An Inspirational Curriculum

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Balsall Common Primary school on the edge of Solihull has developed an innovative curriculum to help children thrive. Here, Chris Baker, assistant head teacher, explains what led Ofsted inspectors to declare it a "jewel in the crown."

Many practitioners in primary schools have felt for some time that government initiatives, although well-meant, were leading us in the wrong direction. Those of us who entered primary teaching because we wanted to share in and encourage the spark that lights up in the eyes of young children knew in our heart of hearts that it was wrong.

A 1950s secondary model of strict timetabling with separate, largely unrelated subjects, addressing mostly content-driven objectives, was destroying children’s love of learning and stifling the creativity of both learners and teachers.

Our school has responded with an innovative curriculum redesign, producing a curriculum and learning experience that we are passionate about and which our children thrive on. Our Ofsted report of 2006 found our school to be outstanding in every area, but the inspectors feeding back to our leadership team declared that the curriculum was the “jewel in the crown”.

In an HMI curriculum review in February 2007 the inspector said that our curriculum was at the top end of outstanding.

We considered ourselves quite brave when we took the decision in 2001 to block the timetabling of foundation subjects and science, so that prior learning could be built upon each day, without the ‘fall back’ occasioned by a multitude of once-a-week lessons. We found – as we knew we would – that both learners and teachers became more involved in the learning and more enthusiastic as their learning experience became less piecemeal.

We wanted to take this further, and we have subsequently taken on board several initiatives which we have amalgamated to produce our current curriculum. We wanted our curriculum to be inspirational, engaging and to address the needs of the 21st century, not the mid-20th!

We are passionate in our desire to help our children to become real learners who not only have the key skills of literacy, numeracy, ICT and science, but have a true thirst for learning. We recognise that in a rapidly changing world our learners will need the skill of discernment, as there is so much information available to us at the click of a mouse. They will also need to be able to work independently and with others, and to have developed a resourcefulness that will see them through periods of challenge or change.

With this in mind, we are working towards a curriculum that will promote the development of these capacities.

Vehicle for learning

We have adopted the approach to learning to learn espoused by Guy Claxton of Building Learning Power (see www.buildinglearningpower.co.uk). Through the ethos of the school and the curriculum pupils are encouraged to develop learning capacities which will help them to become confident, capable, creative lifelong learners.
The BLP approach encourages the development of four ‘learning-power dispositions’ – the ‘four R’s:

  • resilience – absorption, managing distractions, noticing, perseverance
  • resourcefulness – questioning, making links, imagining, reasoning, capitalising
  • reflectiveness – planning, revising, distilling, meta-learning
  • reciprocity – interdependence, collaboration, empathy and listening, imitation.

Alongside curriculum learning objectives, then, we also have BLP learning objectives, which in our view are even more important. We view the content of the curriculum as the vehicle for learning, not the end of the learning itself.

The learners self- and peer-assess their learning capacities, and our reward systems all reflect the aim of being a better learner. BLP begins with nursery children and goes right through school to the end of Year 6. Visitors to our school are amazed to hear five- and six-year-olds discussing “reciprocity” and knowing what it means!

We were keen to develop a curriculum that, while ensuring that we met our statutory obligations, would inspire and stimulate our learners. We believed that thematic units should involve individual integrated subjects, linked in ways that made sense to our learners.

We wanted learners to be enthused at the beginning of a unit – really motivated to learn more. So we decided to use some ideas from the International Primary Curriculum (IPC) as a basis for our thematic units. We particularly liked the ‘entry point’ ideas, whereby time is taken off the timetable to be dedicated to something special and different, in order for learners to become excited by the forthcoming unit.

Our Year 4 unit on ‘Treasure’ begins with a day during which we all become archaeologists and undertake a ‘dig’ in the school grounds! The ‘Habitats’ unit starts with a particular biome such as the Amazon rain forest. The children spend the day painting and modelling, the only rule being that whatever is depicted must live in that particular rainforest – so lots of research has to go on too.

In Year 2 the ‘Holidays’ unit begins with the children coming to school dressed for their holidays and carrying their suitcases. They book in at the ‘check-in desk’, manned by one of the teachers in role, and board the ‘aircraft’ in the hall. One of our parents, who happens to be a commercial pilot, tells them about flying and brings in life jackets. They end the day sunbathing on the ‘beach’, playing in the ‘pool’ and sipping cool drinks!

We decided to adapt the IPC units to produce our own curriculum. We took the best of IPC, the best of some QCA units, and our own schemes of work, to produce a curriculum for our school that is inspiring, creative and thematic, and which now looks very different from both QCA and IPC. We piloted this approach in Years 2 and 4 during 2005–06 and then introduced the approach to the rest of the school in September 2006 (with the exception of Year 6, who began the new curriculum in September 2007).

Responses from pupils and parents have been staggeringly favourable. Surveys are unanimous in their support. “My child is much more enthusiastic this year,” said one parent. “He has thoroughly enjoyed all the topics. This is what teaching and learning should be about at this age”.

Our thematic units include science, ICT, D&T, history, geography, art, music, PSHE and for most units literacy text level work is linked to the theme. Numeracy, word and sentence level literacy objectives, ICT skills, PE, French and RE are taught as standalone subjects unless a link is obvious. We would very much like to include RE in the units but our Agreed Syllabus doesn’t facilitate this.

Global education

Our thematic curriculum lends itself to the examination of global issues – those of sustainability and interdependence – such as the study of the biomes in Year 4 which looks at the threats to biomes and the effects of climate change. The Year 6 unit ‘What Price Progress’ examines the consequences of scientific and other developments – positive and negative. The curriculum also lends itself to the examination of methods of government, as in another Year 6 unit, ‘Rulers and Governments’.

Every unit has international learning goals which focus on aspects of life in other countries. We are keen to develop this and have appointed a leader for international links, who is currently working on partnerships with other schools across the world by videoconferencing.

For the past two years we have been part of a learning network of schools which has been developing the concept of enquiry-based learning. We have been involved in training in building a community of enquiry and philosophy for children as promoted by SAPERE, the education charity promoting philosophical questioning in schools – and since last year have been developing the Mantle of the Expert approach (see below) to our community of enquiry. We have led the learning network in this and our assistant headteacher has delivered curriculum Inset to the other schools. This approach has enabled learners to develop their independence, reasoning, empathy and collaboration. It works very well with our thematic curriculum and Building Learning Power. It also fits in very well with the Every Child Matters agenda.

Under the Mantle of the Expert approach all learning is done as part of a ‘company’. The company is invented, as is a company history. The learners all buy into the role- play and, as MoE developer Dorothy Heathcote says, if they are disbelieving, they need to “put their drama eyes on!”

The company is approached by a ‘client’ – by fax, letter, email or telephone contact. The client needs the company’s help and the company discusses whether this is a task that they would like to take on. (The answer is always a resounding “Yes!”).

The teacher is part of the community, alongside the pupils, and responds with them to various problems. The problems are not presented by the teacher, but by the ‘client’, enabling the community to take responsibility for their responses without seeing the teacher in a didactic role. The teacher has to be prepared to allow changes in the balance of power, as the system opens up alternatives to the traditional classroom model whereby all control lies with the teacher. The system advocates a tone of co- operation, collaboration, attentive listening, sharing ideas, negotiation and sharing power with others as ‘colleagues’.

How it works

The teachers in Year 4 decided that the ‘Treasure’ unit could be covered by setting up a company that undertook research and excavation work – BCPS Treasure Seekers. They helped to formulate a company timeline and series of events in the company history. Some of the pupils designed logos and others produced advertisements for the company.

The company had a ‘Training Day’ during which they followed an agenda:

  • Welcome Meeting
  • “What is archaeology?” – Open discussion and video clips
  • Preparation for archaeological excavation – techniques, safety information
  • Break
  • “The Dig”
  • Plenary
  • Lunch
  • Talk by visiting speaker Mr Mike Longfield – a keen user of metal detectors who will share some of his “finds” with us.

The second lesson involved the company receiving a letter from a gentleman who had been clearing out the village hall attic and had discovered an object and an old photograph. He wanted the company to find out more about them. This led to open research determined by the company in discussion and the production of a detailed report complete with full illustrations of the background of the artefacts.

While the research was taking place a further letter arrived from the gentleman with a map he had also found. This added extra evidence for consideration. (The artefact was an ankh, the photo of the treasures of Tutankhamen’s tomb, the map of the Valley the Kings). Later a parcel arrived with a garment inside – embroidered with various symbols.

The teacher planned the stages of the submissions of these extra pieces of information and also planned ‘problems’ which the company had to solve, but in every case the problems and letters come from a third party.

The problems are addressed by the company, not by the teacher, who is only an equal (though surreptitiously guiding) partner.

The children researched aspects of ancient Egyptian history as they worked in different ‘departments’; they then wrote non-chronological reports using this research, and eventually presented their findings orally to the rest of the departments. The report having been submitted on the ‘treasures’ found in the village attic, the company then received a letter from the Government requesting that they be given to the British Museum.

They subsequently received a fax from the Egyptian government asking for their return. The children discussed the ethics of the situation and decided that they wanted to speak to a representative of the British Museum and to the Egyptian ambassador. They did this through a teacher and then a pupil in role. After discussion the company decided that the ‘finds’ should be returned to Egypt. The children wrote letters to both parties explaining their decision.

The next case for BCPS Treasure Seekers was from a lady who wished to set up a jewellery business but wanted the gems to be ethically sourced. The company researched gemstones, where they are found in the world, methods of extraction and the effect on landscape and people. They decided where best to source the gems and wrote reports to submit to the client.

Including ICT

The use of ICT across the curriculum enhances and extends learning, empowering learners to use skills creatively in real contexts, such as producing PowerPoint documents related to thematic curricular work. Learners can videoconference with museums to learn from experts and hotseat with famous people ‘in role’. They produce their own podcasts, and we are currently developing a TV broadcasting system. All learners can log into the school website to communicate with their peers and teachers, obtain information and extend their learning at home. Some of this is outside the curriculum at present, but will eventually be internal.

We are constantly willing to share our ideas and keen to learn from others. We, along with every other primary school, want our school to be an exciting, stimulating and happy place which provides the best start for what we know is a lifelong learning process. Like many others, we are a school that is constantly striving towards enabling the very best learning environment for our children and the very best curriculum model. To this end we continually review our provision and practice and consult all members of the learning community. These practices, together with our imaginative curriculum, have won the school a whole array of awards – and, more importantly of course, ultimately help our children to aim and achieve higher.

Chris Baker is assistant head teacher responsible for curriculum and assessment at Balsall Common Primary, a very large and thriving school on the edge of Solihull. She has worked in the primary sector for 17 years, having taught English for the previous ten years in the secondary sector.

Taken from Managing Schools Today

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