Knowledge, the Curriculum and the Substance of Education

 

A joint pamphlet has just been published by ASCL and Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE)- The Question of Knowledge- practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum’. It reiterates just  how important the curriculum is , and how it is increasingly  seen as central to education reforms, reinforced by  the backdrop of recent speeches and commentaries from Ofsteds Amanda  Spielman, in  which she has made  it clear how much she rates the importance of  the curriculum –“One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.”(23 June 2017)

There has long been debate about what the curriculum in schools should look like and offer . With Nick Gibb as Schools Minister there is much promotion of the knowledge based curriculum, heavily influenced by the thinking and teachings of ED Hirsch. Gibb firmly believes that the pendulum has now  swung  towards knowledge,  and away from skills .The alternative   ‘progressive’ view of the curriculum  is that it  should be more about skills development and cross cutting thematic approaches, in which core  content is more about  activities and skills,  fitted  specifically to the  needs of the 21st century , rather than relying so much  on traditional,  detailed subject-based content ,and the need for memorisation that goes with it.

Leora Cruddas ,until recently  Director of Policy and Public Relations, ASCL, now Chief Executive of FASNA ,  says of ED Hirsch “The influence of E. D. Hirsch on educational thinking has been profound. At its heart is the idea that returning to a traditional, academic curriculum built on shared knowledge is the best way to achieve social justice in society. His work has also encouraged schools to focus on the concept of building cultural capital as a way to close the attainment gap.”

This booklet arises from a series of lectures, publications and public panels in England over the last two years on the subject of the knowledge curriculum.’ The centre right think tank Policy Exchange for example  published a pamphlet on Hirsch  in 2015 (see link)  When PTE and ASCL decided that they wanted to commission and publish this booklet, their  aim , apparently,  ‘ was to give a voice to the many educators who have attempted to answer these questions in their schools. We hope it is a useful contribution, particularly for those school leaders who are looking to explore the question of knowledge and the practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum.’

Michaela Katib, Head of Cobham School, articulates the thinking behind the knowledge based curriculum well when she says  “ We believe that students need a knowledge-based curriculum to ensure they have solid foundations across a range of subject areas. We feel that a structured, well-planned curriculum, which offers appropriate progression and builds on prior learning, is the best way to prepare students for success in public examinations and equip them for their future careers.” And she introduces an important caveat “ The focus on imparting knowledge does not mean that we dismiss the value of pupils acquiring skills and, indeed, we feel that schools should offer a balance of approaches. However, we also recognise that pupils cannot be taught skills in a vacuum and benefit from expert, teacher-led instruction in order to acquire secure subject knowledge as a platform for their learning.”

Luke Sparkes and Jenny Thompson, of Dixons MAT say the secret to success isn’t the socio-economic make up of your cohort or the location of your school. For them:

“A knowledge-based curriculum is about harnessing the power of cognitive science, identifying each marginal gain and acting upon it; having the humility to keep refining schemes of work, long term plans and generating better assessments.”

 

The Question of Knowledge practicalities of a knowledge-based curriculum –Parents and Teachers for Excellence and ASCL  

The Question of Knowledge

 

See Also

Knowledge and the Curriculum: A collection of essays to accompany E. D. Hirsch’s lecture at Policy Exchange Sep 17, 2015

Report

 

Note

Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE) is a new movement to promote reforms within the education system and to spread good practice to help deliver excellence in schools across the country focused mainly on academy and free schools  as  engines of change

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WHAT NOW FOR EDUCATION POLICY?

What  now for education policy?

With no Education Bill in the Queens speech, what will be keeping Ministers busy?

The minority government  and reshuffle that never was  means that Theresa May now has little freedom of movement. So what might this mean for education policy? It seems rash in this climate to make firm predictions, but here goes.

Funding

We know that May had planned no real terms increase in per capita funding for schools. If pre-election policies stick, there will be a decrease of around 3-6% over this parliament unless the government really is wedded to less austerity, as implied by our new environment secretary Michael Gove. The increase in pupil numbers will place pressure on schools both primary and secondary. Some further marginal cost savings and efficiencies might be squeezed out of schools but for many, probably most, there is no wriggle room left. Also, bear in mind inflation is close to 3% and rising. If more funding is not available and Greening wants more there will be two consequences.

Firstly, the curriculum offer will be narrowed, as teachers and assistants are lost, pastoral support reduced and some school days shortened. Secondly, more schools will be tempted to join chains to afford some protection against cuts, although there may be limited capacity and few incentives for those running chains for this to happen at scale. My guess is there will have to be some adjustment in schools funding, to ease the burden, but it will not be as much as headteachers want and feel they need.

As for the free schools and academies programme, the programme remains the main delivery mechanism for much needed additional school places, regardless of the government’s stance on grammars and increased selection, which has been   radically scaled back  , will probably be    dropped altogether. Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 backbench committee, has suggested that there might be pilots on increased selection but that seems the best that the pro-selection lobby can expect. But even that in the current climate is a big ask

And, as far as the much vaunted new school funding formula is concerned, this will be placed, yet again, on the backburner. Clearly a new fairer formula is needed as the current system is unfair but as any new formula will create winners and losers, a minority government just cannot afford to upset even a minority of its backbenchers. Schools Minister Nick Gibb suggests that a new Formula will still be introduced, but this is unlikely as things stand .

Teacher recruitment and retention remains a big challenge. Getting enough leaders identified, trained, supported and deployed where they are most needed, is becoming a major priority and that will be Nick Gibb’s responsibility. Efforts to date have proved disjointed and piecemeal. There is currently no sustained pipeline of good heads, although there is some funding available  and a  new leadership college may be  in the wings. So, watch this space.

On the skills front there will be efforts to improve the quality and scope of apprenticeships as well as promoting higher degree apprenticeships and alternative routes into employment, beyond traditional degrees. Disappointingly, for the guidance sector, junior minister Robert Halfon was sacked. One of his main tasks had been to present a new careers strategy, which would be welcomed by all parties and employers particularly if informed by  all the so called ‘Gatsby benchmarks’, but this may be delayed further.

Mental health  is now seen as an issue from the Primary phase right through to Higher Education. The issue now is resources and  capacity within the system to address the challenge of identifying early  those with issues and getting them professional support before its too late.

Higher education

In higher education (HE), the new Higher Education and Research Act will be implemented, whether universities like it or not, they will be in a more competitive and accountable environment. The new Teaching Excellence Framework has  clearly embarrassed one or two leading universities, strong on research but poor on  teaching quality,  who  have  been  found to be wanting.  The TEF will be reviewed, and its metrics fine- tuned,  but,  make no mistake,  its here to stay.  With increasing numbers of students feeling they don’t get value for  money for their courses, and destination measures being published, as well as future earnings, the age of increased accountability in the HE sector is upon us. Vice Chancellors will be hard pressed to justify their inflated pay packets, under increased scrutiny.

May’s hard-nosed attitude to international students and tightening up visas will undoubtedly come under renewed attack and she is likely to have to concede some  ground under pressure from businesses, the research community and vice-chancellors, as UK universities slip down international league tables and Indian students, among others, no longer feel welcomed.

Brexit brings its own worries for the sector around access to  research funding, and in   attracting and retaining  both staff and students,. But there are also new opportunities for   collaboration, and for  transnational  partnerships around research,  enterprise , teaching and learning, and expect more satellite campuses abroad. .

Labour’s popular offer of no more tuition fees, which helped secure the support of the young vote, means that university funding will be back on the agenda. Expect think tanks to focus  in on this issue over the coming months.The interest rate that students now have to pay on their loans  is widely regarded as unacceptable.

The findings of the Sainsbury Review, which proposed the creation of T-levels and 15 technical routes for vocational and technical education, had been met with wide support both inside and outside the skills sector. While there are still crucial details about the implementation of the reforms, notably the content and progression routes around the proposed “transition year”, the spirit and substance of the reforms have been broadly welcomed. Institutes of technology should be up and running in this parliament, employer-led, with a STEM focus and operating on a hub and spoke model.

Schools

As far as the private sector is concerned, stagnant incomes, falling output and rising inflation could mean a tougher time for private schools. Demand from domestic consumers will probably remain at best, flat. But it’s always been a resilient sector that has weathered many other storms and will continue to attract international students and open satellite schools abroad to support its income streams. The biggest worry is obviously the prospect of a future Corbyn-led government that would threaten a school’s charity status and tax breaks. The higher education reforms mean more opportunities for private, alternative providers to enter the sector, and more two year degrees are in the pipeline, offering more choice to all students, and less debt. This could be attractive to the private sector but don’t expect a mad rush. It will be incremental.

The University of Buckingham, which was the first fully fledged private, non-profit university to be established 40 years ago, is expanding, and has seen an increased number of applications this year, so the private sector is not all gloom and doom. More competition, choice, new market entrants, better accountability and information for students is all good. Vice chancellors are even now scouring the horizon for new opportunities outside Europe and the UK education brand remains a strong card to play, in spite of sharper global competition.

But with all this, there is a huge caveat attached. Minority governments rarely last long. And don’t have a great back story. May, as leader, is much diminished, with limited freedom to act. There is likely to be a leadership contest within months. If the DUP arrangement doesn’t hold, and there is no guarantee that it will, we will have another general election and possibly by the end of the year. But the world still turns and there are still new opportunities out there

CMRE THINK TANK – INCREASED SELECTION IS NOT A VIABLE STRATEGY FOR THE EDUCATION SYSTEM

 

Centre Right think tank, CMRE, says increased selection is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole

This is what Gabriel Sahlgren the Director of Research at the CMRE think tank said  about selection   in  an opinion  piece  in the Daily Telegraph on 8 May.

‘Conservatives have proposed academic selection. In this model, children would compete for places based on their performance. Parents wouldn’t just choose schools – but schools would choose pupils, too. This is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole. Indeed, research suggests that between-school selection doesn’t raise performance overall, but often decreases equality. Rather than promoting a more cohesive country, selection may therefore merely divide us further.

Most importantly, academic selection decreases parental choice and risks the competitive incentives in the system; it induces schools to focus more on picking pupils than on improving their performance.’

I  suggest  it  would be helpful, and appropriate ,  before any future government decides  to increase selection in the schools system, for it to set out clearly the evidence base that informs this policy decision.  At present, as far as I am aware ,there is no think tank,   no reputable academic or research organisation or institution , nor  any organisation promoting social mobility which  either backs the policy of increased selection or has provided evidence that such a policy  will  do any of the following: improve performance across the system, raise the performance overall of disadvantaged pupils, narrow the performance gap between disadvantaged and mainstream pupils ,increase social mobility, improve equity,  or significantly help ‘ordinary families’ educationally, all of which appear to be  priorities on the current  education  agenda.  If evidence informed policy and practice  has any meaning, then this should be a minimum requirement, before any government wastes scarce resources, political energy and capital on introducing and driving through any such policy in the face of   available evidence and expert opinion

SELECTIVE SCHOOLS AND THE QUALITY OF TEACHING

The Government says , with respect to its recent Green Paper, ‘ Within our new proposals, we have been clear that we expect selective schools to support non-selective schools, looking to them to be engines of academic and social achievement for all pupils, whatever their background, wherever they are from and whatever their ability’ So the clear presumption is that selective Schools have better teachers and teaching than non-selective schools.. but where is the evidence? The fact that selective schools perform better could be entirely due , or due at least in significant part, to the quality of their intakes, surely?  You would have to demonstrate that selective schools add more value to their pupils than non-selective schools across the board to justify such a claim.  In which case, where is the data that shows us  that this is the case?

FSM PUPILS STILL BEING FAILED

One reason why Theresa May seems now to be focusing more on those’ hard working families just about managing’ rather than on the most disadvantaged cohort, as refllected in her speech to Conference and the recent Education Green Paper,  is for sound political reasons, in that they are the voters disillusioned with establishment politicians, who feel they are not being listened to, are on stagnant incomes  and who voted in huge numbers for Brexit . She  wants to attract them back into the fold, with what she sees as more ‘inclusive’ policies.  Another reason could be that despite successive governments best efforts and attempts to intervene to help the most disadvantaged and to close the attainment gap between them and their mainstream peers , only  glacial progress is being made in this area. Could it be that the government has all but given up on narrowing the achievement gap between pupils on Free school meals and mainstream pupils ? As Sir Michael Wilshaw pointed out recently the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM secondary students hasn’t budged in a decade. It was 28 percentage points 10 years ago and it is still 28 percentage points today. Thousands of poor children who are in the top 10% nationally at age 11 do not make it into the top 25% five years later. He added that the fact that a quarter of a million youngsters leave school after 13 years of formal education without a GCSE in English and Maths is a national disgrace.
One interesting issue raised ,and question put, in the recent Green paper, was how to identify and target these hard working families who don’t quite qualify for FSM. The short answer is that ,at the moment it  is difficult and it seems pretty widely accepted that the FSM measure is too clunky and indiscriminate to be an accurate indicator  for the most disdavantaged, and isnt much use for the group that  May seeks to target, . Neither The Pupil data base nor the standard returns made by schools give the granular details necessary. However work is being done behind the scenes with HMRC and other agencies to improve the metrics and data to enable more forensic targeting. So watch this space.

FORCING UNIVERSITIES TO SET UP, OR SPONSOR SCHOOLS, IN RETURN FOR FEE RISES IS NONSENSE ON STILTS

The Government said  in its recent  Green Paper that it   wants  all universities  either to   sponsor existing schools or set up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge   higher fees.

In addition to, but not instead of, the above requirements,  the government said  that  universities could consider:

  • supporting schools through being a member of the governing body or academy trust board;
  • assisting with curriculum design, mentoring of school pupils, and other educational support; and
  • provision of human resources, teaching capacity (for example in A-level STEM subjects), and finance support.

‘In addition to driving attainment, we could ask universities to consider taking into account geography, the number of good school places or higher education participation rates when deciding where to focus their energies’.

This proposal doesn’t even look good on paper.

It is not the business of universities to run schools . Besides, there is no evidence that they are  any good at it.   Why would they be?  Even specialist organisations that run schools as their core business find setting up,  or sponsoring,   a new school,   a challenging business. A number of Universities have tried, and to say that their record is patchy is an understatement.

If a University wants  to set up a new school then it needs to make a compelling  business   case for it, with a rigorous  risk assessment attached. Otherwise we will have more failed  ventures  on our hands,   that are wasteful , damaging to the institutions involved ,  and , most importantly, hugely damaging to pupils.

As one insider  put it to to me ‘  In what other sector could you imagine being required to do something you have no experience of in order to be able to ,or allowed to,  develop and market your core business?’

Good leadership ,and above all high  quality  teachers and teaching, are at the heart of  every  good school . But , who with their hand on their heart, can honestly  say that these  are currently the perceived   strengths of our  Higher Education Sector ?Indeed one of  the major motivating factors behind the Higher Education and Research Bill was the poor quality of teaching in too many universities . So, the government  is now actively incentivising   institutions , many with poor quality teachers and teaching,  to set up or sponsor schools… really?

Of course, the HE Sector could , and should, support schools and pupils  and add value in various  ways. There are many partnership programmes up and running already. This engagement between the HE sector and schools though   should be informed by  hard evidence of what works and is most effective.  Some Access programmes could be  better structured and evaluated, for example  but there is plenty of sound practice to be built on too.   Student progression,  transition  (and  careers guidance),  to higher education is an area where universities can do much  more. Curriculum and  professional development are two other  areas , as well as those  mentioned above in the Green paper.

But  forcing a university to set  up or sponsor a school in order  for it to raise its  fees makes no sense.  It could also do a lot of harm.

A much more flexible, evidential  approach is required from the government and  one should  pray that this will  be reflected in the eventual proposals that come out of the consultation process.

SCHOOL LEADERSHIP- A PROBLEM IN SEARCH OF A SOLUTION

A version of this article  was  published in Education Investor (September 2016)

Last April, it was reported that No 10 was in talks with the University of Buckingham about funding a new school leadership college.  Although details were sketchy, the aim seemed to be to fast -track top graduates fresh out of university, into leadership positions. With structured support from the college and experienced mentors they could serve an apprenticeship, and be   accelerated into Headships, where they are needed most. (mainly in Coastal and Rural areas, as it happens)

The discussions reflected growing unease in the government   about a looming Leadership crisis in schools.  These concerns  remain. There is a dearth of good heads, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Supply is not matching demand.

Heads are increasingly hard to find.  A 2015 survey by the National Governors’ Association (NGA), found that 43% of respondents reported that it was difficult to find good candidates when recruiting senior staff. Perhaps more alarming, many good teachers and potential leaders, eschew Headship.  In 2o15 The Key found 86.8% of school leaders believed headship was less attractive as a career choice than it was in 2010. Another survey of headteachers, by The Future Leaders Trust , saw less than half of respondents saying that they still planned to be a headteacher.

It’s not hard to see why. Though still rewarding for some, too many are being put off   by the challenges and lack of support.  School budgets have reduced in real terms by about 7%. Pupil numbers are on the rise, with a capacity shortage. There are   too few   specialist teachers. Schools are also subject to relentless changes to the curriculum, assessment and accountability frameworks, while the accelerated academisation programme brings new pressures.

Meanwhile, the focus on structural reforms has shifted attention away from Leadership, though it and the quality of teaching, have the most impact on outcomes Indeed, the one factor that all good schools have in common is good leadership As Professor Michael Fullan said “effective school leaders are key to large scale sustainable education reform’. It’s a given, if you want to transform a failing school, change the leadership.  Everything else follows. What we don’t have is proper career planning for Heads.  And our system lacks an effective end-to-end model for identifying, encouraging, training and developing the best leaders over time.

We pretty much know what we want from Heads. A clear vision and ability to see it through. While research also tells us that the closer leaders get to the core business of teaching and learning, the more likely it is that they will have a positive impact on their students.

So what we need, in short order, is to identify the best ways of developing this. There is probably no silver bullet, there rarely is in education. But look at the Buckingham apprenticeship model, and its focus on accelerated routes to Headship.  Also, The Future Leaders Trust and Teaching Leaders are doing interesting work    creating a joint network of 5,000 school leaders at all levels working in the most challenging schools in the country. Make sure that Heads and Governors are actively identifying potential leaders, and supporting their development. Look at what successful MATs are up to-the Harris Federation recruits 80% of its Heads in-house. The DFE is reviewing Leadership qualifications, about time too, as they don’t seem to have much credibility in the profession. Teach First is good at spotting leadership potential. Alumni of its two-year teaching training programme, are over seven times more likely to progress to senior school leadership. What are they getting right?   The ASCL, is developing its own Foundation for Leadership in Education, how can this contribute? All these elements may have a role to play. But there needs to be a coherent vision, with these elements working towards the same goal as part of a seamless effort.  That will require ‘political’ leadership. But we need to act now if system- wide improvements in outcomes are to be delivered and sustained.