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Curriculum leadership: Responding to the challenges of COVID-19

Written by: Cloe Warlde and Josh Cardale
7 min read
CHLOE WARDLE, ASSOCIATE DEAN, AMBITION INSTITUTE, UK
JOSH CARDALE, DEPUTY HEAD, JUBILEE PRIMARY SCHOOL, HACKNEY, UK

At the peak of the pandemic, UNICEF estimate that a staggering 1.5 billion children were out of education (UNICEF, 2020). Establishing remote learning and supporting pupils who had different levels of engagement with it to ‘catch up’ has been a challenge for curriculum leaders over the last two years.

Reflecting on how we tackled these challenges has brought us to consider what’s at the heart of curriculum design, not just in these exceptional times, but at any time. Although the scale of the challenges we continue to face is unprecedented, many of the tools that we have used to tackle them are familiar.

Ambition Institute runs training programmes that support educators serving children from disadvantaged backgrounds. At Ambition, we have authored a set of 10 curriculum principles, drawing on what we know about how learning works, as well as recent discussion in curriculum theory. Designed in consultation with curriculum experts and teachers, these principles are used in our training programmes to support teachers and school leaders when approaching curriculum design in their schools. Through the lens of three of these principles, this article explores the way in which one primary school led on curriculum development to meet the challenges presented during the pandemic.

Jubilee Primary School is a two-form entry community school in Hackney, East London. It is proud of its diverse intake: around half of the pupils speak English as an additional language. Its percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals is above the national average. A number of experienced subject coordinators are also specialist leaders of education, whose contribution to curriculum development has been highly valued, with the deputy head leading on curriculum across the school.

Neither author supposes to have found the ‘answers’ to the curriculum conundrums that the pandemic presented. As at all schools, decision-making at Jubilee over the last two years has involved wrong turns, dead ends and a lot of lost sleep. We are sharing this journey not because we think we solved the puzzle of remote learning or how to help pupils ‘catch up’, but in the hope that it supports curriculum leaders to place their own best bets.

Principle 1: What and why

There are a multitude of reasons why we educate, from the value of academic excellence in its own right to the pursuit of social justice; these inform our selection of curriculum content (Wiliam, 2013). Equally, there are a variety of reasons why we include certain areas of learning on our curriculum (Francis et al., 2017). For any individual subject, its unique construct will shape the aims of studying it.

In the recent past, it’s been especially important to bear existing curricular aims in mind. The landscape may have changed but our core purpose has not. In the primary phase, maths and English arguably form the bedrock of the curriculum (Alexander, 2010); research suggests that by spring 2021, primary pupils had lost around two months of progress in reading (DfE, 2021). However, a successful solution to this is unlikely to involve simply timetabling more reading lessons; we know that narrowing the curriculum risks limiting pupils’ access to the background knowledge that they need to enable them to do more than just decode (Willingham, 2009). Historically, Jubilee has been proud of its creative ethos and has a broad curriculum offer, with an emphasis on music and art. Keeping sight of the school’s core purpose meant retaining this curriculum breadth once pupils had returned to school.

Many children at the school had been struggling to articulate themselves confidently before the pandemic. Research shows that high-quality talk in classrooms improves standards, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds (EEF, 2021), so oracy was already a curricular focus at the school. During partial school closures, some children may have had fewer opportunities to engage in talk that goes beyond the everyday, so oracy has gained special importance within the curriculum. Since the beginning of this academic year, the English lead has been supporting staff to create scaffolded talk tasks, further developing an existing emphasis on talk for writing. This has helped to support pupils’ progress in writing, which has taken a dip during the pandemic both at Jubilee and nationally (Christodoulou, 2020).

Throughout the pandemic, Jubilee has intentionally made minimal changes to their curriculum, holding steadfast to the existing curricular aims of the school. However, some curricular changes did need to be made, and where they have, the curriculum has been gently refined rather than completely transformed, which brings us to our second principle.

Principle 2: Review and refine

No curriculum is ever ‘finished’; curriculum development is a constant cycle of renewal (Wiliam, 2013). As a school, Jubilee is constantly reviewing and refining its curriculum offering in response to changes in policy and local, national and international events. Like all schools, Jubilee has had to balance its long-term and short-term curricular improvement work over the last two years. For Jubilee, this meant at times prioritising the curricular revisions necessitated by partial school closures, and at others giving attention to the pre-pandemic curriculum development work that the school knows will benefit pupil learning in the longer term.

During the first national lockdown, as pupils, parents, teachers and leaders all grappled with the many challenges of remote learning, a substantial amount of curriculum time was lost. Core subjects were prioritised, with curricular breadth given through focus weeks for foundation subjects and weekly art and music activities.

Once pupils returned to school, to address lost curriculum time and ensure that core content had been securely acquired by pupils, curriculum leaders supported colleagues to refine the maths and English curricula: new content was interleaved with that which pupils had covered at home during lockdown. Use of automated learning technologies such as Mathletics has also helped the school to focus its curriculum on ensuring that pupils securely acquire core knowledge.

Once these more urgent curricular review priorities had been put into motion, attention returned to the school’s existing curriculum development focus. Before the pandemic, work had begun on refining geography and history to provide knowledge-rich, coherent curricula. In the first instance, this had been as a curriculum aim in itself; the knowledge that these subjects offer is a powerful tool for understanding the world (Young, 2014). However, given the limited curriculum offer during 2020 and 2021, these subjects gained greater importance as one way of equipping pupils with the broad background knowledge needed to support their learning in reading and writing.

Since subject knowledge is critical to effective curriculum planning (Counsell, 2020), drawing on and often deferring to the expertise of middle leaders, both within the school and from a local secondary, has been an important thread in the development of the history and geography curricula of the school, as has the support of subject associations.

Balancing short-term and longer-term curriculum improvement has been a recurring theme in the school’s recent curriculum revision work. Since March 2020, a third principle has been particularly important to all schools’ curriculum development: focus.

Principle 3: Focus

If we want pupils to develop detailed mental models that they can use to tackle diverse problems, we need a curriculum that gives them detailed knowledge (Christodoulou, 2014). It can be tempting to overstuff the curriculum, but deep learning comes from studying fewer topics in greater depth (Oates, 2010). At the centre of all curricular decisions is the question not just of what to teach but of what not to teach.

At Jubilee, the approaches taken to short-term curriculum revision have differed, largely depending on whether the content is more hierarchical or cumulative in its knowledge structure. In maths, where knowledge is largely organised hierarchically, this has meant focusing on the foundational content needed to access future learning. In English, where knowledge is often organised cumulatively, this has meant stripping back the number of text types taught to ensure opportunities for mastery across a handful of genres, rather than risking a superficial understanding across the full range. In history, Year 3 missed out on learning about Ancient Egypt, which will reduce the breadth of their historical knowledge and result in fewer opportunities to explore some of the core concepts in the history curriculum. However, since not knowing about Ancient Egypt will not impact on whether they can actually access subsequent history curriculum content, it won’t be returned to.

By contrast, in EYFS, focus has meant emphasising some aspects of the curriculum offer, rather than reducing its breadth. Partial school closures have particularly impacted the Reception cohort at Jubilee. Again, the school’s response has been not to radically alter the curriculum but instead to consider how it might be implemented differently to best support pupils to acquire the most important knowledge. Teaching has focused on early literacy within the same broad curriculum offering. This means that more time has been made for phonics practice for all children every day, and phonics tutoring and early language interventions have been set up for pupils with the greatest need.

Decisions about what we teach and how we teach it will be shaped by the impact of the pandemic for many years to come. These three principles help to clarify how we can draw on what we knew made effective curriculum planning before the pandemic to inform our curriculum responses to it – the journey the school has been on over the last two years has reinforced what we already knew was important about curriculum design. At Jubilee, this has meant continuing to craft a curriculum that is true to the curricular aims of the school, is responsive to pupils’ needs in the short term without limiting the curriculum offering in the longer term, and helps pupils to develop detailed, interconnected, deep knowledge.

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