'The Wonder Years'

Written by Laurie Smith

This is the title of the Parents and Teachers for Excellence Conference I attended on 26th January. It focussed on the knowledge-rich curriculum, but I found it surprisingly helpful from a Let’s Think viewpoint.

Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE) is a high-powered pressure group set up in 2016 to promote a knowledge-rich curriculum in schools. This was its first conference and was very well attended – 500 (mostly) teachers giving up a Saturday at Pimlico Academy, Central London, to focus on knowledge in the KS2 and KS3 (the ‘wonder years’ of the conference’s title). It had quite a ‘cutting edge’ feel, but I found it more thoughtful and nuanced than conferences I’ve attended by ResearchED and PiXL.

Amanda Spielman spoke first, mostly about the new Ofsted draft framework and saying nothing different from her other recent speeches. During questions she was challenged about why Ofsted hadn’t included any special schools in the schools consulted about the new inspection arrangements. Her answer was that all the schools consulted had SEND pupils and that Ofsted’s view is that SEND pupils need greater support than others, not separate treatment. I took this as the beginnings of a move away from differentiation by task which has been signalled elsewhere.

Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister, was more surprising. He argued that certain controversies were now resolved by evidence, giving academisation (of course) and phonics as examples, so that debate in the teaching profession should move on. I was expecting him to go on about the importance of good textbooks, but he didn’t.

He spent the rest of his speech talking about the importance of oracy and the need for schools to promote this to enable pupils to understand and apply knowledge effectively. He was challenged about this during questions and talked some more about the need for dialogue between teachers and pupils and opportunities for students to give presentations and take part in debates – nothing about groupwork, but perhaps this is a step too far at the moment.

I found this emphasis on oracy surprising from a Conservative traditionalist and wonder if there is beginning to be concern at the DfE about a growth of rote learning in schools. Anyway, if this is a line that Gibb and others are now pursuing, it seems potentially promising for Let’s Think.

He was followed by a panel of four luminaries of whom by far the most impressive was Christine Counsell, until recently Director of Education at the Inspiration Trust group of academies. She spoke persuasively about the need for pupils to learn how to generalise, but that this can be done only on the basis of a great deal of specific knowledge. In her view, a successful curriculum needs to make generalisations visible by drawing connections between specific aspects of knowledge. Again, this felt like a warning against rote learning and implicitly supportive of LT.

For the next session we broke into separate groups and, with a lot of others, I chose Stuart Lock who blogs and sometimes writes in the TES. He’s the head of a small secondary school and was very illuminating about the practicalities of a knowledge-rich curriculum – obvious things like the need for respectful behaviour by students and, more surprisingly, scepticism about many of what he called “proxies” for a knowledge-rich curriculum such as knowledge organisers, assessment data, Teach-Like-a-Champion and indeed requiring any particular kind of lesson delivery.

He was very funny on the common SLT fallacy that, if Department X consistently gets excellent results, other departments should imitate it. His view is that every subject has its own requirements which can’t be replicated by others, i.e. pedagogy arises from the needs of what is taught, not from predetermined approaches.

His basic position struck me as extraordinarily libertarian – schools should insist on appointing high-quality subject specialists and leave them to get on with teaching with minimal interference (which he reckoned is the case in Finland). In particular, there is no need to implement lots of curriculum initiatives to impress Ofsted. There were a lot of PTE people in the room and he was clearly expressing a general view.

These days it’s interesting to look at the Progress 8 scores of schools where the head makes public recommendations about how schools should be run. Stuart Lock was head of Cottenham Village College (P8 +0.66 – Well above average) till September 2017 and is now head of Bedford Free School (P8 +0.38 – Above average). So his approach is supported by evidence.

For the final session we had to choose subjects, but English and Maths were omitted so I had no chance to hear about a knowledge-rich English curriculum. (The organisers have explained that English and Maths were omitted to give space for the whole range of other subjects which have had fewer opportunities.) But overall I found it a surprisingly interesting and promising day from an LT perspective.