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Small schools with big ideas – a connected curriculum model

Written by: Aimee Tinkler and Jacqueline Bone
5 min read
Aimée Tinkler, School Improvement Lead, The Village Federation, UK
Jacqueline Bone, Infant Teacher, Fitzherbert Primary School, UK

The definition of a small school is not entirely clear-cut. While the Church of England (2018) defines any schools with fewer than 210 students on roll as small, across the country, especially in rural and coastal areas, schools exist with significantly lower student numbers. The Village Federation is a group of small primary schools in rural Derbyshire. Each of the schools has only two classes, which cater for students across the entire primary age range. This reflection explores the challenges of building an effective curriculum in these schools and how the federation is able to provide their students with a curriculum experience that makes the most of their small size rather than a curriculum that is effective in spite of it.

In recent years, the notion of a knowledge-rich curriculum has become as much a part of daily discourse in schools as the concept of the deep dives designed to judge its success. Authors have spoken about the virtues of cohesively structured curricula allowing students to develop sequential ‘powerful knowledge’ (Young and Muller, 2013; Quigley, 2019), which builds up over their school life in a considered and purposeful way. Carefully ordered curriculum maps and knowledge organisers (Kirby, 2015) have appeared on school websites nationwide, and an increasingly widespread understanding of the science of learning has taught us that not only should a curriculum be logically sequenced, but the teaching of that curriculum should then be underpinned by the increasingly acknowledged understanding of how children learn and connect this new learning to things that they already know (Education Endowment Foundation, 2018).

The analogy of the ‘curriculum as a box set’ (Almond, 2020, p. 61) provides a useful method of understanding the benefits of a curriculum designed in this way. Almond presents an image of the curriculum as a carefully planned television series with an overarching storyline running through the entirety of the series. Each year group corresponds to a season, which contains its own narrative plot but, when sequenced carefully, builds up the elements that can then be combined to understand the overarching storyline and develop a deep interconnected understanding. Episodes of the box set may make little sense if watched in random order, and although through watching one episode we may grasp a very basic understanding of what is going on, this shallow knowledge is unlikely to lead to the same level of satisfaction and deep knowledge achieved by those who have developed a complex schema of different elements of the overarching story over time. This sounds like an ideal way to build sequential knowledge, but how can this work in a school that teaches students from a number of year groups in the same class?

If we consider the National Curriculum for any foundation subject, the curriculum defines the basic areas that need to be covered but, in a class catering for students from across a whole key stage, children may be experiencing a particular element of the curriculum in Year 3 while their classmate is experiencing the same set of lessons in Year 6. It is impossible for a teacher to teach more than one lesson at a time, and teachers in these classes already have the difficult tasks of ensuring that all pupils make progress from a wide set of starting points and supporting hugely different levels of maturity and independence in one classroom. Does this focus on curriculum now mean that the already complex job of curating an excellent school experience for these students is made impossible purely on account of the structure of the school? We don’t think so, but we do need a different analogy.

At the Village Federation, we consider our curriculum not as a box set but as a cinematic universe. Consider the Marvel Cinematic Universe – a collection of blockbuster superhero films, each of which stands alone as a complete story and which can be enjoyed in any order. While a Google search will provide a suggested sequence in which to watch the films, each movie has an epic story of its own, often surrounding one element or character in depth. Each time you watch a new film, new connections between them become apparent. Now consider watching the Marvel films while sat next to an aficionado who has spent time thinking deeply about how the movies link and who understands the background to the characters, how their lives interweave and how different movies combine to form the overarching story. They have become experts who can point out the links and twists at the appropriate point in your viewing, ensuring that you as a novice viewer don’t miss a link that may be important to your understanding two or three films down the line. With this guide at your side, the depth of your experience suddenly becomes so much more. The movies you watch are explicitly connected to each other, and with the continued help from your guide, those connections can be built upon as you watch further films, leaving you with a complex understanding of all that the Cinematic Universe involves.

We see our teachers as our aficionados and the fact that they teach the same children for multiple years as their superpower. While our subject leaders have worked hard to define the knowledge required in each unit, our teachers are the ones who make the links through and between subjects and bring these alive through careful planning. They plan to make the links explicit to our students at the right moment and they know exactly where learning has come from and where it’s going next. Our teachers teach the same students for four or even more years, and this puts us in an excellent position to point out connections between learning across hundreds of episodes in multiple years.

We don’t use knowledge organisers but we do organise knowledge, firstly by tightly defining exactly what it is we want the students to know in each subject, but then by continuing to build an interconnected web that exemplifies the links we want students to make. These links are made absolutely clear so that by the time our students leave us in Year 6, they have not only experienced the complete curriculum, but they have also done so alongside an expert who has an extensive knowledge of all the content and how it unfolds and intertwines. As a result, our students leave with a deep, rich and interconnected knowledge of everything that our curriculum involves, which is made possible because of the structure of our classes and not in spite of it. We might be small in size but we have big ideas and we know our teachers are superheroes.

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