Thursday, 10 September 2015

A New Take on Redesigning the School Curriculum...

Getting Started...

Back in September 2014, as a school Warden House were in a really exciting position.We had just finished a really successful academic year and had gained the best SATs results in KS1 and KS2 that we had ever had.  SEN and Disadvantaged children had made amazing progress and standards in English and Maths were high for all groups of children.  These results were a culmination of years of incredible hard work across the school focusing on making sure as many children as possible left KS2 attaining as highly as they possibly can.  Ofsted agreed when they appeared in December and left us with a fantastic "Outstanding" judgement.

Part of what works so well at Warden House is that the desire to make learning as "Irresistible" as possible is firmly embedded in all staff across the school.  As a result, there are pockets of truly inspirational learning in all year groups.  School values are referred to with great regularity and teachers are getting more skillful at bringing these into focus during lessons and through topics of work. This culminates with some really creative outcomes for children and some high quality learning in some areas of the curriculum.  The problem was that it was not consistent in all subjects and all year groups - all of the time.  If we wanted to succeed in making sure that our curriculum was truly outstanding, then we needed to develop systems to ensure that this outstanding practice was embedded a little more consistently throughout the school.

Back in 2012/13 we undertook a school-wide leadership project with national leadership adviser Nick Hind.  This focused on developing a true "school curriculum" that fitted our children and locality.  There were many successes from this project, and many key messages.  The most important of which - in my eyes at least - was doing less - better.  There were some fantastic creative and collaborative projects across the school - but these stood in isolation and have not been built on in the year following the culmination of the project.  It was clear to me that we needed to refocus our focus on curriculum as a school in order to improve still further.

Bacon Sarnies 

After various discussions at SLT level - and through meeting with Anne Marie, our Deputy Head to talk through the issues that currently existed, we approached the Principal and put forward a possible solution.  With his agreement, Anne Marie and I took over joint responsibility for coordinating the development and assessment of the curriculum across the school.  Meeting offsite in Anne Marie's kitchen over a raft of bacon sandwiches and cups of coffee, we came up with a clear action plan that we felt would take the school forward.  We went right back to basics- looking at a range of research and practice at a range of local, national and international schools before deciding on what we felt was the right path for us at Warden House.

Developing Medium Term Topic Planning

During our initial planning meeting, it became clear that one of the key problems that we had a school was that we did not really have a clear '2014' school curriculum that ensured progression in skills, knowledge and understanding for all, year on year.  We had decided as a school to use a model curriculum provided by Chris Quigley however, other than dividing up and agreeing content year on year in the summer term of 2014, teachers were not yet working with the skills that underpinned this content.  One problem that we found didn't work for us with the Chris Quigley curriculum was that the objectives (or Milestones as Chris Quigley calls them) took place over 2 years.  For example, Milestone 3 covered year 5 and 6 and was expected to last two years,  This didn't quite work for us insofar as we felt that the sheer amount of Milestones that existed across two year groups was too much.  They needed structure.  We felt we needed to segregate these Milestones and split them across year 5 and 6 so as to ensure that they were going to be taught and revisited as needed at the correct times.

To develop this further, we planned a series of staff meetings to allow teachers to gain ownership of the real "content" of the curriculum Milestones.  This was done by asking staff to physically cut up and organise the Milestones from each subject  into terms across the school year.  Once that was complete, (and with great support from Adam and Jane -two of our other Senior Leaders at Warden House) we painstakingly adapted the paper copies that staff had worked so hard on into digital format to produce what is our Whole School Warden House Curriculum.  Teachers were given additional release time out of class to work together to agree the curriculum structure for each year.  Below is some examples of the finished document.  It is a large piece of work - representing curriculum coverage for each of the six terms of the school year for each year group from Yr 1-6.  Here is an example page taken from Year 5, term 4 and shows the level of detail included.

Science planning was a little different as each science topic would need to include in teacher's planning the correct investigative milestones alongside the relevant scientific content.  
(These were recorded on a separate sheet at the beginning of each academic year and would be referred to, repeated and built on in each unit as appropriate).

Developing Our Short Term Planning

It was all very well having this detailed curriculum structure in place; teachers needed to know how to use the skills and apply them and build on them in their day to day teaching.  Since working with Nick Hind in 2012 - we had undertaken a lot of thematic curriculum work as a school and developed some really exciting whole school and year group projects such as Oracy weeks, Alien Invasions, Pirate weeks, Tea Room Projects etc.that have really brought the curriculum to life for our children.   In spite of that, however, a lot of what was happening day to day in classrooms was rooted in the old QCA schemes of work from years ago and needed to be developed.

As part of the Nick Hind project, I had been fortunate enough to visit some exceptional schools outside of Kent who had an innovative approach to curriculum design.  One school in particular - Broadstone First School in Poole - had developed a simple yet high quality way of planning topics within their new curriculum..  

As a senior team, we really liked the rationale behind this method of planning to developed our own version based on what we felt was important for teachers to consider when planning thematic units of work for use with their children.  We also felt that this title sheet would be perfect for sharing with parents and children at the start of each new topic.

To help focus teacher's thinking, Anne Marie and I led several staff meetings firstly introducing the new format and then reviewing teachers initial efforts.  We also led SLT reviews of curriculum planning followed by  a staff meeting where staff fed back to each other on the pros and cons of their initial efforts.  This was a very powerful model to use and led to some tangible improvements in work produced and in teacher understanding of the way forward.  To support staff further, our principal also produced a prompt sheet designed to guide the thinking of teachers when planning topics (particularly useful for new teachers).  As a result, term 6 2015 saw the initial results uploaded onto our school website and shared with parents and the wider community.   The second half of the school year saw each year group using the new way of planning work and the quality of work in books and other outcomes showed a tangible improvement on what had happened previously.  

The impact of the was verified by an in depth governor monitoring visit in term 5, where governors met with SLT to share the curriculum development journey so far.  They then visited every class to look at work and interview children about their topic work across the school.  Their findings showed that children were thoroughly engaged in their work, could demonstrate deep learning and had produced some very high-quality outcomes from the topics undertaken.  It was heartening to be part of this review and to see first hand the initial impact of what we had put in place.



But how to assess all of this?!  In July 2015, I was lucky enough to attend a conference in London on the subject of developing a "Mastery" curriculum.  Throughout the day we interrogated what we felt "Mastery" actually means - it turns out no one is really sure yet(!) Graham (our Principal) and I had a really good opportunity to discuss and develop what we felt Mastery means for us as a school.  Based on one of the DFE's conflicting definitions of mastery, we came to the conclusion (I think!) that children who have mastered the curriculum are our top performing children - those achieving highly within (old) level 5/6 at the end of KS2 - or achieving around 85% on a SATs paper at the end of year 6.

On that course, the day started by watching the video below by Tim Oakes.  Tim worked alongside Michael Gove in developing the new curriculum and assessment systems and - like it or not- his thinking underpins where we are going as a profession in this area in the immediate future.

Following the course, we met as an SLT and discussed where to go next.  It was clear that the main curriculum for our foundation subjects was mostly in place and being used well, however we had not got a consistent system in place for English and Maths.  This past year had seen Year 2 and Year 6 working on the older curriculum and the other years had begun to embrace the new.   The whole school had remained using levels to assess all subjects -a conscious decision made due to a lack of any other system out there that could enable us to track progress in as much details as levels and APS. However, with National assessment systems moving away from levels, we needed to bite the bullet and develop a system of our own that would enable us to move forward.

In Deal we are very lucky to be able to work closely with 10 local primary schools in order to share practice and ideas.  Our English and Maths teams visited colleagues from many of these local schools to interrogate their curriculum and assessment systems for the core subjects.  Their findings were startling.  Each school had developed its own completely different system for planning and assessing maths and English.  There were pros and cons to many of the systems that we saw, however it soon became clear that nothing that was in use in our link schools was suitable for what we wanted at Warden House.  We eventually came round in a full circle and settled on the Chris Quigley resources that we had taken on for the foundation subjects.  Even that wasn't quite right for us, so we adapted his materials to fit what we wanted as a school.

We also developed a crude system to convert from levels to the new end of year expectations and decided on language to use as a school when assessing attainment.  We settled on "Basic"  "Advancing"  and "Deep" as these terms were closely linked to the Chris Quigley resources that we were using.  We consulted with OTrack who provide our current assessment system online and they agreed to adapt our tracking sheets to fit the new language and criteria.  We also decided to "plus" level each stage to enable a 6 point scale that is similar to the NC points system that we were used to using.  This is the (very crude) conversion table used to help us get a broad picture of where each child is as a starting point for tracking progress within this new curriculum model:

Reading, Writing and Maths

Here is a detailed PDF containing guidance for teachers regarding the new initial materials that we have produced for teaching and assessing reading, writing and maths.  It feels like quite an achievement to have got all of this completed and ready to roll for the start of the new school year coming up and staff trained in their use.  The challenge ahead is to monitor the roll-out during terms 1 and 2 and to support all teachers in getting to grips with how it will work.  

We have asked teachers to experiment with the resources and their use initially during term 1 and to feed back any teething problems and successes - we will then look to refine their use as the year progresses.  There will be a need for more regular moderation of judgments throughout the year - particularly in writing - but this can only be a good thing. The removal of attaching a level to a piece of work should allow teachers to focus purely on the learning and in giving children clear advice on what they need to do next to improve their work.

Next steps...Subject Leadership and Beyond...

The nature of this project has needed a very top-down approach towards curriculum development.  Staff have been heavily involved in certain aspects of the work, however subject leaders have taken a back seat whilst we have developed this comprehensive whole school approach to curriculum planning and assessment.  We started the ball rolling with regards to the development of the role of a subject leader in term 5 and have given all teachers the opportunity to potentially change the areas of the curriculum that they are currently responsible for.  This next school year, we will be developing the understanding of subject leaders in how to take an active role in the development and monitoring of standards within their subject following an agreed timetable.  It is exciting times for us once again at Warden House in this ever changing profession.  

I wonder what things will look like this time next year?  Are we doing less - better? And have we made things simple (in the eyes of Woody Guthrie (See below))? 

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