There are two aspects to an ‘ambitious curriculum for all’. The first is that the curriculum should mean the curriculum in its entirety. The second is that the curriculum should be an entitlement for all pupils, regardless of their starting points.
Some curriculum subjects in upper Key Stage 2 in many primary schools have been cut back, in order to focus, understandably, on English and mathematics. These subjects are important because schools are judged on how well pupils do in these and the pressure is on. But it is a mistake to neglect the other subjects. The first reason is that pupils are entitled to a broad and balanced offer and the second is that a wider curriculum, beyond being an entitlement, will support outcomes in English. The impact of curtailing the curriculum in many secondary schools has meant that many pupils stop studying some subjects at the age of 14.
The impetus for shifting the narrative for this has come from a number of sources: the first is one of justice and social equity – why should only some rather than most of our pupils not have access to important knowledge? The second is the influence of the findings from cognitive science. It now means that people are asking what does it mean to really know something, to retain important ideas in the long-term memory and to create the conditions for pupils to have meaningful conversations about what they are learning and how it connects to other ideas? Underpinning this, is thinking about an ambitious approach for pupils, for increasing the cognitive demands and for supporting these through appropriate scaffolding, support and talk.
We can see this ambitious approach to the curriculum when history teacher Richard Kennett provided pupils in Year 7 with sections from a scholarly text, in this example the Norman Conquest by Marc Morris (2015). Morris’ text had been chosen to compare with Simon Schama’s (2009) account of the same period. Pupils were expected to read extracts and to answer questions such as ‘What does Morris argue most people think about the Norman Conquest?’ and ‘What does Morris say about the impact of the Norman Conquest on women?’ The careful use of a stimulus for these pupils took them into demanding work. The task was characterised by high challenge and low threat: ‘Read these and answer all the questions. This is supposed to be hard. If you can’t answer all the questions, don’t worry!’ What he found was that pupils with a reading age of below 10 were able to access this work.
When pupils in Year 1 were learning about incarnation the focus was on thinking about the key concept to be taught and understood. This meant considering the etymology of incarnation to ensure pupils understand that, for Christians, a key belief is that God became human in the form of baby Jesus at Christmas. Then the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth, the nativity plays and all the twinkly stuff around Christmas is understood in terms of this key concept. If we think that pupils are not capable of this, then consider how many four year olds are ‘fluent’ in dinosaurs; and many of these know that the word comes from the Greek for scary lizard. The focus on curriculum depth and clarity provides intrinsic engagement for pupils. It means it doesn’t need to be dressed up, distorted or diminished. Our pupils can cope.
The second aspect of an ambitious curriculum as an entitlement is a sensitive topic. In every classroom, there are children with different levels of prior attainment and with differing capacities to engage with the work. However, providing differentiated material for pupils is likely to hold them back. We have to assume that they can cope, as long as they have appropriate support.
Alison Peacock in Assessment for Learning without Limits (2016) provides an insight into children’s views on setting: ‘The ‘more able’ loved it; they enjoyed being the ‘bright’ ones and having ‘special’ challenges set by the teacher. They also saw working with the teacher as a negative. The middle group were annoyed that they didn’t get the same work and challenges as the other group; they wanted to try harder work but they have worked out they would never be moved up as there were only six seats on the top table. The ‘less able’ were affected the most. They felt ‘dumb’, useless, they thought they would never be allowed challenges as they usually work with the teaching assistant (some by Year 5 were completely dependent on the teaching assistant to help them). This ‘less able’ group like the sound of some of the challenges the top group had, but knew they would never get the chance.’
For many of the ‘lower’ groups, they are offered closed responses – matching parts of sentences, filling in gaps, completing easy worksheets, none of which really stretches them or expects them to do much. Others, by contrast, are given more to do and more is expected of them. While they might have a few closed exercises in order to practise or consolidate their knowledge, they are also expected to do new things with this – constructing their own sentences, coming up with other alternative adjectives in a piece of writing, suggesting alternatives to problems in mathematics. These children are being given more opportunities both to struggle and to gain new knowledge. The others, by contrast, have insufficient expectations of them and as a result, don’t make the same gains as their peers. The result is that the gaps in their knowledge and attainment widen. The paradox is that by attempting to give them easier work, such exercises can often close down their capacity and opportunity to do more.
Teachers somehow have to make sense of this in order to get all children working to their highest capacity and potential. Schools which have recognised that grouping children by ability could be a problem in promoting self-limiting beliefs at all levels of ability have done away with the naming of tables or groups. Instead, they promote teaching to the top, rather than putting a lid on what children might produce by preparing materials which only allow them to go so far. We can see this in the current trend in the teaching of mathematics in primary schools, where the whole class is taught together on the key ideas and those who need additional support are given this through guidance and discussion by an adult. Those who are early graspers are kept on the same material but are expected to work on aspects of greater complexity and depth.
The principle is that all children are exposed to the material at the same time. Now there will always be exceptions to this: those whose cognitive ability needs one-to-one support, often through pre-learning sessions so that they are able to access the material and others whose grasp is so secure early on that they need additional work which makes them really think. But for the majority of children in most classes, the expectation is that by teaching to the top and providing additional support for those who need it as well as challenge for those who are capable of greater complexity, all are exposed to a rich and demanding curriculum.
We do not truly know what anyone is capable of until they are given interesting and difficult things to do. So, a ‘learning without limits’ setting ensures there are interesting, thought-provoking, challenging things for children to do.
A compelling example for why it is so important not to underestimate what children can do is Jonathan Bryan. Born with cerebral palsy after his mother was involved in a car accident, he started a campaign to ensure all children with ‘locked-in’ syndrome are taught to read and write. It took seven years before he was able to communicate and he now spends part of each day in his local school where he excels at mathematics. He also writes blogs and poems of great subtlety and wit and has written a book about his experiences. So, a call to all to think about how we ‘label’ children and what might be hidden when we do so.
An ambitious curriculum as an entitlement for all should be lived out in every aspect of our work.
Key questions for you and colleagues
- Have we articulated our ambitious curriculum for all our pupils?
- What sort of questions do we ask ourselves about putting limits on pupils’ learning? Are we prepared to be surprised?
- How can we source reading material which stretches our pupils? What might this look like in different subjects, for example in RE this might be articles from Philosophy Now.
Bryan J (2018) Eye Can Write: A Memoir of a Child’s Silent Soul Emerging. London: Lagom.
French C and Marshall M (2018) Why communication from a ‘locked-in’ child is a miracle we must question. The Guardian, 5 February 2018. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2018/feb/05/why-communication-from-a-locked-in-child-is-a-miracle-we-must-question (accessed 9 June 2020).
Morris M (2015) The Norman Conquest. Essex: Windmill Books.
Peacock A (2016) Assessment for Learning Without Limits. Maidenhead, Berkshire: OUP.
Schama M (2009) A History of Britain. London: Bodley Head.