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As the dust settles on the new curriculum

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This article originally appeared in the 6 November edition of Headteacher Update

Any readers who spent their summer holiday trying to fine-tune curriculum plans by the poolside, fess up now.

Searches for the “new” or “2014” curriculum peaked on The Key’s School Leader website in June. Were headteachers tying up of loose ends at the last-minute before heading off to the sun? Well, those searches didn’t dwindle too much over the summer, holding up only 10-15% lower during July and August.

At this point in the term, schools should be in full swing with the new curriculum, but at The Key we’re still picking up on teething troubles. If this is the case at your school, at least know you’re not alone.

In the last academic year our most popular article by far was a comparison of old and new National Curriculums. Guidance on subject teaching time, induction plans and – of course – assessment without levels also made it into the top ten. I was curious as to whether these would remain popular past September 2014. Are heads still grappling with the change?

The Key is still getting questions on what is statutory in the new curriculum. Some even ask which year the new curriculum comes into force. The Department for Education (DfE) does, however, expect transition to have been taken care of by now, with the exception of year groups who will be sitting SATS under the old curriculum. Predictably, our record-breaking article comparing old and new curriculums, mentioned above, didn’t even make it into the top ten in September.

One topic that stays hot though is assessment without levels. Interest in this has soared – surely a sign that expectations about implementing this change were not well communicated.

The Department for Education has reassured schools that they are not required to have a solution in place this year. But this hasn’t calmed the fears of many school leaders experimenting with a new system of assessment that may or may not fit the bill. Daunting enough you may think – then add the prospect of having to justify it should Ofsted knock on the door...

Heads may be relieved to hear that one person who definitely seems to know what’s going on has two bits of advice: don’t rush, and don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Matt Koster at Learning Ladders spoke to me about how one school came to win the DfE’s assessment innovation fund, then turned it down in order to pursue the success of their project independently.

Matt didn’t have a quick fix for schools in levels limbo, but then Hiltingbury staff spent “thousands” of teacher hours in collaboration with other schools working on the system. The only trick in his tale, as far as I could tell, was that they had started planning a new system as soon as the removal of levels was announced. Schools who are at a loss at this stage shouldn’t rush in; take time to use the brainpower of your teaching staff to decide on your next steps. Again, you’re not alone.

Matt recounted giving a talk about levels to a group of heads recently. When he asked what they were looking to get from the talk, one head put up his hand and said “help!”.

Even for schools which have made the change in full, there are teething troubles. School leaders I’ve spoken to have struggled with differentiation as a result of the new curriculum’s focus on age-related expectations. Source of most complaints is the weighty English curriculum. (At the risk of sounding like a speaker at a party conference) I spoke to a deputy head in London, who said that her more challenging students couldn’t get to grips with the large texts now required in the secondary curriculum.

A governor in schools across both phases remarked on the same problem, but noted that primary schools seemed to have more “positive” attitudes towards the change. Given the amount of press surrounding the increased difficulty of the primary maths curriculum, I was surprised at this. Primaries are now facing mandatory foreign language teaching, a demanding maths programme of study, and the entirely new computing curriculum. Perhaps it’s the age of their students that keeps them so upbeat.

I predict that we’ll be seeing more school leaders asking about how to tackle differentiation in the new curriculum as the year goes on. With schools free to tackle these problems without guidance from the Department it will be down to teachers and senior leaders on the ground to come up with solutions.

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