I have been a teacher at Washwood Heath Academy for a number of years. We are based in a deprived area of Birmingham; more than 60% of our pupils receive free school meals and for over half of them English is not their first language.
While there is no doubt that this type of setting and circumstances present challenges, I often hear these sort of figures used as a precursor as to why kids in inner-city schools have not achieved, and have fallen short of their true potential. Should this be a reason for us all as teachers and leaders to accept sub-standard and second-rate education? Would we expect this for our own children?
Realising you are wrong
As a school we realised our students were experiencing an ever-narrowing curriculum and were not ready for the world. Their experiences did not leave them empowered and ready. However, there was a changing tide. An underground culture, a movement of tweets and blogs that began surfacing about the importance of curriculum design, influencing and reminding us that we were not just teachers but subject specialists with specialised degrees. It was evident that we had stopped researching and engaging in developing our pedagogy. We had become distracted with ‘edutainment’ and agendas of other agencies, and we lost sight of what mattered.
Seeing is believing
After this realisation, we began to collaborate with a small number of schools who were willing to open their doors and to let us to see how they had made progress into what has become known as a ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. This step was crucial, as it allowed us to see firsthand the transformative steps that can take place when curriculum is placed at the heart of everything. One school in particular were so proud (rightfully so) of their journey they allowed us to come back time after time, and eventually we became a participating school in their DfE Curriculum Programme Pilot. They challenged us to consider what now seems so obvious. What is the sequence of the knowledge we teach? Why is everything in that order? Are we doing what we have always done? Are we teaching discrete blocks in neat time slots with a curriculum geared to an exam spec, or are we giving students the knowledge they need to really understand our subject and the world. Is the knowledge in year 7, 8, 9. 10 and 11 all connected? When did we last sit in a room as subject specialists, and draw up lists of what students really need to know, things we would want all children to know?
Make time for debate
We gave time to our staff to debate, question, plan and redesign their curriculum with a 5-year sequenced approach. This sequencing allowed us to focus in on the knowledge not by week but by the length of time it took to acquire that knowledge. We empowered our teachers to be subject specialists. We moved away from teaching things in the curriculum just because they had always been there; instead we focussed on things that we as specialists knew it was essential to know to gain a deep understanding and a joy for our subjects. We stopped allowing a term or half term dictate the length of time spent on work, and we empowered our staff to decide how long the learning would last. We encouraged them to build on knowledge and to recall and retest previous knowledge.
With the consistent approach to teaching and lessons, students have found it easier to navigate the myriad of teacher expectations, protocols and systems.
Teachers have less to do as homework is now around self-quizzing and their time is spent on giving feedback rather than marking and planning their curriculum or designing several worksheets.
We are not the finished article and we continue to collaborate and redraft our work. We have become a school that has opened its doors to share our journey, and we have placed research-based change at the heart of all we do. We are unashamed to say that we believe the key to removing the barriers of social mobility is the curriculum, its design, the sequence and the depth.