Approaches to school-based curriculum development

Last week (12 November), I gave a presentation at the University of Strathclyde on the topic of school-based curriculum development (SBCD). A couple of people have asked me whether there is a paper to accompany the presentation – so here goes! I apologise in advance for the length of this article, which reflects the full 50 minute presentation. The presentation was partly conceptual, drawing upon previous work (Priestley & Humes, 2010 – http://hdl.handle.net/1893/2110), inspired by earlier writing by A.V. Kelly and Lawrence Stenhouse. It was also rooted in some of our empirical work, notably the Highland Curriculum for Excellence research, the Teacher Agency project and a recent collaboration with teachers in East Lothian Council.

My presentation was premised on the aspirations espoused in the early days of CfE, including:

  • Engaging “teachers in thinking from first principles about their educational aims and values and their classroom practice”.
  • Making “learning active, challenging and enjoyable”
  • Developing a curriculum that is “not be too fragmented or over-crowded with content”
  • Ensuring “that assessment supports learning”

On some levels, CfE has been successful at moving towards achieving these goals, which I largely endorse. All-party support for CfE, combined with the fact that many teachers and others within the education system broadly support its core aims and principles, have meant that Scottish classrooms look quite different in many ways than they did a decade ago. This includes the widespread use of cooperative learning and formative assessment. And yet the changes seem to date fall short of the transformational change envisaged in the 2004 and 2006 documents which launched the curriculum, and moreover, progress is blighted by a continued over-emphasis on assessment and accountability and the bureaucracy that goes with these.

So how do we deal with these issues, and recapture the early optimism of CfE? I have written about these issues previously on this blog (particularly http://tinyurl.com/pnuxojy). However, the presentation last week took a slightly different tack, seeking to unpack the trajectories followed from three different starting points for curriculum development – all feasible from within CfE’s flexible model. The key questions here for me are: 1] what questions does each starting point enable us to ask about education: and 2] what are the likely practical impacts of each starting point in terms of emergent classroom practices? The three starting points for curriculum development (Stenhouse 1975) are:

  • Specification of content to be taught as a starting point.
  • Specification of outcomes to be achieved as a starting point.
  • Specification of long term goals and educational purposes as a starting point; content and methods are then selected which are ‘fit for purpose’.

As I have argued elsewhere, CfE combines all three (Priestley & Humes, 2010). This theoretical ambivalence is both an advantage and a disadvantage. In the hands of a skilled curriculum-developer, CfE opens up possibilities; on the other hand, for many, ambiguity has inhibited innovation.

There are currently many powerful advocates of a curriculum premised on the notion of content to be taught. For example, social realism (e.g. the recent work of Young and Muller) makes a strong case for basing the school curriculum on academic disciplines, suggesting that schools should teach powerful, scientific knowledge, rather than knowledge which is of the everyday variety. Similarly, England’s most recent iteration of its national curriculum has shifted back in favour of specifying knowledge/content, inspired by ideas about cultural literacy. I do not intend to rehearse my arguments against such approaches here (they have been addressed elsewhere on this blog). However, I will make one point here which is often missed by those seeking to denigrate progressive, process models of curriculum. This is that such critique invariably misses the point that it is not a neglect of knowledge that distinguishes a process curriculum from a content curriculum; instead the starting point for deciding what should be taught lies in a consideration of educational purpose rather than specification of content. Therefore process curricula tend to be less prone to ossification of content, curricular gaps or content chosen for the wrong reasons (e.g. to meet existing resources). But knowledge remains important.

Moving briefly to a consideration of the outcomes curriculum, I noted in my presentation that this model has its roots in both the US objectives model (influenced by behaviourism and Taylorist scientific management) and competency-based vocational education in the UK. In this latter case, the genesis can be clearly seen in SQA’s continued adherence to the competency-based model in the current crop of national qualifications. (Actually I think this, combined with schools’ often narrow assessment methodologies, is a major unacknowledged cause of the current issues with bureaucracy and workload in the senior phase – I will come back to this elephant in the exam room in a future post.) Of more immediate concern, in relation to school-based curriculum development, is the shift in emphasis in CfE’s Experiences and Outcomes – from their early iteration as broad guidance, through to their current usage as assessment standards. This conceptual shift, combined with audit approaches to mapping outcomes against current practices, has proved to be the defining approach of CfE in many schools, and much of the current bureaucracy can be attributed to it.

So what are the likely trajectories of adopting one of other of the above starting points for curriculum development? The following paragraphs sketch this out.

Content as a starting point?

The key question here is “what content should be taught?” Of course, this was fairly clear-cut with England’s 1989 National Curriculum – the content was specified fairly precisely. The situation in respect of CfE is more ambiguous, leading to criticisms that CfE downgrades knowledge. At a macro policy level, then, CfE is strong on intent, but weak on specification. This combines with conflicting messages about knowledge and little specification of processes for identifying ‘powerful knowledge’ in meso-level policy guidance documents, and it is therefore not always clear what content should be taught (see Priestley & Sinnema 2014 – https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/17866 – for a full discussion of these issues). Nevertheless in many schools, particularly secondary, content remains as a starting point for curriculum planning, often chosen to fit existing patterns/resources. Moreover, qualifications continue to drive content and pedagogy. The result is often a patchy coverage of key areas of knowledge, with new content selected for interest, rather than relevance, with the potential for major gaps and with a lack of fit between purpose and content. In short, this suggests that content is not a suitable starting point for curriculum planning.

Outcomes as a starting point?

This starting point prompts a different question, namely “how do we show we meet the outcomes?”. And herein lies the problem which continues to blight the development of CfE. This is neatly exemplified by the following transcripts taken from our research:

“The E’s and O’s were meant to be there to declutter your programme but what you are wanting you to do now is to take that statement and then start building from it.” (Teacher Agency research, 2012)

“At the end of the day a parent still wants to know where exactly their child is in language and maths. Are they on a par with their peers? Are they below or above and although we shouldn’t be labelling children in these ways, there is still pressure to do so. And it doesn’t just come from parents. It comes from the authorities as well (e.g. the [standardised] tests).” (Highland research, 2011)

“I can cover all of these assessment parts in one, with one project here, one short project. It’s not exactly the way they are saying it, but you are not saying we can’t do it this way. And it meets all the criteria. I can tick all the boxes quite confidently. […] that is one thing that you can see with Curriculum for Excellence: that the rules aren’t quite as strict; you can tweak them without feeling too guilty.” (Highland research, 2011)

Thus we see the potential for performativity, strategic engagement with policy, assessment-heavy practices, bureaucracy and box-ticking. For me, this illustrates that starting the curriculum planning process with tightly defined statements of outcome is ultimately a limiting experience, and not one conducive to full engagement and innovation.

A process curriculum

According to A.V. Kelly, “the starting point for educational planning [in a process curriculum] is not a consideration of the nature of knowledge and/or the culture to be transmitted or a statement of the ends to be achieved, whether these be economic or behavioural, but a concern with the nature of the child and with his or her development as a human being” (Kelly, 1999). For me, this represents the most interesting and potentially worthwhile approach to school-based curriculum development. This is an approach that we have been trialling empirically in one of our local authority partnerships, working directly with cohorts of teachers over the space of a full school year. The starting point is educational purposes, and CfE provides well-articulated statements of purpose through its attributes and capabilities (the Four Capacities). As stated, CfE lacks clear specification of processes for engagement; in our partnership, this was obviated by the university team articulating processes, and also informing the resulting projects through providing relevant research publications. The process is as follows:

  • Practitioners engage directly with the big ideas – this is essentially a process of sense-making
  • Selection of appropriate, fit-for-purpose content – powerful knowledge
  • Selection of appropriate, fit-for-purpose methods – powerful pedagogies
  • Addressing barriers and drivers, through the use of a situational analysis or contextual audit. Effectively, this is about saying “what do we need to do in order to run the programme we wish to run?”.
  • Curriculum innovation using a collaborative professional enquiry methodology (see Reeves & Drew, 2013 – https://dspace.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/13040).

Did it work? We think so, but the empirical jury is still out – expect a paper later next year. However, don’t take my word for it. This is what one of the participating headteachers had to say:

[The SBCD approach] “allowed staff the space to question our approach to teaching and learning. It has promoted professional discussion about our different approaches. It has made teachers more aware of the original purpose of CfE and reminded them of the capacities and how these are not things that had been done previously and forgotten about but should be central to our planning, evaluations and assessment.” (East Lothian research, 2013)

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Formal school uniform and school ethos

An article today on the BBC website reports on a school in England which sent home 150 students for failing to adhere to its strict uniform policy (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-leeds-29911712). The article is indicative of a recent trend across the UK for a return to formal school uniforms. This trend has also been evident in Scotland, as many schools have introduced uniform where none previously existed, or replaced a previous ‘casual’ or comfortable uniform with one that is extremely formal, including a blazer and tie. All sorts of reasons are put forward for this, including:

  • Preparing young people for work by getting them to dress properly (although I note here that there are few jobs that insist on ties for girls).
  • Improving school ethos and fostering a sense of identity. For example, one secondary school justified its tightening of uniform policy to parents by stating: “The introduction of a full formal uniform is the most effective way to ensure a visible daily commitment to and identification with the school. […] The introduction of a rigorous and formal dress code is the most effective way of ensuring that this develops in the future. The likely impact on our young people will be to encourage their sense of pride in their school, develop their sense of community and hopefully instill (sic) a more rigorous approach to all aspects of school life.”
  • In another secondary school, the uniform in general, and the tie in particular has been posited as being necessary for reasons of safety and effective learning; it is said to improve safety buy allowing identification of intruders (presumably not in uniform) and posters on classroom walls exhort student to bring the three essential items for learning – a pen, a jotter and a tie.

These are strong claims, frequently made in support of school uniform. But are they backed by the research evidence? Is there a causal link between formal school uniform and school ethos? These include a sense of belonging and school identity, as well as student behaviour and attitude. Do schools without a uniform have a worse ethos?
The simple answer is that there is little evidence beyond the anecdotal. Claims that uniform improves school ethos have little basis in research, and can be seen as little more than assertions (e.g. see http://gradworks.umi.com/36/17/3617787.html) . Moreover, two decades of school effectiveness and school improvement policy and research have proven only one thing: that there is no hard and fast recipe for improving schools. Schools are messy and complex social organisations, and what works in one school may well prove to be ineffective in the next.
That said, there are certain features that research suggests are common to good schools. In this short paper, I offer some observations about some of these common features, and then comment specifically on the research concerning school uniform.

Features of successful schools
Good schools might be characterised as places where:

  • Young people feel safe. Effective action to deal with bullying, teachers who listen to student concerns and an ethos of respect (student to student, teacher to teacher, and especially between students and teachers).
  • Young people have the right to participate in decisions that affect them. This right is enshrined in Scottish law but despite this, many schools are undemocratic places, which often play only lip service to the views of students. More genuine participation might involve a student council being allowed to debate key issues, including whether there should be a school uniform and what form it should take. And yet discussion of this topic is often banned.
  • School ethos is good. This is about more than school image and compliance; it concerns the school being a thriving community, with opportunities for civic engagement by students. Extra-curricular (e.g. lunchtime clubs) and co-curricular (e.g. a youth parliament) activities are known to be effective ways of enhancing school ethos, because they offer opportunities for students to participate in the civic society of the school.
  • There are clear rules, expectations and procedures. This is especially important in respect of student behaviour. Schools where there is a high proportion of uninspiring teaching and inconsistent behaviour management tend to experience behaviour problems. Effective schools deal effectively with misbehaviour, both through expectations and environment, and through clear procedures to deal with misbehaviour when it occurs.
  • There are effective strategies for a varied approach to teaching and learning. Schools with a one dimensional approach to learning and teaching, which focus on getting through the curriculum content, tend not to challenge students to think and develop cognitively. When students are not engaged and motivated, they learn less effectively. Good schools are those that succeed in bringing the curriculum to life through powerful teaching. In respect of this, and the above point about behaviour management, the work of the American educational psychologist Alfie Kohn is interesting – he advocates an engaging curriculum as an alternative to behaviour management systems based around rewards (see Punished by Rewards – http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/pbracwak.htm).
  • There is a well-articulated vision in the school about the purposes of education. One must ask whether education is just about exam results or whether it is about developing active and effective citizens who can contribute to a better world. These questions are especially pertinent in the light of the four capacities of the new Curriculum for Excellence.
  • Communication is effective. Clear lines of communication between the school and parents are important, as is clear communication within school. Regular assemblies have been shown to help this process.

Does school uniform enhance school ethos?
As indicated, school uniforms have been claimed to:

  • Raise attainment
  • Improve behaviour
  • Enhance school climate
  • Improve attendance

In fact, such claims are largely unsupported by research evidence. There is little British research on the topic, but the American research suggests that such claims are anecdotal and misleading. So what do we know about uniforms?

  • School uniforms are a practice dating back to the 16th century in the United Kingdom, and are most commonly found elsewhere in former UK colonies – in many other countries they are uncommon outside of the private sector (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/School_uniforms_by_country). Many countries in Europe and North America and do not have school uniforms.
  • In the UK, some excellent schools do not have a uniform. A good example is James Gillespie’s High School in Edinburgh – a high achieving school with an excellent ethos based upon activity and a strong sense of a school community. The 2010 school HMIE inspection reported that the school had particular strengths:
    • The active contribution of all staff to the life of the school and their positive relationships with young people.
    • Courteous, articulate and confident young people who are very proud of their school.
    • The impressive range of activities for young people to broaden their experiences and achieve widely especially in music, sports and international education.
    • The attainment of many young people in national examinations.
    • The committed leadership of the head teacher in promoting a vibrant culture.
  • School uniforms are often found in excellent schools – but this can only be claimed to be a correlation, not a causal relationship. In other words, there are other factors that make these schools excellent, and the school uniform is not necessarily the factor that makes them so.
  • School uniforms can work well when they are supported by parents and students (i.e. instituted as a result of a process of consultation). Conversely, they can create a point of resistance and potentially cause behaviour problems when imposed.
  • Uniforms can create a halo effect – creating a better impression of a school than is actually merited. This can serve to cover up problems.
  • Some research suggests that school uniforms can suppress individuality and creativity – arguably qualities encouraged by Curriculum for Excellence.

In the light of the above, I would suggest that claims that school uniforms will improve school ethos are not supported by research. Of course, this does not necessarily matter if students, parents and teachers support their use. But we should avoid justifying them on spurious grounds. And moreover, there are also good reasons for not enforcing uniforms, including cost, practicality and safety; for instance, recent media reports point to the high incidence of sexual harassment faced by girls in school uniform (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/editorials/collective-responsibility-on-child-sex-abuse-9829611.html).
These are emotive issues, characterised by deeply-held views, and I am therefore sure that my observations will stimulate debate. As ever, I welcome constructive comments on the blog, in response….