One of the regular themes I return to in this blog is that far more should be done at the subject level in schools. School senior leaders have a vital role to play in providing a good environment in which teachers can prosper and, at their very best, strong school leaders see their role as senior curriculum leaders. But my argument has always been that schools, and the wider system, should be subject-led, for it is teaching these that is a school’s principal purpose.
But whilst my views on a number of things have changed over time, one belief that has not changed is that the lion’s share of the work done in our schooling system should take place at the subject level. Curriculum development should focus not on generic skills and competences, but rather on how the peculiar knowledge base and structures of the different disciplines become manifest in a school subject. Assessment design, whilst drawing on some broader principles, needs to be developed at the subject level to allow for the different ways in which subjects work. Teacher training and professional development needs to be subject-specific (as the Teacher Development Trust have argued), and I would say that in most subjects this involves a sustained programme over time whereby teachers continue to build on their own knowledge of their subject.
In too many situations, however, interactions between schools, and between schools and supporting institutions, happen not at the subject level, but at the generic level. Teachers often have to go out of their way to seek subject-specific support on curriculum and assessment, notwithstanding the excellent work done by organisations such as the Historical Association and the Schools History Project. Particularly in smaller secondary schools and primaries, history specialists can often find themselves isolated, and this is perhaps one of the reasons why so many history teachers give up their evenings, weekends and holidays to seek the company of other history teachers at conferences and through writing. But teachers should not have to do this: school-to-school interactions at the subject level should be the norm rather than the exception.
This is why I am excited to be taking a post at Inspiration Trust from May next year. Along with another historian, I shall be working with all of the Trust’s schools, from primaries to Sixth Form, on developing the history curriculum, improving the way we assess pupils in the subject, and making it possible for history teachers to deepen their substantive and curricular knowledge of the discipline.
At present, curriculum development, assessment design and teacher development are spread out over a variety of institutions, many of which do a good job. I am however increasingly convinced that the next step in education is to join these things together. Last week I had the pleasure of delivering a talk to a group of trainee teachers at Harris, which has run a subject-led model for a while now, under the excellent leadership of John Blake and Zoe Howells. I could immediately see that these trainee teachers were benefitting from having common reference points on curriculum and assessment.
For me, this is about having a school system that is subject-led. I am very much looking forward to working with the other historians (including Christine Counsell and Heather Fearn) and the subject leads in other disciplines (including Anthony Radice in English). Inspiration are still advertising for posts, and so if you too are interested in designing a subject-led system, why not drop them a line!
Picture: Pliny the Elder writing in his study beside a landscape populated with animals at the beginning of Pliny’s Historia naturalis, Central Italy (Rome), c. 1457-58, 415 x 280 mm. Harley 2677, f. 1. http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/TourBestiaryOrigins.asp