Curriculum for all seasons

December 20, 2013
Glyn Barritt

RS3-cover-200 Principled Curriculum Design by Dylan Wiliam is the third in a series of nine pamphlets in the Redesigning Schooling series and provides an insightful exploration into curriculum design and how the national curriculum can be adapted to form the basis for high-quality school curricula.

Mike Bettles  discusses …

Dylan Williams Principled Curriculum Design is a jewel of a pamphlet; it is a model of cogent, rational thought. I wouldn’t have expected anything less.

However, in this piece I want to look at principles in the sense of a moral law – a law, that is, that

establishes an obligation in the individual’s conscience that belongs to the cultural field in which such values are accepted. It supposes the liberty of the individual as cause, that acts without external coercion…

From this definition of ‘principle’, I believe that some of us may be in trouble as we wrestle with quite what to do for best with the curriculum when ‘best’ might mean only ‘Progress 8’ and the perverse incentive implicit in this measure could certainly be viewed as ‘external coercion’. What principles might we be suppressing, I wonder, in order to get to the best possible Progress 8? And what gymnastic feats of justification and rationalisation might we go through in order to show that our actions in conforming to the Progress 8 were the right things to do all along?

There can be little doubt that it was right to remove the ‘perverse incentive’ afforded, for example, by the old OCR Nationals in ICT, but why then replace it with another set of perverse incentives?

As they say in New York, go figure …

I’m not sure that I am right about this, but here goes…

Let’s say that a Lucy choses to take GCSEs in, for example, Art, Product Design and Catering; she also opts for BTEC Drama -  in addition to her core GCSEs in English (and Literature), Mathematics, Core and Additional Science and Religious Studies.  As a school we think that this is a very good fit for her: it provides a good mix of subjects, whilst at the same time playing to her creative, artistic and practical strengths. We would usually recommend that a student should take a modern foreign language; however in this case it is a weak area for her and one in which she is unlikely to do well. By following this course of study, Lucy  is likely to achieve significant success (mainly As and A*s) and should then be in a good position to go into post-16 education with some excellent GCSE results. Given then good A level results, she would find that many universities (including many from the Russell Group) would be very interested and would find such a candidate very attractive. One thing that I suspect universities will not be saying is, ‘Ah yes, you may have got all As and A*s but I’m afraid that, because you didn’t allow your school to maximise their performance indicators, we can’t accept you.’

However, as a school, we are, I think, in Progress 8 trouble. Only English, Maths and the two Sciences would count in the eBacc first five of the Progress 8 – we would thus be talking about a best 7 out of 8. Now that might be fine if Lucy was a one-off, but we rather suspect that he/she will be part of a significant minority within the cohort and that this could have a significant effect on our Progress 8 point score. This, in turn, could affect our standing in the performance tables which then could have a deleterious effect on our reputation within the area. Then, before you know it, we are transformed from an outstanding, over-subscribed school into one where the general feeling around the town is that the school is not as good as it used to be. Perhaps, if Lucy was estimated Cs and achieved As then she would be fine with 7 out of 8 – but even so, that’s a bit of a gamble and anyway you would not be maximising her Progress 8 score. It also depends on some pretty fine calculations that would be quite difficult to make some two and a half

The example I give here is perhaps a marginal one, but it nevertheless presents what will be for us a very real situation. There are clearly other students where the divide will be more stark; and, of course, there are some students for whom the Progress 8 forms the basis for a wholly inappropriate curriculum.

The good news is that, if we were to substitute Ancient Greek for Product Design, we would, at a single bound, be out of our Progress 8 malaise.

The Sir Thomas More principle

So, how do schools respond to this perverse incentive? Part of the answer lies in Bolt’s play ‘A Man for All Seasons’ and the film of the same name with the seminal performance by Paul Scofield. Anyway, you all know the story. At one point More is asked if he will sign the oath of loyalty to the king and he replies:

‘He made animals for innocence and  plants for their simplicity. But man He made to serve him wittily in the tangle of his mind.  If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping… then we may stand to  our tackle as best we can. And yes, Meg, then we can clamour like champions if we have the  spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take this oath, I will.’

‘Our natural business lies in escaping’ but, if it comes ‘to such a case that there is no escaping’, then it is important we do what we think is the principled thing – perhaps whatever ‘perverse incentive’ may incline us to feel that we should be doing something else. It is absolutely right that ‘in the tangle of (our) minds’ we look to get the best possible outcome for the school and that we move as far as we can to accommodate in our curriculum structures the hierarchy of subjects that has been established -   however intellectually impoverished such a notion may appear to us. However, that can only take us so far and no further before we come up against a principle that insists that a complete capitulation to eBacc/Progress 8 runs contrary to some of our most deeply held educational beliefs.

What this means for my school …

For us at Heathfield School, one of those deeply held beliefs is that the Arts bring something unique to the curriculum and that it should have a central part in any curriculum that attempts to develop the whole child (and how charmingly retro that phrase now sounds in an age where each individual is an economic unit to be compared with the economic units in Singapore). Contrary to the views of some, we would contend that Dance and Drama are separate disciplines; that it is perfectly reasonable for some individuals to take both disciplines and that both subjects should be counted in any measure of school performance – just as it is perfectly reasonable for History and Geography to both count.

Why our students will always be able to take the separate disciplines of Dance and Drama …

Dance is, apparently, the same as Drama - which must be news to both Darcy Bussell and Robbie Coltrane. But History is very different to Geography, although both are Humanities subjects and so is RE. And RE is different to both Geography and History but in a bad way so it can’t count for the eBacc;  Music is different to all of the above but is, apparently, so easy to get that pretty soon the GCSE may not count at all – and the same is possibly true for Dance and Drama.

Go figure …

It must be because Art, Music, Dance and Drama contribute so little to our national life and so little to our economy – the Olympic Ceremonies proved this beyond doubt – that no-one will really miss them at all.

However, it is not ultimately because of their perceived economic benefit that we consider Dance and Drama and the other Arts to be so important.  Our proposition is that The Arts are crucial areas of human experience both in themselves and in terms of what they bring to each individual’s perception of the world.  They help to make us more human and more humane. The words are important here because the words that we use to describe the educational experience help to shape the experience itself.  As Ian McGilchrist said:

‘The words that we use to describe human processes are highly influential for the way that we conceive ourselves, and therefore for our actions and, above all, for the values to which we hold. (We must) sophisticate the language that we use, since many current users of that language adopt it so naturally that they are not even aware of how it blinds them to the very possibility that they might be dealing with anything other than a machine.’

It is our modest proposal that we will create the wrong kind of society if we ignore the importance of the arts. It might, but I doubt it, be a society that is higher up the PISA league table and it might even be a wealthier society, but it would be wrong. On an individual basis we see the arts as an essential part of a good liberal arts education – an education that is well-rounded and balanced and that aims to produce citizens who are well-rounded and balanced.

So all of our students will continue to take an Arts subject at KS4 and, furthermore, for some students it will be very important that they take both Dance and Drama.

Go figure.

Michael Bettles Mike Bettles is Deputy Head at Heathfield Community School, Taunton; his role encompasses curriculum, assessment, international links and Leading Edge.  He is interested in education from international perspectives and curriculum creativity.