An honest view of the curriculum planning process

Ruth Lingard (@YorkClio), a member of Secondary Committee and Head of History at Millthorpe School in York, gives us a refreshingly honest view on curriculum development. It can be easy to get the impression on social media that everything those who post do is marvellous. Ruth takes the long view and thinks about why her department lost track of a coherent curriculum and, at the same time, welcomes the return of the scheme of work designed to be a live document to support this coherence, rather than to be a record of attempts to meet the latest whole-school policy initiative. She firmly advocates leaning on the HA for curriculum development support and suggests how to do this. 

I’ve been thinking hard about our key Stage 3 curriculum. How would I rate it? Variable is probably the honest answer. There are units of enquiry that have been written fairly recently, they are tightly focused around the enquiry question and even have some current historical interpretations in there. I am proud of these.

In planning new lesson sequences I have taken great inspiration from Richard Kennett’s (@kenradical) workshops at HA and SHP on planning a coherent curriculum. So much so I have listened to him speak three times. (I may be becoming a groupie!) If you have missed him you can listen to his key note here… Rich Kennett on curriculum

However, others units are slightly more embarrassing. Wandering through some parts of Year 8 is a bit like rummaging through your underwear drawer. As you start to get to the bottom you find the lesson equivalent of the greying pants that you kept because they are nice and comfy even though the elastic had sort of gone. Our scheme of work contains a few of these awkward moments. For example, there is a slave auction somewhere on the system and until this year there was a big chunk on Jack the Ripper. Our scheme of work has not yet ’woke’. If you bump into a BAME historical figure they are usually defined by enslavement. If you bump into a woman she is probably having her head chopped off or being knifed by Jack the Ripper.

There is also a lack of coherence. As a river begins to meander off course, my lesson sequences have distorted over time. In the last 15 years since the first lessons were put on the shared drive there have been multitudes of adaptations and alternative lessons that staff have added. The result is, instead of a precisely planned curriculum, my schemes of work look more like a jumble sale of once loved offerings.

Why is this? Firstly, until about 2010 schemes of work were carefully produced documents. Senior management could ask to see them, as could OFSTED. What I began to notice is that with the rise of powerpoint presentations and shared drives the scheme of work became obsolete. Also, OFSTED placed less focus on the curriculum and, therefore, so did senior management. The old scheme of work was relegated to a folder on the shelf – unloved and un-updated.

So what is wrong with just using powerpoint? It does the job doesn’t it? I would argue that if, as in my case, your powerpoint collection has become a kind of proxy for a curriculum, it is a thin gruel compared to the rich feast of a scheme of work written directly for history teachers. I say for history teachers because it feels to me that schemes of work also became unloved because their intended audience had shifted to everybody other than the history teacher. During the 1990s and early 2000s endless columns were added for whole-school numeracy, literacy etc. that made the document unsuitable for day-to-day use. They were no longer primarily designed to support an ongoing, professional conversation about the history curriculum.

Lack of coherence is also caused because, for a Head of Department, life can be quite lonely. You are very busy, you pick up bits and bobs of updating, you live hand-to-mouth. What once made sense and was up-to-date is now no longer that way, but you are too isolated and hard-pressed with exam course matters to take a long view. It is hard, creative work to design a curriculum. Even when working as a small team, how do you know what you are doing is up-to-date and coherent?

The refocus of OFSTED on curriculum is an opportunity and, as history teachers, we are well-supported if we know where and how to reach out. My advice would be to tap into the vast network of history teachers that has the Historical Association at its heart. The HA has led the way in encouraging cutting edge practice in history teaching for decades. At the same time, the HA is there for all of us and the Secondary Committee are working hard to make this cutting edge practice, and the ideas behind it, accessible to every history teacher. Have you had a good look at the secondary curriculum section of the HA website recently?

Specifically, our department has used the HA’s Quality Mark process as a way to tap into the riches of the HA and to give us a framework for assessing our own progress towards becoming a better team of history teachers. There are two levels – silver and gold. The audit process requires you to think deeply about the curriculum, and friendly and experienced assessors spend the day with your department and are on hand to offer advice on next steps. It is great to have a long conversation with a subject specialist and even better that the HA has secured funding, via the Royal Historical Society, to cover the costs.

To sum up, here are my takeaways from this musing:

  1. Accept your imperfections. Not everything can be improved at the same time. Breathe. Schedule re-planning into department time.
  2. Enjoy the planning process. When else do you get a chance to discuss as a team the core knowledge you want your students to understand? When else do you get a chance to update your subject knowledge?
  3. Go beyond the powerpoint. Consider how you are going to record the thinking behind the lessons. What will be the most useful way of recording this and who is your primary audience? I hope the answer to your question will be your fellow history teachers and your line manager.

Once you have done this, consider applying for the Quality Mark from the Historical Association. This will give you the chance to explain and discuss your curriculum with experienced history teachers who can also give you suggestions for further improvements. The ink should never be dry on an effective curriculum!

Keep up-to-date with HA developments via the website, on Facebook and @histassoc.


3 thoughts on “An honest view of the curriculum planning process

  1. Great read. Agree the PowerPoint and the subsequent layering of multiple lessons on a subject has led to an single focus on the lesson delivery and a lack of looking at the big picture. The old SOW did mean we looked back and forward and there were conversations about why that why then just implicit not explicit


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