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Most English schools are now starting to focus more on the curriculum. One reason for this is Ofsted’s increased interest in exploring what the school is trying to do and how it implements that vision, as well as focusing on the overall outcome. But the sea change is not just driven by Ofsted. It is also a response to the canon of literature that supports the idea of knowledge acquisition as being fundamental to educational success. You need have knowledge in order to use it (Young, 2014).
So what knowledge should we set out in the curriculum as being that which should be secured and how best do we ensure that pupils learn that knowledge in a way that means they remember it and can use it? These are the fundamental questions and they need to guide the process of curriculum design and delivery.
Agreeing the non-negotiables for the entire school
It is tempting to approach curriculum design entirely from a subject perspective and indeed subjects are very important (Counsell, 2018) and the main engine for change, but preceding the detailed work in subject departments should be a discussion around the vision for the entire school. If you do not have this then in school inconsistency will occur. In a great article for Secondary Ed, (2016), Gerald Haigh reminds us of the work of David Reynolds at NCSL on within school variation (WSV). WSV was 14 times more significant than variation between schools!
So senior leaders need to take the initiative and instigate discussion and debate around the non-negotiables underpinning curriculum design across the school alongside subject and department work. That way you gain some cross school consensus and also have a mechanism for monitoring implementation.
1. What kind of student are we attempting to produce?
This question when posed in school runs the risk of veering into generalised statements but done well it can act as a driver for all that is to come. I suggest that you create 3 statements of one sentence each and cover the following areas:
- Academic achievement – what are our ambitions around expectations?
- Global citizenship – what do we want in terms of pupil overlook and behaviours?
- Enterprise and confidence – what dispositions do we want our pupils to have? We want them to have knowledge but also be able to use it confidently. They need to think for themselves.
These statements help at the subject curriculum design level because they can steer subject thinking and also enable some consistency of approach across the school. Key ideas such as social justice can be captured here as well as entitlement and tolerance.
2. Agreeing the level of expectation we will set
We have come a long way in our understanding of what pupils can achieve. First we thought it was all in the genes (Terman, 1925), then along came the idea of the zone of proximal development (Vigotsky, 1978) so whatever we had in genes could be developed. Then fixed versus flexible mindset (Dweck, 2007) and now Ericsson (2007) indicating that all of us have it in us to be high attainers.
Great schools, whatever the backgrounds of their intake, are always ambitious on behalf of their pupils. But now they are rejecting entirely the notion of the Bell curve where high attainment is seen as a target outcome for only a minority and instead expect it of all pupils regardless of starting point. Whatever level of ambition you set at the whole school level should be reflected in subject curriculum design and if you want a significant uplift in the percentage of pupils attaining highly then you would expect to see a move from some pupils learning at high levels to all pupils learning at high levels with support where needed. This will be explicitly reflected in subject content, sequencing and associated pedagogy.
3. The role of assessment
Despite all the work of Dylan Williams (2011) and others stressing the importance of formative assessment in generating confidence and competence in the subject discipline, many schools are overly test led. This has narrowed horizons and led to a preoccupation with the short term as opposed to viewing curriculum as having dual functions - learning new material and simultaneously building the foundation for the more advanced learning that will come later. You might call this second aspect ‘developing subject expertise’. It is the ability to operate within the rules of the subject.
If you restrict teaching to being primarily focused on what might come in the next test and don’t engage with the wider ideas around the subject then not only will you inhibit growth in the subject discipline, you also disadvantage the test takers. If the question comes up in a slightly unexpected form your pupils will be unable to respond because they have not really mastered the content to a level where they are confident to use it. So a school wide discussion around the role of summative assessments and tests is required. Then agreement as to their position - as a checking mechanism rather than the syllabus.
4. Establishing knowledge in the working memory
Learning knowledge does not in itself lead to expertise in a subject. Pupils also need to learn the rules and conventions of the subject and its technical language. They need to think like a Mathematician or a Historian. It is this repertoire that enables learners to approach new knowledge with confidence and sense where it links with existing knowledge. The earlier this process starts in children’s education, the greater the number of pupils who will achieve mastery of the knowledge.
So, if we want our pupils to not only have knowledge but be able to select when and where to use it then we need to systematically build the techniques that enable this to occur. Again this is an area where you could leave it to individual departments but inconsistency is the likely result.
A better way forward is to adopt an underpinning school-wide approach such as High Performance Learning (Eyre, 2015) which provides a framework for building, within the subject, the competencies that ensure high attainment.
At the subject design stage you should then see each subject actively setting a high level of building subject knowledge and disciplinary skills or ‘tools’.
5. Making sure we secure the basics
Finally, the basics of language and Maths underpin all other educational achievement. It opens the door to new ideas and thinking so it must be the responsibility of all departments to contribute to ensuring everyone has fluency in these areas.
But in curriculum design a focus on securing the basics does not necessarily mean reducing curriculum demand in those areas. It is important to structure your curriculum in the expectation that rapid progress can be made by those who start out with reduced levels of literacy and numeracy. It is not the case that ‘behind now’ means ‘behind always’ – or at least not unless you make it so. Even in the secondary school this should be the maxim.
Again this is a school wide issue but the solution lies within each department. It is not merely a problem for Maths and English. Debate on curriculum design should include how to accelerate the progress of those not yet at ease with the basics without resorting to endless dull catch up sessions which narrow horizons and reduces the chances for social mobility.
So, senior leaders, as you get into curriculum refresh and redesign don’t just hand over to departments. Start with agreeing the non-negotiable principles that underpin how we approach curriculum design in our school and then hand over to the subject teams to make it a reality in their subject.
Professor Deborah Eyre, is CEO of High Performance Learning. My thoughts reflect 40 years research into how the most successful learners think and learn and how to structure curricula design to develop those same competencies in all pupils.
Baddeley & Hitch (1974). WORKING MEMORY. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 8, 47-89.
Counsell, C (2018) ‘Taking Curriculum Seriously’ Chartered College of Teaching. September 2018 available at https://impact.chartered.college/article/taking-curriculum-seriously
Dweck, C. S. (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, New York: Random House USA
Ericsson, A. K., Roring, R.W., Nandagopal, K., (2007). ‘Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance: an account based on the expert performance framework’ in High Ability Studies, 18(1), 5-56.
Eyre, D. (2015) High Performance Learning: How To Become A World Class School. London: Routledge
Haigh, G. (2016) ‘Whatever happened to within school variation?’ SecEd. 03 February 2016. Available at http://www.sec-ed.co.uk/blog/whatever-happened-to-within-school-variation
Terman, L.M., (1925) ‘Genetic studies of genius’. Stanford, C.A : Stanford University Press
Vigotsky, L.S. (1978) ‘Mind and Society,’ Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press
Williams, D. (2011) ‘Embedded Formative Assessment.’ Bloomingto IN: Solution Tree Press:
Young, M., Lambert, D., Roberts, C., Roberts.M (2014) ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice.’ London: Bloomsbury
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If you're wondering where to start with HPL, this wonderfully insightful article from Jed Allen, student teacher at St Swithun's Prep School, Winchester, UK, tells you all you need to know!
Initially daunted to be on placement in an HPL school, Jed soon fell in love with the HPL philosophy and got to grips with incorporating HPL into all aspects of teaching.
Jed says: “I was initially apprehensive when tasked with teaching in a school which focussed on High Performance Learning (HPL). Was this just another one of those school improvement schemes which takes up a teacher’s valuable time and resources whilst providing minimal outcomes? I am pleased to say I could not have been more wrong. HPL allows students to achieve and maintain excellence. Whilst it may be challenging for teachers to first integrate into their pedagogy, the level of depth and understanding I have witnessed from the children whilst on this placement has been second to none.”
Jed is now a staunch advocate and concludes: “Working in this school which promotes HPL has been pedagogically transformational and going forward into my master’s degree, NQT year and future career I will undoubtedly advocate HPL for any school I work in.” Read the full piece here.
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“Outstanding schools don’t stand still, but where to go next isn’t always obvious. HPL allows us to do what we already do but more deliberately and better. We’ve maintained momentum and no longer need to ask the question ‘what next?’, because we know what’s next. It’s a relentless focus on progress for each and every student, every day.”
Simon O’Connor, Principal, Jumeirah College, Dubai
Why choose HPL?
HPL offered the natural next step, according to Simon O’Connor, Principal of Jumeirah College in Dubai, whose school has seen a significant increase in higher exam grades since adopting HPL two years ago.
A close follower of Professor Deborah Eyre’s research for some time, Simon chose HPL’s World Class School Award to provide an even more ambitious goal for his already high performing school, which has received an ‘Outstanding’ inspection report for the 8th year running.
Simon explains: “Outstanding schools don’t stand still, but where to go next isn’t always obvious. Early on, I rewrote our vision statement to remove ceilings and make it clear we are about progress without limits. As a non-selective secondary school, this is incredibly important to us, and we’re always looking for how to move students onto the next step.”
When starting out, the school chose a ‘carpet bomb’ approach to implementing HPL. The first step was to explain it in brief to staff, then ask for volunteers for a steering group. “I expected 3 or 4 people to come forward but we ended up with 17!” reflects Simon. “That was the point I released how popular it was going to be with staff. Departments started by picking one or two ACPs and VAAs to practice and play with, however it soon became clear that all were pertinent so we had to adjust our plan.”
One of the things that appealed to Simon about HPL was that it is based on research. He said: “From a teaching perspective, HPL gives us a ‘Lingua Franca’ that everyone understands with the vocabulary running through the school. Staff are very proud that we’re an HPL school and recognise its importance in securing the best possible outcomes for every student.”
HPL has been an easy sell to parents, mainly down to what Simon calls “the best HPL advocates in the world”, his 1,100 students. He adds: “HPL runs through everything we do so whether it’s a curriculum evening or a coffee morning, it’s there.”
“The tipping point came when HPL was so systemic, I was no longer controlling it. It’s like wild fire running through the school. We are now looking much deeper and how we can align pastoral, rewards and extra-curricular to HPL.”
Impact of HPL
Take a tour of the school and it is evident how staff across all subjects are owning HPL and using it to shape their lessons to offer advanced learning opportunities to all. From Arabic to Mathematics, from PE to History, HPL has high visibility and prominence in and beyond classrooms, showing the extent to which Jumeirah College has embraced this transformational philosophy.
When talking about impact, Simon is clear that HPL has made a huge difference to his students. He said: “We’ve achieved a significant increase in higher grades over the last two years. Top grades at GCSE have increased by 50% and we’re in the top 1% of schools in the world for ALPS Value Added.”
“There’s also a very noticeable impact that’s harder to measure. Our students are more resilient and more articulate, and this is evidenced in the calibre of students leaving us at the end who are truly global citizens.”
“Prior to starting HPL, were our students empathetic? Yes, they were. Did they know they were empathetic? Probably. But could they say why being empathetic is good and how it will benefit them in their future lives? Probably not. This is where HPL has made ways of thinking and ways of behaving explicit and relevant. Articulating and discussing has elevated, and students now have a firm grasp of the HPL VAAs and ACPs and why they are important.”
So what is the secret to HPL’s success at Jumeirah College? HPL Associate Jeremy Reynolds is the school’s award coach and puts it down to Simon’s visionary leadership. He said: “Simon has been very open to embracing a framework to take him and his staff forward, so that strong leadership has been there from the start. They have tackled HPL in a way to get it flowing through the school with different departments interpreting HPL in their own unique way.”
Looking to the future
Jumeirah College has been working in a cluster with other GEMS schools in the region undertaking the HPL World Class School Award, allowing them to share ideas and sustain practice. Next academic year will see the first intake of HPL students coming through from Jumeirah College’s main feeder school, Jumeirah Primary School, a prospect which excites Simon. “It’ll be really interesting to see what we gain when the first cohort of students who have been exposed to HPL during primary school join us.”
Simon describes his role now as an ‘informed champion’. “HPL makes complete sense educationally, so it’s easy to talk about it all of the time. If you are looking to provide a good education, an inclusive education, HPL is how you achieve it. It allows us to do what we already do but more deliberately and better. We’ve maintained momentum and no longer need to ask the question ‘what next?’, because we know what’s next. It’s a relentless focus on progress for each and every student, every day.”
Jumeirah College, rated Outstanding by the Dubai Schools Inspection Bureau since 2010, was established in 1999 and grew out of Jumeirah Primary School. It has over 1,120 students from over 60 nationalities running from Year 7 to 13. All students follow the National Curriculum for England, which prepares them for GCSE examinations, AS and A Levels, and ultimately acceptance to some of the most prestigious universities and colleges in the world. It has received international recognition having been shortlisted in both the TES and British International Schools Awards.
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Year 2 students from GEMS Wellington International School have created a fantastic podcast on the HPL ACP of meta-cognition. They are at ease with the language of HPL, analyse what meta-cognition means and talk about how it helps them with their learning. We are so impressed with their confidence and levels of reflection and understanding. This is episode one, and can't wait to hear more podcasts in the series. Well done!