Curriculum and enrichment

It goes without saying that the curriculum is the education preoccupation of the moment. As a profession, we’ve come to recognise the limits of a focus on pedagogy alone, and we’ve moved towards a debate on what children study, what their entitlement is, and what that looks like in a school.

In creating the curriculum entitlement for Ark Soane Academy, I’ve had to do some soul-searching. It became rapidly clear, staring at those 29 squares of lesson time, that there was no way we could do everything we wanted to. My own dream curriculum would have 7 lessons of English a week, 8 of Maths, 3 History, 3 Geography, 2 Religious Education, 5 MFL, 7 Science, 2 Art, 2 Music, 2 PE, 2 Drama… we’d have to either find 14 additional hours, or compromise. It came to me early on that we couldn’t do everything, and we certainly couldn’t do everything well.

So, moving away from the boxes, I went back to first principles. We want to ensure that students can achieve great results in academic subjects, not only because academic subjects open doors, but so they can be introduced to the academic conversation, participate in cultural debate and discussion, and have a broad awareness of human thought that is the entitlement of every child. With that in mind, the curriculum at Soane will be highly academic. We make no apologies for wanting every child to learn core academic subjects, and expect all Soane students to study the following to GCSE level: English, Maths, Science, History or Geography, and a foreign language.

That is not to say that we only care about academic subjects at Soane; far from it. After all, we take our name from the most famous architect in British history: Sir John Soane. Soane, born the son of a bricklayer, made his legacy through his art: in his case, designing innovative, enduring buildings like the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. We absolutely recognise and celebrate the importance of the arts. In fact, to designate the arts “non-academic” is clearly inadequate. The arts can be taught as “academically” as any other subject, and they will be at Soane.

Another thought I could not shake was the importance of enrichment. I was inspired hearing Lizzie Bowling’s speech at New Voices last year on enrichment, where she lamented how few children came to her wonderfully planned, hugely inspiring lunchtime clubs. Her rallying cry: “enrichment for all!” rang in my ears. We had to ensure every child had an enriched experience of school, not only those who chose it. So we have built enrichment into the school timetable, to ensure every child who attends Soane gets to choose something extra-curricular to pursue. Our aim with enrichment is to provide students with a broader educational experience, and to enable them to have an aspect of choice in their education: students will have free choice over a myriad of possibilities, and the opportunity to change each term to try something different. What these possibilities look like will be shaped by the passions and expertise of the teachers we hire in January and February next year.

At all open events, the children want to hear about school trips. I’ve worked at schools where teachers ran trips every week, taking a handful of children to some new and exciting place. This ultimately left behind cover work  and all its attendant difficulties for the teacher’s classes, and scores of children crying “unfair” – it was often seen that the same students got lots of opportunities, and others very few. In other schools I’ve worked at, we would run trip days or “academy days”, like I know a lot of schools do now. Taking a whole year group out on an enriching trip means no cover left behind, and no children left behind. This will be our approach to trips at Soane.

If you like the sound of an academic curriculum full of cultural capital with enrichment as an entitlement for all, please stay in touch – we will be accepting applications from December 2019.

Cambridge, Kings and Changing my Teaching

“I enjoyed the trip very much and it made me sure of wanting to study English at university and that Cambridge would be an amazing place to do this.”

Year 12 student

My year 12 are undeniably a fantastic class. High achieving on entry, they have exceeded expectations this year in terms of the quality of their coursework. I’m certainly not discounting the mountain of work they still need to do to ace their exam in May, but each and every one of them has astonishing potential. And it is becoming more and more apparent that some would like to take English further, for which I am forever grateful. Much of this is down to two incredible universities who have opened their doors to us.

Back in September, in the early heady days of my new post , I contacted what seemed like every London university, explaining I wanted to build links between our sixth formers and a “local” university. Our year 12 are the first in our school to take English Literature A-level, so the time seemed ripe for new beginnings. Many did not respond. Those who did often offered specific days, often entirely unrelated to the course my year 12s are studying, and often at inconvenient times – as a consortium sixth form, it’s almost impossible to take students out of their other lessons (as perhaps it should be, always).

Conversely, two universities have offered numerous opportunities, but have also been open to helping us out in our particular circumstance. They have listened to what our students need and engaged with us on our terms. I am hopeful of a lasting relationship with each.

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And the lecturers. Their astonishing knowledge, charisma and humility, as well as humour, was thoughtfully matched to sixth form students’ interests and levels. I was reminded of the very best of what I experienced at University, and found myself in the lovely position of learning alongside my lovely children.

On our trip to Cambridge University on 20th March, we learned how to make a successful application, and what subjects would be useful to do at A-level when applying to do an English degree. Also, we were taught what it would be like to do English at Cambridge. Finally, we were given an English lecture at University level focused on the philosophical question of: “How soon is now?” We looked at several different examples in poems, in the novel “To The Lighthouse” by Virginia Woolf and in the play “That Time” by Samuel Beckett.

Year 12 student

The following Monday, an incredible and generous lecturer from King’s College London relieved me of my duties and came in to teach my year 12 double lesson. I had previously explained to her that the students had been doing coursework, and they were now moving onto the exam. Could she perhaps do a session on Gatsby and narrative?

No powerpoint, no card sorts, no drama; a lengthy handout and some bullet points on a piece of paper had the students entranced. The angle the lecturer took, her questioning and her planning made me feel these short hours had given my 21 students a massive advantage over anyone else taking the exam who was not in that session. Oh, to be such a teacher!

In the frantic movement of everyday life in school, it is hard to find the kind of peace and tranquility necessary to reflect and create. I know that if I slowed down my lessons would be more thoughtful; too often, these days, I cling to success criteria and exam specifications in order to ensure my students know what they “need” to know. This is not enough.

I am going to aim to bring in some University when I plan. To think beyond the rubric. Not just: what do my students need to know? But: what is the most intellectually interesting way we can explore this?

I’ve often maintained that we should all be always learning, but perhaps it is time for me to go back to school with English. It feels like it has been a long time since I have learned anything new about English, and I was reminded last week that the world of the academic moves, at times at least, in a surprisingly sprightly fashion. There are a raft of post-graduate and short course prospectuses piled up by the door, hastily ordered following my recent experiences, and perhaps one of these holds the key to a wiser teacher.

We can always improve, and it is foolish to imagine there could be such a thing as a zenith of teaching practice. These two weeks in particular I have come face to face with greatness, and I’m falling short. I need to know more, so I will read more; I need to do more and plan more and question more and become better at what I do so the children that learn with me can know more, and go further.

But in the meantime, if I can expose my students to these kinds of opportunities, and inspire them to aim for the best they can achieve, I can take some comfort at least.

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