Senior leaders and the school curriculum

School senior leaders, I would argue, ought to be taking a keen interest in the detail of the school curriculum, not least because that curriculum helps to define what the school is aiming to achieve in educating its children. My experience in the past, however, has been that school senior leaders tend to focus more on the process of teaching (pedagogy) and the grades children get (assessment) than on the nature of the curriculum being provided. In this post I want to set out a few questions that I would expect a senior leader to be asking of teachers in a school, and I would be interested in knowing how many senior leaders do actually ask questions about the curriculum in the detail I set out below.

(1) “What are you teaching at the moment?”

As a classroom teacher I was very rarely asked this by a senior leader. On numerous occasions I was asked things like ‘how are 9Y behaving?’ or ‘how is Cynthia getting on in your lessons?’, but I cannot recall a single time a senior leader took any interest in what I was actually teaching to 9Y or Cynthia.

(2) “What do you expect your Year 7 class to know at the end of this term that they did not know at the start?”

Sadly, ‘progress’ in most schools is defined by letters, numbers and graphs, and not by a qualitative statement about what pupils will know by the end of the week, term or year. Obviously grades can be a proxy for what pupils know, but I would want a senior leader to be taking a bit more interest in the detail of what is being learnt.

(3) “How do you know that you are pitching your curriculum at the right level for Set 3 Year 9?”

I suspect most readers of this blog will, at some point, have been asked by a senior leader about ‘differentiation’. Rarely, I would guess, have they been asked about whether their curriculum is sufficiently detailed or simplistic for a particular year group. Just how complicated does the structure of an atom need to be for Year 7? What level of detail about the industrial revolution do Year 9 pupils need to know? These are the kinds of questions I would want a senior leader to ask.

(4) “What prior knowledge does your Year 10 class need to have in order to do the work you are asking them to do at the moment?”

This is a question fundamental to the idea of progression in a subject, and yet I do not think I was once asked as a teacher what prior knowledge I expected my pupils to have. If you are asking pupils to study the ‘reformation’, then presumably they need to know something first about the medieval church? If so, what?

(5) “Next week I am giving an assembly on Israel and Palestine. What do the Year 11s already know about this?”

Assemblies are notoriously difficult to pitch well, but I wonder how many times a senior leader has asked you for advice on what level of knowledge he or she might expect the pupils to have already. Assemblies are a good opportunity for joining up dots between different parts of the curriculum, and I would suggest that senior leaders can benefit enormously from finding out what knowledge they might expect pupils in the assembly to have.

So, here is a starting point. Please feel free to comment below, particularly with (a) other curricular questions you would want senior leaders to be asking and (b) whether or not you get asked these questions be senior leaders on a regular basis.

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5 Comments on Senior leaders and the school curriculum

  1. Dave Appleby // 21 April 2015 at 15:44 // Reply

    I heard you talk at ResearchED in Brighton on Saturday. It was very interesting (and very well-delivered!) I agree that curriculum in the sense of what is being taught is not a focus for most school leaders (is this because the government and the exam boards have made this their own?) and that we should rebalance things by asking ‘what is being taught’ as well as how.

    I am currently researching Threshold Concepts and struggling to define the concepts even in my subject, Physics: is Newton’s Second Law (Force = mass x acceleration) a concept or is it a cluster of concepts (eg force, mass, acceleration, equals and times)? To say that “curriculum research is a massive process of concept mapping” doesn’t help when I can’t even decide what a single concept is let alone draw a map!

  2. Uncanny. I was arguing this point just this afternoon following a head’s observation of my computing lesson. There have been developments in the primary computing curriculum this year and I was definitely the expert in the room (for what that was worth!) but I would like to have the discussion about the lesson with some common understanding of what I’m trying to teach. I agree with the notion that teachers need to maintain their skills and knowledge base. Senior leaders do too.

  3. “If you are asking pupils to study the ‘reformation’, then presumably they need to know something first about the medieval church? If so, what?”

    This reminds me of a discussion the other day with my year 11 daughter, who is revising the Russian revolution at the moment. I mentioned Karl Marx, and she asked “who was he?”

  4. This is fascinating – and, as you might guess, I’m sympathetic. But could your argument not be construed as equally tending to promote the importance of middle leaders (heads of department) leading improvement within department. I would suggest that any history teacher worth their salt should be able to answer these questions well – and unless the senior leader can offer probes the teacher hasn’t thought of, the conversation’s value is likely to end there. Whereas a good head of department should be able to ask – and how can you be sure they’ll understand the medieval church if they’re not clear on monasticism (or the like)…

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