Claire Woozley on the curriculum & personal development Part 1
Claire Woozley on the curriculum & personal development Part 2

Questions to consider

  • What are the local barriers and opportunities for reading, writing and oracy?
  • What is happening in feeder primary schools? (Both positive and negative)
  • What is local employment picture?
  • What specific aspect of the curriculum address these barriers and take advantage of these opportunities?

Only after these questions have been considered, should we think about other ways to enact personal development such as intervention, SEND provision and enrichment.

Let’s show how all this might work when applied to one of OAT’s academies:

  • 10% of the local population have a level 4 (degree level) qualification. The national average is 40%
  • 23% of the local population have no qualification at all
  • The local GCSE pass rate is nearly 15% lower the regional average (51% vs 65%)
  • 30% of the local population are in full time employment (compared to 70% nationally)
  • Local KS2 SATs indicate very wide variations in performance (one feeder school has the highest local average, another has the lowest.)
  • The borough has a high level of ‘elementary occupations’ (manual or low-skilled work). This is nearly twice the national level.
  • However, there is also a relatively high level of skilled employment, especially in the health and leisure sectors
  • The average writing age in Year 7 is 9 years 7 months
  • 47% of the local population have no access to a car

From this we might infer that there is likely to be poor levels of literacy in many homes but also that there will be a wide variation in reading ability in Year 7 intake. This being the case, we might conclude that some students will require specific interventions to help them catch up and be able to access our curriculum. Maybe, we might think, this should be addressed by the SEND department rather than the English department. Whilst it will be the case that those at the very bottom end up the distribution will get additional support, the curriculum must also address these needs.

Personal development & the English curriculum

The English curriculum should strive to provide disciplinary equity so that all students can access as much of the subject as possible at the highest possible level.

What is personal development and what has it got to do with the English curriculum? As well teaching academic disciplines, schools are responsible for providing opportunities for students to grow as active, healthy and engaged citizens and to prepare them for life outside of education. This covers spiritual, moral, social and cultural development (SMSC), personal, social, health and economic education (PHSE), and careers information and guidance (CEIAG). This can all sound rather removed from the English classroom and it’s easy for these things to end up as a set of superficial bolt-one to which we pay lip service but little else.

Before we look at how our curriculum addresses this personal development agenda, it’s work think about the things personal development is not. Firstly, it should not be seen a checklist of one-off lessons or vague nods. Equally, we should avoid conflating personal development with enrichment and extracurricular activities. It’s not that these things are bad – creative writing clubs and theatre trips are obviously highly desirable – it’s that they should be the daily experience of our classrooms. We should also steer clear of using English lessons as an opportunity for teaching PHSE. To be clear, we should avoid justifying curriculum choices that are neither broad nor ambitious simply because these choices provide an opportunity for teaching a wider life lesson, to choose texts for study so children can learn how to be nice to others. The purpose of English in the curriculum is, first and foremost, to teaching the academic subjects of language and literature. Students becoming more empathetic is a wonderful by product of studying English but, if we believe in disciplinary equity, it cannot be the object of study. Above all, we should avoid making sweeping generalisations about ‘kids like these’ and instead have a solid understanding of the issues in our local areas and know the opportunities and obstacles in our local contexts. We should be aware of the data on employment, levels of education, and levels of deprivation in the community so that instead of saying things like ‘no one at home cares about kids like these’ which is both offensive and incorrect, we can instead say things like, ‘we know that 30% of people in the community have no qualifications whatsoever so this is something that will be challenged by our curriculum’.

The challenge then is to weave a concern for and understanding of the context and challenges of the community into the choices and sequencing of our curriculum. What are typically seen as pastoral concerns – the behaviour and attitudes of students – and the context and challenges school communities face should bookend our curricular choices, so they are framed within this larger picture. If curriculum and personal development are properly intertwined, they will drive each other forward; if we know the specifics of our local context – both the barriers and the opportunities – we will understand our students better which will help us better refine our curriculum to ensure they make excellent progress.

For clarity, when discussing the progress students make in English what we mean is knowing more and being able to do more. At secondary school, this requires a solid foundation in decoding, reading fluency, orthographic awareness, letter formation, handwriting, and specific knowledge of how to read, write and speak in English. Clearly the performance of feeder primaries has a lot of impact here. The same secondary school may take students from primary schools where students significantly better than national averages and primaries where they do significantly worse. The better we know what our students arrive with, the better we can adapt our curriculum to fit the needs of the students we serve.

The pillars of progress in English – reading, writing and oracy – should both address barriers and take advantage of opportunities to support the broad and ambitious curriculum we’re offering.

As of 2019, Ofsted, have been asking “how does the curriculum address learners’ broader development, enabling them to develop and discover their interests and talents”? The key to answering the question is to be clear how the curriculum is a tool for disciplinary equity. We need to think through how the teaching of English enables every student, whatever their starting point or background, to access the discipline of English at the highest levels.

For many students, this will be impossible if they don’t know enough to make informed choices, or if the foundations are not laid in school. As Doug Lemov argues, “Social justice … is classrooms that are radically better, classrooms that foster academic achievement and that prepare every student to accomplish their dreams … Equity starts with achievement.”[ii] The curriculum enacts social justice by providing disciplinary equity.

As we move through the subject, at A level, at university, into the professions that English feeds into, there is an eraser at work. Students for disadvantaged backgrounds, or from ethnic minorities are increasingly erased from the picture. Of course, most societal pressures are beyond the scope of schools to address. Equally, studying English at degree level will not be appropriate for all, but if we don’t provide students with the means to make a choice, we end up choosing for them based on where they live, who their parents are and what primary school they went to. If a student at the age of 16, after being given every opportunity to explore language and literature in all their beauty, decides they no longer want to pursue their study of English, that’s still a success.

As you can see in the Ancient Origins module which kicks off our Year 7 curriculum is full of texts we should anticipate that many students will struggle to access. Should we swap them out for less demanding texts – thus ensuring disciplinary inequity – or should we consider how to make these texts accessible to all? We know that Greek mythology is included in the KS2 National Curriculum so we can be reasonably confident that most students will come with some experience of mythology, but the module begins with some pre-teaching diagnostic questions designed to see what knowledge students arrive with. The myths we’ve selected link to later elements of the curriculum as well as containing the potential to unlock literary allusions in unfamiliar texts. We also introduce students to Aristotle’s story structure to help them understand narrative and also look at examples of heroes and heroism in various stories. Instead of selecting a relatively inaccessible translation of the Odyssey, we chose Simon Armitage’s adaptation because it’s earthy and engaging and written as a play, with lots of parts for students to perform. 

The fact that almost half the families in this community have no access to a car means the scale and scope of students’ experiences is likely to be relatively narrow. They are unlikely to know, perhaps, what an outdoor market looks and feels like, and are less likely to have travelled by rail, let alone recognise Grand Central Station in New York., As the AQA English GCSE Examiners Report for Paper 2 in 2019 pointed out, “What characterised the best … responses was the ability to engage with the ‘big ideas’: politics, economics, gender, aesthetics, class, morality, psychology and even philosophy. Students who were confident and familiar with these ideas were able to frame their own perspectives in this larger context and thereby enhance the quality of their argument … it is clear that providing students with opportunities to encounter and explore these [big ideas] brings benefits across not just this paper but across the entire suite of English assessments.” If the curriculum isn’t explicitly providing these opportunities then we will ensure that the most advantage have little interesting to write about. If you’ve never left your local area, when your own experiences are so limited, how are you meant to approach GCSE writing tasks unless the English curriculum seeks to provide proxies for these experiences?

As well as improving students’ ability to read and write, this focus on reading complex and challenging texts and the granular approach to successful writing will help prepare students to read and respond to the texts on which they’ll be assessed at GCSE, thus enabling them to access a greater range of employment opportunities. If students are going to go on to be a senior official in, say, the offshore energy sector, they will need to read difficult texts and write complex reports.

Not only will the stories we’ve selected help students access later aspects of the curriculum, but also the approaches taken to how these texts are read, how writing is scaffolded and how academic discussion is placed at the heart of the curriculum. To find out more about how all this works we need to start thinking about the implementation of the curriculum.