Curriculum confusion, Unclear guidance, and more. In this episode, Andy and Adam discuss statutory requirements and misleading government documents. With lots of guidance out there, what’s helpful? What guidance is confusing for schools? Plus, hear why it’s important to be slightly sceptical when a new idea or approach is being presented.
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Hi, I'm Andy Psarianos.
Hi, I'm Robin Potter.
Hi, I'm Adam Gifford.
This is the School of School Podcast.
Welcome to the School of School Podcast.
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All right. Welcome back everyone. And since the pandemic, and even actually before the pandemic, lots of organisations have been releasing guidance around how to teach particular topics. I think we'll probably end up talking about mathematics here, but both Adam and I ... Oh, I don't know. I'm not going to speak for you, Adam, but I'm certainly a bit confused and I know that a lot of the schools that contact me are also confused about, is this statutory? Am I supposed to do this? Do I have to change what I'm doing based on what such and such an organisation has said. Or, if I know and I'm doing well, can I stick with that? Or, what's it all about? Why are all these groups putting all this information out there and is it actually helpful? I mean, what do you think, Adam?
Well, I think if we start, is making it clear. I think one of the things that you hear a lot is support comes out. Maybe non-statutory guidance or just general support from organisations like NCETM, which is funded through the government. When we get the support, I think sometimes what's lost in it or is not clear is how it should be used and what the expectation is. And I think the other thing that is left within education to discuss is, am I going to get in trouble if I don't use it? Am I expected by the government to use it? Do I have to stick to it rigorously? What decisions am I allowed to make in relation to this? And I think it's those things that make a lot of people really anxious about shall I or shan't I.
And the motivation behind, "Okay. Well, if I'm writing this too, this is just one illustration of how the curriculum can be interpreted and supported." But you are open to interpret it in another way, you are open to make those decisions for your children, which we're encouraged to do all the time. Ofsted encourage us to do that, yet we get this contradictory message of, oh, no. I've heard through the grapevine that you've got to have it in school. That this is in effect statutory, where it says on the cover, it's not. And I think to me, that's the start of the problems, is being open and transparent about that.
Let me just be a little bit more concrete about what you're talking about for listeners who might not know what we're talking about. So I guess here what's prompted us to talk about the subject is, in England we've got a national curriculum. I think almost every country has a national curriculum. As a curriculum, some places it's provincial or state, like in the US it's per state sometimes. But largely, there's a body that says, "Okay, this is a standard or it's a list of desired outcomes." Whatever format it looks like. It's basically a statement by an official body, usually the government that says, "This is what, by the end of Year 3, children need to be able to do this." So that's a national curriculum.
So in the UK we have a national curriculum and it's very explicit and I personally think it's well written. I know I've read through it, I read through it well constantly because of what I do, that's my job. So I could probably recite entire passages from the national curriculum. I've read it so many times. So that's one thing. And that's got two types of information. One is statutory, which means you must do it, this is effectively the law. As a school, your responsibility is to do this. And then there's non-statutory guidance, which is, "We think you should also do this but you don't have to but you need to consider it at least, we think."
And then that national curriculum is mandated to all state schools. So there're certain schools in the UK, for example, that don't have to follow the national curriculum but state schools must follow the national curriculum. And then on the basis of that, you've got other groups like Ofsted who inspect schools, who use that as a guide as to what they're inspecting. And then you also have Ofqual who are responsible for writing exams and making sure that exams are taking place in a sensible way and that they also refer to the national curriculum. So they set the exams to the national curriculum. So that's the landscape.
So now you've got all these other bodies, like the NCETM, which is effectively a quango organisation, that means it's government funded but it's not the government. And they have a mandate to help schools learn mathematics or teach mathematics better. And they run the Maths Hub programme and all kinds of stuff. So that's kind of the landscape. So what happens is a group like, well, in this case, recently, both Ofsted and NCETM have put out documents. So Ofsted has put out a report, they do this all the time, a report on mathematics education and it has all kinds of recommendations and insights based on research and what they've learned inspecting all these schools.
And then you've got also the NCETM who have put out this other document called, Ready-to-Progress, which came out before COVID, or at least was written before COVID. And that has a bunch of recommendations in it. So the question is, as a school, do you follow the curriculum? Do you follow what Ofsted says? Do you follow what the NCETM says? Do you do a combination of all three? What do you have to do? What do you not have to do? That's kind of the problem, right?
Did I describe that okay?
Yeah. The only thing I picked up is that the government that produced the non-stat Ready-to-Progress but the prioritisation mapping that relates to... That's the only thing that just as a-
Which is the post-COVID?
Yeah. So that's right. That in effect is the landscape, so that's what we've got. So we've got these things that we can choose but I think where, to me, it gets very muddy is the choice element. So do we have a choice or do we not? And if we don't have a choice, how does that work? If something's non-statutory and I'm the head teacher of a school and I'm deciding with my board of governors how the curriculum will be delivered within our school, which we are obliged to do, is to make that consideration and do the best that we can for those children in front of us. Then what role does that play and how much choice can I have in it? So if I say to you, "Listen, Andy. I've had look at this and that might be fantastic for some schools." That support that's been written and the prioritisation for some schools might be absolutely superb. Likewise, the bringing forward of some of the objectives in the Ready-to-Progress document may well work for some schools because I can see that there could be a deficit in some areas.
That's what data tells us. That in some areas they might not be, if you like, high school ready unless they've had more practise with this. But surely I'm allowed in my school to say, "Thank you very much for all of this. I will perform my statutory duty in the way that I see fit. And so what I will do is I will deliver the statutory requirements as I see fit." But it has that feeling and I don't know how this happens because I don't know the messages that get sent out. As schools, I think now, and this has been true of the last probably 10 years, the amount of professional development that's available to schools, say, through local authorities and whatnot has pretty much dried up. So we then have to be... Which I think definitely has its pros and cons.
Sorry. But that aside, I think that then what happens is, so we become reliant on some of the information that comes to us, say, the NCETM, some of the people directly involved in that will then train the people within the Maths Hubs, the Maths Hubs will then go into schools and that will be the message delivered. What worries me is why are so many schools perhaps lacking the confidence to be able to say, "Thank you for all of this and we'll pick and choose as we see fit." Why is that impression that actually this is in effect statutory? All of it?
Yeah. Well, I think at the heart is this misunderstanding of what all this stuff is really meant to do. So look, if you're a state school, you don't have a choice, you have to teach a curriculum. And your responsibility is to take... The curriculum isn't a document that you read and then it tells you what to do in class. But it tells you, this is what the kids need to be able to do by the end of the year. So then you need to sit down and think about, how am I going to present this? How am I going to extend beyond it? Because the idea is you're supposed to be ambitious in your own planning of your own school's curriculum and you're supposed to use the statutory as your bench, that's your framework. These are the things you must do, there're suggestions about other things you should consider doing.
And you need to take that and then you need to build your own curriculum around that. And that's the actual responsibility of schools. And Ofsted have been really crystal clear about that. If you look at their YouTube channel, whatever it is, listen to their videos, they will tell you explicitly, "That's what we're looking for." Now, you've got the NCETM, for example, who puts out a document "Ready-to-Progress, where it effectively is different and dare I say, it even contradicts the national curriculum and has whole chunks of the national curriculum not even in it, that have been omitted and they're clear about it. So it's the NCETM and the DFE together that put out Ready-to-Progress by the way, right?
It says right at the beginning, "All this is non-statutory." Aka, you don't have to pay attention to any of this if you really don't feel you should or don't want to but we would like you to read it and consider it. Is that a basis to change your practise? If you're doing something that you're pretty confident is the right thing to do because you've crafted it over years and schools and teachers are experts at what they do, they're there, they've been doing it for a long time. Do you need to change what you're doing because somebody put out this document? Is that even the spirit that this document was created in? Or was it written in the spirit of, if you don't know what to do, here's some help. And that's not clear, right?
No. And I think there's a paragraph, I mean, I've not got it to hand, I probably could get it pretty quickly. But effectively there's a paragraph right at the beginning of Ready-to-Progress that says that, that this doesn't cover all of the curriculum. And the statutory obligation that we have in primary school is set out in the curriculum. But I would just go one step further than that and to say, we want them ready for secondary school and that's contained in our curriculum because the curriculum that follows on from primary school is based to follow on from the curriculum that's a statutory requirement so all children can access their learning and continue to learn in that fashion.
But the confusion is that, that's not necessarily the message that goes out. So yes, it says that in the document but do people read that introduction? Probably not. They jump right into the content. So schools that I've talked to about this, because schools call in all the time and I always try to get in on those conversations, I often talk to the schools themselves. And in more than one case, it was presented to me as, this is seen as the new curriculum and people are effectively saying to me that, that's what the NCETM is saying and that's what the Maths Hubs are saying. So there's some confusion around, well, should we be changing our practise based on this document or is this just helpful information and professional development level type stuff? If I don't know how to teach this topic, here's a whole bunch of good ideas about how you might do it. Or do I need to stop doing what I'm doing and start teaching this way? And that's really confused for a lot of people.
But I think also what people maybe that don't know about the process, now I've been part of the process. So I used to be a primary lead on a Maths Hub, right from their inception, right at the very beginning when it was just a pilot programme. So I remember when the, I'm going to call it the new curriculum, even though it's really old now, but the last curriculum, the curriculum we're using now, all right?
Yeah, the current curriculum.
The current curriculum. I was trained by some people who were heavily involved in writing that. And the sole purpose of my training was to then disseminate that information into schools. Okay, so I think I had two days training from memory. It's pretty vague but I think it would say, just for Heaven’s sake, two days training for the entire curriculum, across all year groups. So then I take away some of the key messages that I heard. Now remember my bias, right? Which is all sorts. What I can listen to, to understand, I might not have understood some of it. I might have taken the things that I hold dear to my heart and taken those away. So then I go into other schools. Now, not all schools get someone coming in.
So say, I go to the school next door to yours, Andy, I might do a half hour staff meeting. Yeah. So now I've got all of the curriculum that I don't know how long it would've taken to write but a long time, months, if not years. Okay, so we've taken this down to two days, now I take it out into schools and I do my very best in a half hour session or an hour session. Or if I'm really lucky, I might get a full day. I might get a full inset day on the implementation of the curriculum that's already, if you like, been diluted. But this is the way of the world. That's okay. That system's okay. As long as you realise that there are going to be limitations to what someone like me comes in and says. And there has to be an aspect to it that says, "Right, we'll listen to what he's saying. I might interpret the curriculum slightly different for our children and I'm allowed to do that but I will consider what's just being said. I will consider it."
But it's not me coming to schools and saying, "By the way, Andy, the only way that you can teach number bonds or bar models is by doing it this way, that's it." But I was in a privileged position that I could say stuff like that. Now I tried very hard not to, I tried very hard not to put my bias, an unconscious bias you can't do much about but what I knew that I liked in the curriculum, which usually means the stuff I understood. And then the stuff that I didn't like in the curriculum, which usually means the stuff I didn't get.
But the reality is that I might have come to schools and put more emphasis on something because I found it easy to talk about, because I got it. So in the curriculum when it was presented way back when, does that mean that now the school that has had my half hour training comes over to your school and says, "Oh, Andy, by the way, get rid of this. It's all about this now and it's just bar models. So we don't use number lines, we don't use counters, we don't use anything, just bar models." Because that was the really key message in amongst this.
Well then people should be terrified when people are that sure. I always used to say to people when I start training, "Come into training with a degree of scepticism. Challenge what I say. Don't just sit there and lap it all up. But be a sceptic because your kids are too important just for one person to come in and..." And that's what I think is perhaps missing is, schools are desperate to get it right, they feel very accountable, they're worried about getting it wrong, whatever punishment might come on, I don't know. And often that's just a perception, that's a perceived punishment or something like that. If your children are doing really well in your school, Ofsted will come in and they'll see that, you know what I mean? And that's the part that worries me is if someone like me comes in and says something that's a big sweeping statement, this must be it. Ask questions, just get some clarity.
Well, and I think part of the issue as well, is that these so called experts, whether it be you, Adam, or somebody else, they carry a lot of weight, people will take whatever they say to... Well, this person appears to be really clever so I should do what they say. That's how some people will respond to that. But those so-called really clever people aren't always right.
And they don't necessarily understand your circumstances very well. So as a school leader or a subject leader in your school, your responsibility is to try to understand what it is that you have to do and take things at the level that they're meant to be interpreted, not get all wound up because the NCETM has put out a new document on suggestions on how to teach the curriculum. It might be wrong for you. And in actual fact, in some instances, if you followed it... Look, let me be blunt. If you followed Ready-to-Progress and said, "This is the new curriculum," you wouldn't cover the curriculum.
It even says that in a document. It says there's whole parts of it missing. And similarly, if you then did the suggested... What's the new suggested document? The one that's like the-
The prioritisation map, which is linked to it. Yeah, if you followed that and said, "I'm going to do this." Again, you wouldn't meet the requirements of the curriculum. So user beware. There's lots of great information in there but just be mindful as to what it is. It's not saying this is how you should teach in your school. I hope that's not how it was written. Because Ofsted and Ofqual are still looking for you to do the curriculum. So-
Sorry to jump in, Andy, but it can't have been how it's written. It can't because as a school, we have a responsibility to deliver a curriculum that we think will work best for our kids. That's the bottom line.
But that's not necessarily... I know that, that's the intent but that's not how schools are reading it.
We have countless schools, I have spoken to numerous schools who believe that this is the new curriculum and they should stop what they've been doing up until now, even if they're succeeding and do this instead. Please don't do that because you will effectively not be doing the right thing, you're not meeting your expectations as a school. So the heart of the question here is that, if as an organisation... And we could do the same and we do, do the similar types of things as well. But as an organisation, if we're going to put out a document and say, "This is how you need to teach." And we have influence. We need to make sure that the propaganda that gets spun around that thing is crystal clear about what this thing is about. And I think that, that's what's not happening, right?
Because we've written to the DFE, the Department for Education and asked for clarity and said, "Okay. So when these two things contradict, which ones should we follow?" And they're crystal clear, they're like, "No, you've got to follow the curriculum. That's the law." It doesn't matter what that thing says, the curriculum sticks, the curriculum has not changed. And Ofsted and Ofqual, they both work to the curriculum. So NCETM and the Department for Education and whoever else can put all this useful information out and hope that you use it. But the reality is, you still have to stick to the curriculum. And I don't know that people really understand that.
No. And I hope they do. I hope they listen to this and I hope they do. And I hope there's the confidence there to literally understand its role and its statutory place in what we do. And I know that sounds so obvious but I think we probably do need reminding of that.
Yeah, exactly. So I might not agree with the fact that... I'll give a really practical example. I might not agree that fractions should start in Year 1, I might think it should start in Year 3. But if the curriculum says it has to start in Year 1, I don't have a choice, I've got to do it in Year 1. And if you get to Year 2 and you write your SAS and you haven't covered fractions, don't expect your kids to get the right answers on the SAS. Because they will be in the SAS paper because that's what Ofqual goes by. So if you choose not to, then you're doing it at your peril or at your student's peril.
Just sorry, last thing. Maybe little comments like that are what's needed just to make people stop and consider these things for their kids.
Yeah. Good point.
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