What should we mean when we talk about the curriculum?

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The team at GovernorHub recently attended a conference for the hard-working teams up and down the country who provide support and training to school governors (… we get the best gigs).

As usual, there were some brilliant speakers and this year we heard from Professor Mick Waters. Mick’s held some very high profile roles in education and his area of expertise is the one thing we’re currently all talking about: the curriculum.

Mick said some really interesting things about what we might understand as the curriculum – and what we as governors might do about it. We caught up with Mick after his presentation to ask him a few questions.

Mick, when we talk about the curriculum what should we mean?

I always think the curriculum is what you’d call the ‘entire planned learning experience’ –  so the school, including the governors and maybe others – parents and children, work out what sort of experiences will help the children to learn the sorts of things that we want them to learn. 

In this sense the curriculum is anything we plan for the children to experience, that’s obviously in lessons but it’s also the events that the school holds, the residential visits, the sports events, the performances, the celebratory experiences and importantly, it’s also the rhythms and routines of schools; the way in which we organise the day – the breaks, the lunchtimes, the use of the library, the use of the ICT suite etc. The opportunities children have to be informal are as much a part of the curriculum as the lessons themselves because they’re also intended to inform the way children grow and develop. 

Do you think people miss this broad understanding of what the curriculum is?

In England, ever since we’ve had a curriculum nationally, there’s been a tendency to talk about the curriculum in terms of subjects. That’s right of course – the subjects, the disciplines themselves form a curriculum. They form the structured, linear route for children to gain knowledge, understanding and skills. It’s fine to have a curriculum that consists of subjects – but that’s only part of the whole curriculum of the school.

When children are doing things that affect their social welfare, their mental health, their awareness of careers  – that’s the curriculum as well, it’s just that there’s a structured formal bit and because that has so much weight – because it’s tested and examined – many people think that is the curriculum.

Mick uses this image to encourage governors to reflect on some of the important aspects of their own education

You talk about governance in interesting terms, you refer to “straight-jacket governance” and “straightforward governance”, what do you mean by this?

Well because we’ve been, for a number of years now, in a world where people have been expected to be more professional, which has often been interpreted as more managerial (coinciding with development of computerisation – we can produce spreadsheets, graphs etc very easily). The danger with that is that we start to manage the documentation rather than the thing we’re trying to do. This is what I’d call ‘straight-jacket governance’.

Whereas “straightforward” means: if it needs saying, fine – go and say it, if it needs writing down, fine, but do we need to write everything down? Have we got too much evidence and data, so that we start to believe the data rather than our own eyes?

You also talk about what good governors do. What do you think makes a good governor?

What good governors do is commit to doing good by every single child in the school. They act as an advocate for the school in their local community. Within the school, they work to establish the sort of relationship which will enable them to make suggestions or ask questions that gradually over time make a difference to the experience a child is getting, every child, and enables the school to be a place that everybody’s proud of.

You have some interesting suggestions for questions governors might wish to ask.
One of them is ‘How many plants are there in school?’

[Mick laughs] It’s not so much asking how many there are. We don’t need to write down a per-pupil ratio of plants [another chuckle], but I would have thought that children will be affected by the environment they’re in. So things like soft furnishings, plants, tidiness, organisation and order are really important. 

We often get that the tidiness, organisation and order are very important in schools but actually the sensitive things like plants and flowers also affect us. If we’re worried about well-being, seeing things growing is quite an important part of well-being. You don’t need to do ‘the annual plant check’ but these are things to have in your mind and be cognisant of.

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