Imagine a primary geography curriculum that included loads of interesting stuff, but sought principally to ensure the following:
- children know that geography is the study of how people and places interact
- children know where they live (locality, county, country and continent)
- children know the names and locations of the world’s continents and oceans
- children know what rivers, mountains, coasts, rainforests and volcanoes are, including one notable example of each and a simple grasp of the impact each of these can have on communities
- children know key differences between rural and urban areas
- children know that some places are very different to others
- children know basic map & fieldwork skills
- children enjoy geography
I’m pretty sure of two things:
(1) This geography curriculum would be seen by many as laughably unambitious.
(2) A decade from now, most Year 6s will continue to leave primary school without achieving these objectives.
The apparent contradiction between (1) and (2) says a lot about the predicament faced by primary schools. They are incentivised by the current education climate to spell out the breadth of their curriculum. This is no bad thing. Unfortunately, this same incentive is likely to discourage schools from spelling out the much shorter list of the most important knowledge and skills that almost all children should possess by the time they leave in Year 6. If everything is a priority, then nothing is.
This doesn’t just impact geography, of course. It’s easy to say, “Our Year 3 children can all recall the formula for photosynthesis because we are just much more ambitious than other schools; we know what children can really achieve.”
It’s much harder to say, “Unrealistic ambitions for what children will retain tend to leave many of them without a solid grasp of the most important stuff.”
Unfashionable an idea though this might be, it is obviously possible to have expectations that are so high as to be counter-productive. School leaders across the country are building curricula with two purposes in mind: impressing Ofsted and securing better outcomes for children. My fear is that these two purposes are not always aligned, and this is particularly apparent with regards to the ambition of a curriculum.
This all might seem pretty rich coming from me. I recently shared curriculum packages for science, history and geography, which can be found here: https://primarycolour.home.blog/2019/11/02/one-stop-shop-for-suchmo83-resources/ These curriculum packages contained far more knowledge and skills than we can expect the majority of children to learn in primary school. However, what we specify as the content of our curriculum is very different to the aspects of the curriculum that we should aim to guarantee are learned by almost every child. I care barely at all whether a Year 6 child can remember the names of particular inventors of the industrial revolution. I care quite a lot about whether that same child can remember, in basic terms, what the industrial revolution actually was and its effects. Alongside the full offer of the curriculum – including all the stories, maps, timelines, interesting nuggets of information, experiences, etc – we need to specify the essential stuff that every child should know when they leave primary school. Discussion of ‘core and hinterland’ over recent years has helped, but we need to go further.
My suggestion? We need an A4 curriculum. For the foundation subjects, we should spell out on one side of A4 only the knowledge and skills that almost every child will grasp before leaving primary school. We should then share this with teachers so they know which bits of the curriculum need to be referred to again and again from different angles with different connections.
And we need to assess the stuff on this A4 curriculum at the end of Year 6. The only way an unstandardised assessment can have meaning is if it is one on which we expect all children to know everything (give or take the odd silly error). Without standardisation, it is a fool’s errand to try to determine whether a score of 30% or 60% or 90% indicates a curriculum well learned. In contrast, an assessment on which we expect almost all children to know everything is one that can be used to make useful judgements about a curriculum. Over time, a school could even begin to cautiously expand the breadth of content on the A4 curriculum, but not before ensuring that children consistently leave school in possession of it all.
To reiterate, this is not a call to limit what children are taught and what they experience in foundation subjects. It is a call to realign our expectations of what the majority of children will retain. It is a call to temper the curriculum conversations that are so rarely encumbered by the inconvenience of reality as experienced by classroom teachers. Most of all, it is a call to ensure that the masonry of our curriculum is solid, despite the temptation to focus as much on the décor that we suspect will impress Ofsted.
In my science, history and geography curriculum packages, I tried my best to spell out the breadth of knowledge and skills that teachers will use in their lessons so that they can focus more on the ‘how’ of teaching than on the ‘what’. My next job is to spell out an A4 Curriculum for each of these subjects at my school and to assess the efficacy of our curriculum primarily on this basis. If what I have said in this blog has struck a chord, perhaps you will consider doing the same with your foundation curricula.