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Shining a light on curriculum: How to enhance communication and collaboration between senior and subject leaders to support curriculum development

Written by: Catherine Priggs
8 min read
CATHERINE PRIGGS, ASSISTANT HEADTEACHER, DR CHALLONER’S GRAMMAR SCHOOL, UK

Senior curriculum leadership

Curriculum design and development is not without contention: content selection can be contestable or there may not be consensus on method or pedagogy. Subject leaders, in part, bear this responsibility; they must furnish their teams with subject and pedagogical knowledge appropriate for successful implementation of their curriculum. But subjects exist within the whole school, so it is incumbent upon senior leadership teams (SLTs) to lead on curriculum. Counsell argues that ‘senior curriculum leadership’ – the senior team exercising curricular knowledge in order to better understand the distinctiveness of subjects – is the responsibility of the entire SLT (Counsell, 2018).

To safeguard against genericism, preserve the distinctiveness and respect the sensitivities of subjects, senior leaders must understand what subjects are and what they are not. While whole-school frameworks are necessary, individual line management relationships need to be informed by the sometimes subtle and sometimes stark differences that define subjects. This article will consider how senior leaders can work with subject leaders to build knowledge and understanding of the features of effective subject curricula and their manifestation in the classroom, so that ongoing curriculum development is well supported and rigorously reviewed.

Revealing subject curricula to senior leaders

Counsell argued that SLTs ‘need a curricular language for talking about teaching and attainment, a language which, because of its curricular character, illuminates rather than conceals the thing itself’ (Counsell, 2018). To shine a light on curriculum, subject and senior leaders must work in tandem. Senior leaders need to respect the expertise of subject leaders and strive to preserve the authenticity of subjects; subject leaders need to find ways in which to communicate the essence of their subjects to senior leaders. The following guidance suggests how a meaningful relationship between senior and subject leaders might be fostered.

Schedule protected time for informed curriculum conversations

Line management meetings afford an excellent opportunity for senior and subject leaders to discuss curriculum.

There is significant value in senior leaders having a shared language with which to probe subject leaders’ curricular thinking. Asking questions such as ‘Why do you teach X at point Y in the course?’ or ‘How are lessons or enquiries designed to prepare pupils for future learning?’, for example, would allow a line manager to build a helpful understanding of many different subjects. Yet we need to consider how shared language can avoid becoming an oversimplified proxy.

Counsell argues for conversations between subject and senior leaders that try to both ‘uncover curriculum itself and apply subject-specific curricular understandings to visible expressions of it – classroom teaching, students’ work, assessment data, evaluative exercises and departmental meetings’ (Counsell, 2020, p. 117). Careful thought therefore needs to be given to the substance of conversations about curriculum (Mountstevens and Skelton, 2019).

To illustrate, a line manager seeking to understand how a history curriculum functions would benefit from knowing and understanding: 

  • how pupils’ understanding of substantive concepts are built across a key stage
  • how academic scholarship is used to inform planning and delivery 
  • how narratives are built by curricular knowledge
  • the rationale underpinning selection of periods and places that students will study.

 

But delving into these areas would clearly be of little concern to a line manager of maths. Among other things, a line manager of maths would benefit from understanding the sequencing of types of mathematical knowledge and how teaching of mathematical methods develops as students move through the key stages.

Clearly, coming to understand the intricacies of a subject relies on line managers trusting subject leaders as specialists and having detailed conversations with them about what is being taught and the rationale for it being included (Myatt, 2018). Likewise, this requires subject leaders to consider what senior leaders need to know about their subject – subject leaders are not devoid of the responsibility to lead. By providing subject-specific questions designed to uncover the essence of a curriculum, subject leaders will not only develop clarity with regard to their own curriculum thinking, but they will also advance the curricular awareness of senior leaders (Myatt and Tomsett, 2021).

Furthermore, the senior leader should not play a passive role. Conversations about curriculum should not be ad hoc; they are crucial to effective quality assurance of a school’s curriculum (Mountstevens, 2021; Mountstevens and Skelton, 2019). Time must be dedicated to these conversations, which should be underpinned by a strategic aim to nurture rigorous and robust curriculum development.

Build curricular knowledge through reading 

Reading ahead of line management meetings is a sure way in which to pre-empt the potential issues of having a non-subject specialist as a line manager.

An absence of understanding of subjects can too easily lead to line management conversations driven solely by generic priority or strategy. Being inquisitive about subjects, understanding subject nuances and having informed curricular conversations is paramount to senior curriculum leadership.

A good starting point is undoubtedly Huh: Curriculum Conversations Between Subject and Senior Leaders (2021), in which Mary Myatt and John Tomsett discuss subjects with subject experts. Ofsted’s research review series presents a comprehensive overview of research evidence about different curriculum subjects, while their subject reports provide a commentary on the current strengths and weaknesses of teaching practice (Ofsted, 2023). Ruth Ashbee’s Curriculum: Theory, Culture and the Subject Specialisms (2021, p. 65) sets out some of the principles of curriculum theory and provides practical strategies for the implementation of a knowledge-based curriculum, as well as providing an overview of ‘key strands of knowledge and their relationships’ within selected subjects.

Ashbee also advises that senior leaders should take advantage of ‘a quality article from the discourse on disciplinary knowledge’ (Ashbee, 2021, p. 7). Rather than requesting that subject leaders create their own summaries of subjects, senior leaders’ use of existing material has the added benefit of building their knowledge of the conversations and debates happening within a subject community. Note that subject associations offer a wealth of practitioner research and reflection. Some also offer appropriate professional development – for example, the Historical Association runs a course designed for non-subject-specialist line managers of history departments, to better support subject leaders of history (HA, 2022).

Find a method to clearly characterise subjects

The strategic subject leader could show senior leaders what to look for in lessons, rather than allowing them to resort to generic proxies.

Many teachers will have experienced the frustration of a non-specialist observer recommending a pedagogical approach or a directive to implement a school-wide teaching and learning strategy. Either example here risks distorting a subject. Furthermore, generic strategies will likely have little success, as they are too vague to successfully address ‘persistent problems’ with subjects (Burnage, 2023). But subject leaders can avert tensions between whole-school compliance and remaining true to the discipline of their subject by communicating to senior leaders what a subject should look like in the classroom. Senior leaders should invite that communication, demonstrating an openness to learning about the subjects that they are line-managing, while supporting those subjects to implement whole-school priorities in a way that is appropriate.

Grace Healy, Education Director at David Ross Education Trust, considered how subject leaders of geography could communicate the essence of their subject to senior leaders. Subject leaders used a one-sided template to record responses to various questions (a blank version of this device, which could be adapted for any subject, can be seen in Figure 1). The completed device aimed to help senior leaders to understand what they might see in lessons through a geographical lens.

 

What will you see in geography lessons? What will you see in pupils’ geography books?
What formative assessment will you see in geography? What is the department currently reading and discussing and why?

 

Figure 1: A device used to communicate what senior leaders should see in geography lessons (adapted from Counsell, 2018)

Communicate subject-specific approaches to assessment 

Subject leaders should consider communicating to their line manager what effective and proportionate assessment looks like in their subject.

Assessment should not be considered separately to curriculum – the two should be deliberately interwoven. As Fordham argues, ‘the curriculum is the progression model’ and assessment is not, therefore, an adjunct to curriculum (Fordham, 2020). Yet subject leaders can be tempted to separate assessment from curriculum or, worse, let a nescient whole-school assessment policy drive subject curricula.

Clearly, a subject leader’s ability to have leverage here will depend on school- or trust-wide policies, how established a school is and external factors such as specification changes. Nevertheless, by pre-empting misunderstandings of subject nuances, subject leaders may be able to mitigate inappropriate whole-school systems being applied to a subject, or prevent colleagues from feeling the need to use performative strategies in lessons designed to show progress.

An extract from a document designed to communicate a history department’s approach to assessment can be seen in Figure 2.

 

Key Stage 3

  • Teachers check student work and assess progress in different ways depending on the task – for example, by asking questions and listening to answers. Not all teacher assessment will leave visible traces in students’ books.

 

  • Students complete an outcome task for each enquiry that answers the enquiry question, and three summative assessment points per year.

 

  • After assessing student work, teachers record this information in a range of ways for future reference, depending on the task and the purpose for which it was assessed – the affectionately named ‘messy markbook’. For example, a teacher-awarded mark out of 10 is recorded for final outcome tasks for teacher reference, alongside a brief note about the student’s strengths/weaknesses; this mark is not always standardised or moderated and is not shared with students, in order not to divert students from attention to the formative feedback.

 

  • Teachers act on the information gained from assessment to adapt teaching, in ways that may be apparent or may be integrated into teaching. For example, a resource or lesson may be planned or designed to address misconceptions, knowledge gaps or other problems noted in students’ work.

 

  • Students act on the feedback by completing tasks set by the teacher. This might include using feedback and guidance to improve their performance on a follow-up piece of work.

 

Figure 2: Abridged section from a document created by Elizabeth Carr, Avanti Grange Secondary School, to share and explain her department’s approach to assessment with her SLT at a previous school

Conclusion

A great deal of consideration needs to be given to how subjects can thrive within a whole-school context, while contributing to the whole school. SLTs have a responsibility to lead on curriculum across the school, and with that responsibility comes a need to know about subjects and their rationale (Ofsted, 2019). If senior leaders do not embrace this responsibility, they risk distorting the implementation of subject curricula (Counsell, 2018). It is therefore imperative that subject and senior leaders work together to shine a light on curriculum (Mountstevens, 2021). The venture must be a two-way process: senior leaders must recognise and respect the expertise of subject leaders, using their understanding of subjects to form sensible school-wide policy, while subject leaders must preserve the integrity of their subject by communicating its essence to SLT, while recognising the wider role that it plays.

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