In my role this term, I’ve been implementing a knowledge-led mastery curriculum across all subjects, following the thoughts of great educationalists like E.D. Hirsch to shape students’ learning around core knowledge to increase their social and cultural capital and ensure they can access the greatest number of choices in their future lives.
So far, the three greatest challenges to implementing this kind of curriculum have been the concerns of SEN and EAL students, along with behaviour.
My school has a very high percentage of pupil premium students, and it is the peculiar case that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are far more likely to be diagnosed with special educational needs (SEN) than their wealthier peers. Our school certainly has an extensive SEN list.
Now, while I am not an SEN expert, I do tend to the view that, as it seems unlikely that poor children are just predisposed to having special educational needs, there must be something else at play to explain the higher numbers on the SEN registers of schools serving economically deprived communities. Partly, I wonder if this is just one symptom of the wider knowledge and practice gap between our students and their more advantaged peers, diagnosed and labeled to be worked around.
Whatever the root cause, there can be no doubt that there are certain children who take much longer to learn stuff – any stuff. Try to teach all children incredibly rigorous material, and these children in particular will struggle. I don’t think that is an issue – struggle is the very stuff of learning, after all. But there is the inescapable issue of time: if these students will take longer to learn, how to we ensure we allow them the same space to master core content?
One solution is to focus the curriculum offer, giving more time to the key subjects (like humanities, science, English and maths) to ensure these students have time to truly master the key subjects. It is a point of contention at what stage such a focus should take place – is it in the early years of KS3, to drench them in the basics and catch them up, or should they have equal access to all subjects at KS3 and narrow at KS4 in preparation for the exams?
In general, I would advocate focusing sooner, as the latter can tend to lead to students pushed through a clutch of technical qualifications in an attempt to ensure they leave school with something they can use later in life. Too diffuse a subject offer at KS3 for these subjects means some will continue to struggle, and even fail, thus perpetuating a vicious circle of lack of buy-in.
The second challenge to consider in our school’s particular context is its EAL students. We have a particularly high number of new arrivals, and a phenomenal job is done by the EAL team with these.
But there are students who still really struggle with the basics of communication in English. As one teacher told me, ‘to allow one student to access the lesson, her TA has to look up the words in Portuguese just so she can answer the questions – in Portuguese. What is the point in her learning a nineteenth century novel?’
I have much sympathy with this view. Of course, we would like all our EAL students to miraculously pick up perfect English just by sitting in mainstream lessons, but there might need to be a smarter solution for these students.
It also depends how much time they have before their all-important exams; clearly a student in year 7 can struggle through the year and probably make enormous progress in mainstream lessons, where a new arrival in year 10 or 11 might need alternative curriculum provision to ensure they are not drowning in syntax.
The greatest and widest-ranging challenge to a mastery curriculum is behaviour, because behaviour affects every teacher and every student in a school. If in the past I was guilty of delivering lessons with too much group work and student independent research, this was partly because it was incredibly difficult to deliver to a class that you couldn’t reach silence with. In that circumstance, in my early years as a teacher, I believed it was better to teach them something than to have a complete riot with nothing being learned.
But I know now that I failed those children in many ways. We do not have time to waste – the gap is too large, the stakes too high. These children do not have time for guessing, for card-sorts, for making posters with their friends. They need to read, write, and learn.
Delivering a lesson which is composed of reading, questioning and silent writing is not easy with students who are used to a variety of engaging activities which allow them a quiet word with their friends. A year 11 student only recently reminded me ‘I’m doing the work while I’m talking!’ when challenged, as if to say that as long as their pen was near the paper they were fine to not be 100% engaged with the lesson. (I firmly disagreed with the student, for the record.)
The major concern with implementing a rigorous knowledge curriculum is that the people who deliver it, especially NQTs, teachers who are new to the school or trainee teachers, all run the risk of immense challenge from students who have grown accustomed to lessons which are part learning, part social time.
To be able to deliver effectively to children, for them to really engage with and reflect on the knowledge they are learning, for them to learn enough in a short enough time to close the gap, behaviour must be absolutely impeccable. And if it isn’t, that has to be the number one priority to allow mastery to take place.