could either read it aloud and discuss as a group, offer children the opportunity to read in mixed-ability pairs, record it for children to listen to or break it down into smaller chunks and teach it over a series of lessons. The recording sheet, as with most resources of this type in Curriculum 22, is highly scaffolded, so that most children working at or above age-related expectations can use it independently to record their answers.

Allowing time for transition 

When making the transition towards a more ambitious curriculum, children will initially find both the content and expectations challenging. Although this can be alarming at first, this is not always because children lack the ability to understand but rather that they are disadvantaged by lower entry points due to previous levels of curriculum planning. Over time, as children progress through the curriculum and the curriculum becomes better embedded across the school, children’s entry point to each year group’s curriculum will become much smoother and less challenging for all concerned.

Example of a disadvantaged curriculum entry point 

In the first year of implementing Curriculum 22, children in Year 6 study the colour mixing project Tints, Tones and Shades. The children have little previous experience of colour and colour theory. Their work is poorly executed, and their understanding of colour is filled with misconceptions. Although some children make progress during the project, it is obvious that most do not have prior knowledge about the principles of colour mixing on which to build their new knowledge. Fast forward two years to see the current Year 4 children enter the Year 6 curriculum. These children are already knowledgeable about colour and colour theory, having previously studied the colour mixing project Contrast and Complement in Years 3 and 4. These children produce work of a higher standard and can make sense of the theory behind making tints, tones and shades due to their prior knowledge and skills, relating to colour and colour theory.

While this can make for an anxious wait, it is realistic to expect that children will only be able to reach the high standards required of an ambitious curriculum when they have progressed through the full curriculum from the start.

Retention of knowledge

Another significant challenge of implementing an ambitious curriculum is the expectation that children should, over time, know and remember more. Feedback from recently inspected schools tells us that Ofsted’s lines of enquiry mainly focus on how well the curriculum is sequenced (what is taught, where it’s taught and why it’s taught). In addition, how subject concepts develop and connect to other subjects is also a popular line of enquiry. Although some schools are confident that their curriculum will stand up to this level of interrogation, many are worried that it will not. Therefore, the benefits of using an ambitious curriculum, such as Curriculum 22, significantly eases the pressure of planning the curriculum correctly and offers reassurance for those that feel their existing curriculum might not fit the bill.

Challenges of subject leadership

In the world of ambitious curricula, there is, of course, a greater demand on subject leaders. The pressure on subject leaders to know their subject well has increased, particularly with the publication of the Ofsted subject reports. It is important that subject leaders are given the space and time to become well acquainted with their subject’s schema, including being able to articulate how well it connects to other curriculum subjects. Once a subject leader has this type of understanding, which includes confidence in being able to show what children learn and when, then the curriculum becomes much more effective overall.

Example of the knowledge required by a subject leader 

During an inspection, a subject leader for geography is asked how the concept of climate is taught from Years 1 to 6. The subject leader can articulate this using curriculum documentation or a platform, such as Curriculum Maestro. Their explanation includes how the concept is taught, when it is taught and why. Their explanation also includes how the concept of climate connects to other subjects of the curriculum. The illustration in the link shows the detail of the subject leader’s explanation.

View Curriculum sequencing example

Literacy’s role in an ambitious curriculum

To attain high standards across the curriculum, it follows that the levels of literacy required to access the curriculum will also be ambitious, keeping in mind that the national curriculum states that all children should be able to ‘read fluently, and with confidence, in any subject’ by the end of primary school.

The texts within Curriculum 22 are aimed at children who are working at age-related expectations for reading. These expectations can be ambitious for children who have had little experience of demanding texts. Children need to learn the tools to tackle difficult texts, such as highlighting new vocabulary, making notes, creating glossaries and discussing interpretations with their peers. These tools can be introduced when analysing a text as a whole class, working with a partner or working with an adult during a guided session.

The Ofsted school inspection handbook makes it very clear that ‘If pupils are not able to read to an age-appropriate level and fluency, they will be incapable of accessing the rest of the curriculum, and they will rapidly fall behind their peers’.

Curriculum 22 aims to raise children’s literacy levels through its teaching of other subjects. As Mary Myatt says in her blog, ‘a wider curriculum, beyond being an entitlement, will support outcomes in English’ and for this reason, one of Curriculum 22’s strengths is its commitment to ambitious texts.

Summary

An ambitious curriculum can take years to embed, and its full impact will only be evident in the longer term.

However, there are many positive short-term impacts, particularly if using a curriculum such as Curriculum 22, which include:

  • an instant boost to the quality of lesson plans and resources
  • an instant boost to the quality and consistency of literacy levels across the curriculum
  • evidence of a clear knowledge framework across the school
  • clearer connectivity between subjects and consistency across year groups
  • better subject leadership

Longer-term benefits include: 

  • improved standards in the subject knowledge of all stakeholders
  • children know and can do more
  • a stronger, more cohesive whole curriculum
  • raised levels of literacy for all children
  • better standards of knowledge across all subjects
  • better engagement of all pupils in the curriculum

The style of curriculum a school implements is ultimately their own choice. However, an ambitious curriculum is much preferred in the current educational climate. If I were a headteacher now, I would undoubtedly look to adopt a curriculum such as Curriculum 22, both for the children’s experience and to ensure that what I have in place meets the needs of external interrogation and is backed by cognitive science.

However, the education sector, especially those involved in routine inspections, must acknowledge that such a curriculum takes time and hard work to implement. In addition to all the challenges I’ve already mentioned, there are, of course, also many others. These include the need for staff training, the time and costs involved in designing the curriculum, the need to reassure and enthuse children in a new style of learning, the quality of practical resources that need purchasing and the demand for all stakeholders to become experts in their school’s curriculum.

Despite all the hard work and challenges we face when implementing an ambitious curriculum, this is the best type of curriculum we can offer children if research is to be believed. And if that is the case, then we should do everything we can to provide that.

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