What we are not allowed to say about curriculum intent

Since the curriculum became the Next Big Thing in English schools – a miraculous solution to the fundamental problems of schooling – we have seen the inevitable mutations, cynical instrumentalism, and BS proliferate.

None of this is a surprise; that is, if you take the time to observe the faddish tendencies of a system which continually tries to solve complex problems with simplistic policy instruments.

As with all Big Things, a legitimate narrative emerges. We are permitted, indeed actively encouraged, to say certain things about the curriculum. What makes our utterances legitimate is that they fit a belief system that is acceptable to powerful interest groups, particularly Ofsted, the DfE, and educational influencers who ply their trade in the market for curriculum consultancy.

Take ‘curriculum intent’ as an example. Curriculum intent, Ofsted tell us, means simply what leaders intend pupils to learn. ‘Good intent’ (according to the Inspection Handbook) means a curriculum that is ambitious, coherently planned and sequenced, adapted to the needs of children with additional needs, and broad and balanced for as long as possible.

What is the legitimate narrative around curriculum intent?

First, we must buy into the idea that our intent is intentional; that we set out to design our school curriculum in alignment with our vision, values and cohort’s needs. School’s signal that they buy into this narrative through publishing their Curriculum Intent Statements on their websites. Ofsted are clear that this is not required, but what school would risk not signalling its acceptance of the principle of intentional design? In reality, a school’s curriculum is only partly intentional: mostly the regularities of the curriculum exist for reasons which may or may not even be known, and are rarely questioned or disrupted. It is simply too risky to do so.

Second, we talk in terms of control. The curriculum, if it is to be an effective policy instrument, must be under our (school leaders’) control. Everything taught in the curriculum must be there because we intend for it to be there. This is patently untrue, particularly in secondary schools where much of the curriculum is determined by exam boards. The fact is that most curriculum content decisions are not in the control of school leaders. To hide this truth, we invent post-hoc rationalisations for why the curriculum is as it is. Sample a range of school Intent Statements and you will quickly find almost comical (if not sinister) examples of this.

Third, we must be seen to worship the God of sequencing. Everything is placed such that it follows what came before. In some subjects, sequencing curriculum content is a sensible and helpful device. In others, it is so obvious as too hardly need saying. In yet others, it is a largely inconsequential activity. Even within subjects, sequencing varies in its importance depending on which aspect of the subject’s knowledge is in question. But we cannot say this. Instead, we justify the place of curriculum content in terms of what came before and what came after, regardless of whether this truly matters.

Lastly, the claim to breadth and balance is legitimate, although it is not clear what this term means in relation to a school’s curriculum. It has been used to criticise schools who start GCSEs before Year 10, thereby reducing the range of subjects studied. But who is to say that breadth across subjects is superior to breadth within? And what are we balancing: the academic and the vocational; the abstract and the concrete; the cognitive and the physical; the STEM subjects and the humanities? Is a high quality curriculum one which is all things to all people, where variety is always prized, where breadth is better than depth?

And the existence of a legitimate narrative means there also exists an illegitimate narrative; the things that must remain unsaid.

We must not mention that our choice of texts in English is steered more by our teachers’ familiarity with the book, with the time available to get up to speed with a new text, or by what is available in the cupboard. We gloss over the budgetary constraints which mean we cannot afford class sets of books or to send teachers on the necessary professional development.

We keep quiet about the fact that we are following a bought-in curriculum because we have so many non-specialists teaching the subject that the pre-prepared resources mitigate a lack of subject knowledge.

We dare not admit that we have chosen this particular exam board as our students will achieve higher grades than they did with the last one, and for these kids that matters more than studying a slightly more challenging qualification.

We confess to each other outside of the curriculum planning meeting that we don’t agree between us what purpose our subject serves, and that this disagreement might be a good thing; that the consequent teaching practices labelled as ‘inconsistent’ may alternatively be celebrated as variety. That perhaps the dynamic efficiency which arises through experimentation is preferable to the stagnation and stifling logic of sameness and coherence.

We wonder privately why we still teach that topic, but resist raising the matter as everyone seems like they have enough to do already.

We would secretly rather not be offering that GCSE but cannot countenance the thought of making our only specialist teacher in the subject redundant.

We want to say to the inspector that it is bleeding obvious why we teach this before that, but know that this doesn’t fit the narrative. We want to say ‘what is wrong with just teaching to the specification?’ We want to point out that quality teaching is more than just implementing what you intend to implement, in the rationally justified sequence agreed.

We sit in INSET sessions on the curriculum and think to ourselves, ‘What if all this time thinking about the curriculum doesn’t raise standards?’ We want to ask, ‘Where is your evidence to supports this strategy?’ Instead, we keep our heads down and what for this particular wave of enthusiasm to subside.

The problem with dominant legitimate narratives is that only part of the truth is articulated. We can only talk about the ideals of the curriculum, not the mucky reality. When we say only what we are expected to say, we undermine the pursuit of truth and quality.

Call out curriculum bullshit where you see it. Talk about the reality of the curriculum as well as the ideals. Question the accepted wisdom. Say what you are not meant to say.

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