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What governors know about the curriculum now matters more than ever

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

What governors know about the curriculum now matters more than ever

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Dr Tony BreslinThe Curriculum and Beyond: what every governor needs to know is a new module released this week by Modern Governor. The module has been written by curriculum, assessment and governance specialist, Dr. Tony Breslin, author of the recent RSA report, Who Governs Our Schools: trends, tensions and opportunities, and a regular contributor to the Modern Governor blog. In this article he summarises the rationale for the new module, and outlines some of its content.

Why, as governors (or parents, or members of the local community, or employers) should the curriculum bother us?

Isn’t this exactly the sort of stuff that governors should keep their noses out of and leave it to the education professionals: school leaders, teachers and all who support their work?

Certainly, making the ‘right’ curriculum choices for a school and its community, or a group of schools and the communities they serve, requires precisely the professional expertise that teachers and school leaders possess, but the rest of us need to understand what these options are, or what they could be, and we need to have a sense of the likely outcomes that specific curriculum strategies will have for learners, whether they are about to start in reception or to depart the sixth form for university or a career.

Modern Governor’s new module aims to enable governors to understand these issues, to grasp the various definitions of ‘curriculum’, and to ask the right questions of the professionals, notably curriculum managers and senior leaders.

New module: The curriculum and beyond: what every governor needs to know

Why does this matter anyway?

This matters because “what gets taught” represents a very public statement of what our society and our schools believe is the right knowledge, skills and values that we think are sufficiently fundamental to pass on to the next generation. At the level of the individual school, federation or trust, what gets taught ought also to be a reflection of the educational values and aspirations of governors and the needs of the children and young people in the school’s, federation’s or trust’s care – the value that we, as a board, place on themes such as creativity, the development of character and employment-readiness ought to find expression in the curricular and extra-curricular opportunities offered in the classroom and beyond.

What gets taught in our schools represents a very public statement of what our society and our schools believe is the right knowledge, skills and values that we think are sufficiently fundamental to pass on to the next generation.

Moreover, schools (and therefore their governing boards) meet, or are enabled to meet, many of their statutory responsibilities through the curriculum, whether this is a sound education in core areas such as literacy and numeracy, a welter of issues that relate to the social, moral, spiritual and cultural development of young people, or a swathe of obligations designed to ensure their safety and wellbeing.

But what do we mean by ‘curriculum’?

In the module, we open up the idea of curriculum as being much more than just a set of subjects on a timetable or wallchart; instead, we favour a definition that talks about the “total learned experience” of children and young people. What values and attitudes are we encouraging those in our care to adopt as a result of how we operate as a learning community – expressed for instance through the diversity of our staffing, the value we place on student and parental voice, the style of our behaviour policies and the priority we appear to give some curriculum subjects over others?

Educational sociologists use the term ‘hidden curriculum’ to describe these sometimes unintended lessons that are as powerful as anything that a young person might pick up in geography, English, science, PSHE, or a programme of assemblies. Again, as governors, we need be mindful of how particular strategies and practices convey particular messages, intended or otherwise.

And, of course, this debate about the impact of the formal and informal, or stated and hidden, curriculum has a special currency given the apparent constraints and orientation of national policy, which many criticise as creating an environment in which creativity is compromised, vocational studies are marginalised and academic achievement in specific areas, articulated through SATs scores and examination attainment, trumps all else.

What impact might this have?

In short, the charge is that – against a backdrop of ‘league’ tables, floor targets and data-triggered inspections – schools are “teaching to the test”, a strategy that is both narrowing the curriculum and producing a generation of young people who can pass exams but whose personal well-being and wider education has been diminished and impoverished because of this focus.

In short, against a backdrop of ‘league’ tables, floor targets and data-triggered inspections, the charge is that schools are “teaching to the test”, a strategy that is both narrowing the curriculum and producing a generation of young people who can pass exams but whose personal well-being and wider education has been diminished and impoverished because of this focus. And where does this charge come from? None other than the Chief Inspector for Schools, Amanda Spielman, who, in the past week, has promised a new inspection framework, in place from September 2019 and which governors and trustees will need to be ready for, that “has curriculum as a central focus”, one that will seek to curb what she concedes are the narrowing tendencies of the current focus on test and examination outcomes, and which will focus on “a number of factors relevant to a particular school’s context and the knowledge and expertise of curriculum leaders”.

Only you, your trust or governing board colleagues and your senior leaders can come to a conclusion as to whether such a skewing of the curriculum has taken place, but it is the sort of self-evaluative question that governors and senior leaders should continually ask. Certainly, one of the strongest bulwarks against such a narrowing of the experience offered to children and young people – whether this amounts to a fair characterisation of national policy or not – is a governance community that is curriculum-literate.

At the micro-level of individual schools, communities and trusts, those governing and trust boards which share with their senior leaders:

  • a profound sense of curriculum values and aspirations;
  • a grasp of what they mean by ‘curriculum’;
  • an understanding of how the National Curriculum and other statutory and quasi statutory frameworks operate
  • insight into how their approach to assessment impacts on the curricular and extra-curricular experience of children and young people, whatever their individual needs and circumstances

will be those best-placed to describe a fuller picture of what the children in their care are learning and experiencing, and how this tallies with the school’s, federation’s or trust’s vision for what learning ought to look like in their community.

As Spielman notes “ultimately, the curriculum is the yardstick for what school leaders want their pupils to know and to be able to do by the time they leave school”; whatever her promised curriculum-focused inspection framework delivers, few would disagree with the sentiment, and as governors or trustees, with a key role to play in the leadership of our schools, federations and trusts, our thoughts ought always be on just this:

What curricular experience do we want the children in our care to have, and to what purpose do we want them to put this learning to?

Activities and Feedback

At the close of the module we ask five questions; individually or as a board, you might want to reflect on those questions now; we suggest that you reflect on these questions again after you have completed the module.

  1. Are we meeting our statutory (or legal) responsibilities in respect of the curriculum, and is this curriculum enabling us to meet other statutory responsibilities such as those relating to safeguarding and reporting to parents?
  2. How relevant and appropriate is the curriculum that we offer the young people in our school, federation or MAT? Does it meet the needs of all, enabling all to be engaged in learning and all to reach their potential in terms of progress and attainment?
  3. Is our curriculum offer stimulating, sparking innovation and creativity in our children and our staff, and building a love of – and capacity for – learning that will endure long beyond time spent in compulsory education?
  4. Does this curriculum pass on the knowledge, understanding, skills and values that the children and young people in our care will need to prosper in the twenty-first century, and does it prepare them for the next stage in their journey through life – as a student, an employee, a citizen and an individual?
  5. Does it do so in a way that chimes with our personal values as individuals and as a Board, such that the mission, vision and values of our school are delivered?

I’m keen for any feedback on both this article and the module itself – I’m on Twitter @UKPolicyWatch or on email via tony.breslin@breslinpublicpolicy.com.


Image credit: Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.


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