A Curriculum Through the Ages by @kathrine_28

I have been lucky enough this year to work with an inspirational head of department who has a clear vision for the direction of our English team at Torquay Academy. We have both recently joined the school and found it to be going through a period of real transition.  It is an exciting place to be, and there has been a lot of work to do, but when you feel that you are contributing towards creating something really great and everyone is headed in the same direction, the workload is infinitely more bearable.

This is a re-blog post originally posted by Kathrine Mortimore and published with kind permission.

The original post can be found here.

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Given all the change over the last few years (both internal and external) our curriculum in September was in need of some work, with units of varying quality recycled to meet ever fluid KS4 goalposts.  The 100% exam GCSE specifications have set the bar extremely high, and, as every department feels, it is vital our students develop the knowledge and skills needed for these assessments early if they are going to stand a chance at success.

When the new specifications were first unveiled in consultation meetings back in 2013 (or thereabouts) I was initially filled with dread.  I was working at my previous school at the time, and had just gone through a full-scale switch to the CIE qualification, complete with new KS3 units (feel my pain). This had felt like a good way forward at the time – leaving behind controlled assessments and heading towards an opportunity for students to produce a portfolio of written pieces.  The exam also felt infinitely doable, if a departure from the normal style of assessment. It had felt like there was a way forward from the endless rounds of modular resits and finally time to study more literature.  Most importantly to my mindset at the time though was the chance it offered to increase our percentage of C grades – the golden stamp of approval for any English team.  I resented the new qualifications for bringing yet more turmoil and strife to students and staff alike, pushing the goalposts further and further away yet again.

As I started to teach the new papers they did begin to grow on me, and I certainly started to see the benefit of 100% exams to nurturing students genuine independent abilities.  I began arguing for more curriculum time, and saw that students could really profit from these changes.  However, it was not until our head of department proposed starting again from scratch at KS3 (more below), and we all sat down with a blank sheet of paper in front of us that I fully realised the opportunity this new system offered to us as teachers, and more importantly the potential impact it could have on the life chances of our young people. It dawned on me (finally) that it was not the magic C grade that opened doors for students, but independent literacy skills that would enable them to go on and live successful lives.

I also realised that the approach to change I had taken in my previous department was also misguided, albeit completely natural. There is a tendency to always start with what you have and cling to what you can keep. The thought of beginning with nothing, as had been proposed, was terrifying. But that’s exactly what we did.  We had three questions to answer:

  • What would our “perfect” KS4 student come to us knowing?
  • What would they be able to do?
  • What would their approach to learning be like?

We worked in small groups initially to give everyone a chance to voice their ideas and create their perfect KS3 plans.  We discussed our current frustrations around what our students lacked in terms of contextual knowledge and cultural capital, and some of the closed attitudes and beliefs they held which in some ways related to our geographical location as a Devon seaside town.

What emerged from the discussion was a strong sense that students should be taken on a cohesive journey, which should not simply relate to a progression of skills that are essentially often rather tenuously linked between an uncoordinated collection of units. Thinking back over previous curriculum plans I realised the extent to which students lurched from one genre to another, from one moment in history to another and then back again, from culture to culture and so on.  As I look back on what we had before compared to what we eventually came up with it is really no surprise that students started their GCSEs with such a patchwork quilt of understanding, often threadbare in places; we were only ever able to offer the most cursory of patch-up jobs in our time with them.

We felt this cohesive journey needed to be chronological, not just because it would allow us to teach some key historical events in a convenient order, but because we could take students through the development of literature through the ages.  We wanted them to appreciate how the English language grew and altered, how society changed, what people believed in and why, the causes of poverty and how the poor were treated, how scientific advances influenced the way people thought and so on and so on.  That is not to say we want to become history teachers, but we believe an appreciation of these various elements will lead them to understand how and why people chose to write, the ideas they were passionate about, and how these changed over time, but significantly in many ways have stayed the same.

Rather than approach each unit as a means to an assessment outcome that neatly ticks off a GCSE question style, such as a “persuasive writing unit” or a “modern drama unit” etc, we did what I know many schools are moving towards now which is to organise units thematically.  It was suprising how naturally these themes arose from the historical journey through literature we had devised.  For example, the theme of “the natural world” arose from the Romantic poetry unit in year 7.  Whilst each unit may have a core text or set of texts at its heart, the idea is for students to study non-fiction texts alongside the literature.  For example, the year 8 War & Conflict unit looks at persuasive speeches from Churchill and Major Tim Collins.  In this way our students can gain a rich and varied appreciation of a topic whilst observing the way in which similar ideas can be expressed through different forms of writing.  Writing is taught explicitly through lessons within each unit, but in the context of the challenging texts they have been immersed in, rather than in isolation.

I could talk at great length regarding the the thinking behind each unit, but hopefully this has provided an overview of our thinking.  I have attached the KS3 curriculum below. The AOs have been carefully weighted to ensure they are covered in the detail required for each question at GCSE.  Any feedback on this would be gratefully received; I am very interested in how others are approaching their curriculum and keen to share ideas.

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