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A version of this article appeared in the Catholic Herald – you can read the article here
In 1905, one Miss Agnew sat at her desk in Carlisle and sketched out the ‘scheme of instruction’ for the poor Catholic boys and girls of St. Cuthbert’s school. Amongst her entries was the History ‘object lessons’, and it contained a glimpse of the recipients for whom it was intended – here a lesson on Caedmon and Bede, there Joan of Arc, another on Wolsey, next ‘the Revolution’ (nothing ‘Glorious’ about it). It was history, but it was also more than that – it was a statement of ourselves.
The State We’re In
One could be forgiven for thinking that what is taught in our schools is a settled affair. We have had long enough to come to consensus, after all, and one might imagine there is key knowledge that one would expect to make the list of every school that bears the name Catholic.
In truth, curricula vary widely. Whilst those under local authority control follow the national curriculum (though with some variation alongside the centrally mandated), academies are free to set their own content.
In some ways, this level of freedom can serve schools well. It allows the teacher-scholar to shape a curriculum unencumbered by a system that, they might decide, leaves the best bits out. More, it allows flexibility, so that each school can respond to the needs of the parish and communities it serves.
But there are corresponding challenges, chief amongst them being to ensure consistency and quality in response to that freedom. The task of creating a curriculum is left to individual schools so what children learn is, to a great extent, determined by the individual who happens to be head of department at any particular time. Diocesan support is available for R.E., but beyond that the curriculum is fair game for any who might wish to impose their preferences, or in some cases their prejudices, upon it.
In other words, for the majority of our schools, forming the curriculum is a cottage industry – what is included, and what is not, is determined not by a commonly agreed account of the essential, but instead by the strengths and, sometimes, the limitations, of the leaders and middle-leaders tasked with creating them.
If we wish all children in our schools to experience the wholeness of the Faith, in all its creative and intellectual glory, then here the seeds are sown for us to fall short of that ambition.
Yet it would be unreasonable to expect each school to develop schemes of work imbued with the supernatural gaze, weaving different subjects into a coherent statement of the whole, each filled with the treasures of the Church. After all, simply holding a degree, or a teaching certificate, is not sufficient; degree courses do not always include the content one might need, and necessarily take on the character of the institution or training course through which they were formed. When so many of our teachers and leaders do not come through our Catholic schools, or universities, or training courses, thus do links go unseen, knowledge go undelivered, our intellectual and artistic heritage left to neglect.
In short, curriculum design is a specialist job. And for a Catholic curriculum, even more so.
Catholicity and Cultural Literacy
The concept of ‘cultural literacy’ has become a key part of the curriculum revolution currently taking place, under the supportive eye of the schools’ inspectorate. It is the idea that a good education provides awareness and understanding of the key references, the key signifiers, of the culture in which our children are being formed. By this account, there is a canon of knowledge that constitutes being educated, being culturally literate, that children ought to have as part of a good education.
Nonetheless, contemporary efforts to define the canon fall short: cultural literacy, and indeed the canon, is too often viewed through the secular mores of those who now write it, delivering a body of knowledge cleansed of the faith-filled lens within which so much of the content which comprises it was originally developed. This elevates the secular humanist paradigm to normative, subverting the very notion of cultural literacy, since, as I have written elsewhere, ‘if one starts from a position of neglecting the religious and theological backdrop of the culture in which so much of our cultural inheritance was formed, what is offered is but a shadow of artefacts, and ultimately historical and cultural illiteracy, a secular humanist wish-projection of what our shared history and identity should have been, rather than what it practically and really is.’
In contrast, a Catholic curriculum can unlock the treasures of our cultural inheritance, serving wider society by detailing then delivering a truly coherent canon, one best able to give an accurate account of who we are and how we got here. As such, if there is to be any lucid account of ‘cultural literacy’ then it must include a kind of ‘faith literacy’, and certainly scriptural literacy, as the key to unlock it. Only here do we find the intellectual infrastructure for an true understanding of Our Island Story, cognisant of its cadences and nuance, its motivations and myopias.
We have long ceased to imagine what a Catholic curriculum might look like. The introduction of the National Curriculum rendered doing so less necessary than it might previously have been, whilst appeal to ‘Gospel values’ and ‘Catholic ethos’ seemed enough to uphold the Catholicity of our schools without reference to the nuts and bolts of what children were taught. And so, oftentimes, the ‘Catholic bit’ is what you do in R.E., sometimes in an assembly, occasionally in Mass. The Catholic vision of education, indeed of formation, is all-encompassing, able to speak to all of what Eliot called the languages of human inquiry – in practice we tacitly reject that vision, treating subjects as secular domains independent of the Catholic imperative: so long as they are careful not to contradict the Faith, or explicitly criticise it, so it passes.
In so doing, we present the Faith in an emaciated form, rather than the comprehensive human drama and experience it really is.
Must we accept these secularised accounts of knowledge, of learning, of ourselves? A Catholic philosophy of education cares what happens in the history classroom, the art classroom, the English classroom, every bit as much as the R.E. classroom. If we are to recover in our schools not only a sense of the Faith, but of ourselves, one suspects a newly emboldened Catholic curriculum will be the first steps toward it.
Forming the Canon
Over 1000 years ago a certain King Alfred decided that, for the good of his Kingdom and the good of souls, there were certain works it was “most necessary for men to know.” So he translated them; the intention was formation, not just generic development of a thing called ‘knowledge.’ It was believed that these texts, knowing these principles, would be to the benefit of all and singular. Alfred effectively created a canon, not to place limits on what people could know, but to ensure that what they knew at the very least included this.
Perhaps we are again in need of just such a canon. If we desire to preserve and bequeath the treasures of the Faith, perhaps we need first to collectively define what they are. Do we want all our children to know the Pietà? Byrd? Lepanto? And if not, why not?
This is not just a project for R.E. One hundred and sixty-five years after Newman sought to define a curriculum appropriate for a university, the time may have come for us to do the same for our schools. Should we succeed, we stake out Catholicity as at home in the totality of learning, indeed of wider culture and experience.
Thus the time is ripe for a revived Catholic curriculum – sequential, across the key stages, to deliver excellence not only in the detail of doctrine, but in the cultural, artistic, musical, liturgical and historical heritage of the Church. Nor is it merely a curriculum of the baptised – in the true spirit of the catholic, it would cherish the good, the true and the beautiful, wherever it is found. It need not be so restrictive as to exclude local innovation, but ought to enable all children, regardless of geographic or social context, to receive a minimum entitlement in their learning.
Such an ambitious endeavour is beyond the resource and capacity of most schools, and could only succeed as a collegial endeavour across sectors, with specialists, particularly in our universities, coming together and writing it. And it could integrate wider accountability demands, including exam specifications, in its creation. In so doing, we would keep pace with the curriculum revolution, and recover our own spot at its forefront, no longer passively accepting wider assumptions and trends but reclaiming our own.
It is said that knowledge is power, but it is a lot more than that. It is a gateway to a vision of who we are, as individuals and as a collective, the first steps of coming to know God and His creation. So we are compelled to take an interest in shaping what our children learn. As Miss Agnew knew at the turn of the twentieth century, what we teach is who we are – in the same spirit, we need to make sure that who we are defines what we teach.
A piece over at TES arguing that it would be wrong to use a critique of social mobility to undermine the curriculum revolution.
For which reason, it is strange that we would not share with children the greatest fruits of the culture that forms them – indeed of the cultures of the world – and this in the name of their freedom. Denying access to their intellectual and cultural inheritance is denying the opportunity to have mind and imagination shaped by commonly recognised expressions of the good, the true and the beautiful; stopping poor kids from studying high culture, siloing them off into the vocational-but-little-else, restricts them from making meaning from our cultural inheritance and offering back to it their own interpretations of our collective social consciousness – it is to advocate for two nations, a stratified society that cannot but help depict any attempt at shared culture as a power imbalance, rather than a common inheritance that all co-create and own.
A new piece arguing that any desire for cultural literacy must include a commitment to scriptural literacy too.
To deny our children this is to deny them a stake in the aesthetic, ethical and literary landscape into which they are born, and that remains their rightful inheritance. Without this, our children have merely a technical connection to their past, an intellectual and social rupture which only loosens the connection to the present, a cultural listlessness that provides few navigation points for a generation trying to work out its own accounts of the good, the true and the beautiful.
This year saw the publication of the Conservative Case for Education by Nicholas Tate. The book is well worthy of your time, even if it fails to achieve its stated ambition of providing a (small ‘c’) conservative vision of education. As I said in my review for ‘Schools Week’,
There remains, however, an underlying tension; Tate’s evident irritation with the direction of contemporary thinking, indeed culture, seems to hang over his work. There is nothing wrong with this, and as Chesterton reminds us, ‘he is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative.’ But the rebel must also be a romantic, and have a cause to sell.
It is here that Tate risks reaffirming the caricatures of the conservative mindset – that it knows what it is against more than it knows what it is for.
Read the rest of the review here.
A little while back I wrote a blog post reflecting on some of my experiences of social mobility, teasing out some of the effects that have received rather less attention within a political environment that has held commitment to social mobility as a staple of virtuous and socially concerned politics. That blog post received some attention, and I was lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to talk through some of these thoughts on BBC Radio Four Thought. You can listen to the episode here.
The script for Four Thought is largely a condensed version of the original blog post, so I shan’t replicate it here, though for those who might be interested, I did add some further thoughts focusing in on how these things apply to our education system. Partly, these are the thinking through of a theme I have explored as part of Blue Labour here, a TES piece on ‘aspiration’ here, a post on the culture clash in our schools here, and a post on Brexit here. I have included the additional comments from the radio script below.
It is a theme I’ll no doubt return to in due course, but in the meantime many thanks all for the kind comments and good will.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You grow accustomed to the objects of derision being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the disdain might sometimes be delivered in the abstract, the barbs are felt personally, especially when aimed at a viewpoint common amongst those who comprised your upbringing. The creation myth of the liberal mind is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – but those who pursue such accounts of virtue don’t always realise, or don’t care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their disdain.
And this has become status seeking behaviour: there is prestige to be acquired through the sassy, the rude, the downright spiteful to working-class folk with more conservative views, on immigration, perhaps, or crime, or Brexit. Detractors revel in the eloquence of their disdain, as if articulacy were evidence of truth and justification of their prejudice. Thus the motes are plucked out whilst the beams remain – the cultured despisers find in their intellectual superiority, an argument for their presumed existential superiority, too.
There is nothing particularly new in this, and in any echo chamber dissent is proof that someone is Not Like Us, and thus wrong. From which naturally follows the belief that there’s a moral duty to help future generations become more Like Us, and thus right.
In our schools, this has real consequences, as a class of Anywheres, to use David Goodhart’s terms, seek to educate a generation of Somewheres, with the former believing success includes educating the latter out of the values and culture of their upbringing.
And so pupils from a socially or morally conservative background, which often (not always) overlaps with a working-class (or religious) upbringing, will at times find themselves at odds with the moral norms of those who educate them, a culture chasm always framed as simply a matter of education, or more precisely the absence of it.
For our education system, children formed by such views must simply reject them, since that’s the character of being educated. Virtue, and intellect, demands it – and the educated are much better at making the intellectual case for their virtue.
But this feels unwise. In a contest between home and academic flourishing, some choose home; not because of ignorance, but because of a refusal to shed heritage as participation fee. For too many, education presents itself as not for people like them, at least not whilst they remain people like Them – to be educated too often means not being like your Mum or Dad. Thus, we present our children with a choice they should not have to make, in so doing pushing them away from an inheritance they should not have to abandon.
And so the cycle continues, a tension between home and school, in which the rejection of home is synonymous with being educated. Social mobility, it cannot be denied, has a cultural edge – the ability, even the demand, to walk away from who are you are, or at the very least where you are from. At the same time, a residential university system has entrenched the idea that flourishing is only to be found when we leave, less so when we stay.
If we want to talk about why working-class kids are alienated from education, we could do worse than start a conversation here.
None of which is to say working class kids need not aspire to high culture and education, a calumny which often rears its head in the guise of compassion. No, the precise opposite. It’s to say that our cultural and intellectual treasures are a heritage due to all, and we might better ensure its equal distribution if we focused less on the purity of the receiver, and more on the dignity of the receiving.
Of course, this is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, and neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the best, or worst, of the two. Still, if you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps, leaving you an outsider to each. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that risks holding you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time.
And it’s always the rejection that each side remembers, never the embrace.
Northern education is talked about frequently. Northern educators, on the other hand, are talked to rather less frequently. We are regularly told about the deficiencies of the education we offer; we are less regularly listened to about the challenges that shape the education we offer.
This is unjust.
We do not deny there are improvements to be made. We do not deny that change needs to happen. But we reasonably expect to have a voice of our own when discussing how these things might be achieved.
We are as skilled, as passionate, as well-informed as our colleagues in other areas of the country – we deserve to have our voice heard. And too often it feels as if it is not, with discussion and access always based far away from the villages, town and cities that we teach in.
This needs to change.
And so, we propose the creation of a Northern Education Forum. We’ve put together a Google Form [sign up here] for those who may wish to register their interest in being involved. The details of its remit, its membership, and its role will be fleshed out over the coming weeks.
But in the meantime, we have one simple question:
Below I have outlined some of the changes we have made that some have shown an interest in over the course of the year. Whilst relatively brief (I will try to develop full length posts on each as further reflections/evaluations points occur), I hope it might prove of interest in outlining key changes we have made to marking and curriculum. There is another blog to be written on changes to behaviour and rewards policy (though do check on the recent post on the St. Cuthbert Award), though I have left it out here, mostly for reasons of time. Anyway, all feedback/questions/comments welcome!
We have taken the view that marking too often became a way that a teacher was expected to demonstrate their own work, rather than help a pupil improve theirs. Quite apart from the huge and unnecessary burden this places on staff, it is also ultimately inefficient if the desire is not to check up on teachers, but to check on learning.
As with many of our changes, the overriding goal has been to grow a culture in which our pupils develop a sense of self-discipline and responsibility, the better to form in them healthy habits that will, we hope, help children successfully navigate life in general, not just school in particular. In addition to our behaviour and rewards policies, we came to the view that this can be further reinforced through marking policy – that is, by expecting pupils to take pride in, and responsibility for, the improvement and correction of their own work, rather than placing that responsibility primarily on the teacher. There is plenty of evidence to suggest revision, evaluation and correction also improves retention and understanding – so it felt like a straightforward decision.
And so, we have moved away from a marking policy and toward a feedback policy.
In this, written feedback from the teacher is optional, but not required or expected. What is expected is that each session will start with feedback time, during which the teacher will give verbal feedback to the class on three broad categories – punctuation and grammar, spelling, and content. These sessions should last no more than 10 minutes, but sometimes they might throw up issues or opportunities that a teacher chooses to make a focus of a follow-up lesson. The sessions can be used to reinforce spelling and/or grammar rules, to develop depth and add detail to initial work, or set challenge tasks. During this time the teacher circulates to make sure a pupil is acting on feedback, and will enact any interventions that might be necessary (an issue with presentation, for example, or a particular problem with repeated misunderstanding or inaccuracy).
We are still monitoring impact at this point, though the initial results have been pleasing – instead of a child correcting three missed capital letters and three spellings, all of which the teacher had found for them, the pupil might now make 5, 10, 15 or more improvements, with SPAG rules consolidated along the way, an intervention that would have taken an inordinate amount of time for the teacher to identify and highlight for each pupil under the old, more traditional marking policy. The policy has also been put through its paces in the context of an LA review, and came out well, which was pleasing.
This is not to say that there are no questions thrown up by our new approach, or that we have squared the circle; we are still grappling with how to make this work most effectively in KS1, though we are seeking to embed the principle of self-review, evaluation and improvement there, too. Similarly, we take a slightly different approach in Maths (more on that in another blog), whilst there are further conversations to be had regarding specific interventions for more significant barriers, particularly spelling. Nonetheless, to date the change of approach to marking and feedback has been an important step in raising standards. We will continue to reflect on and refine our policy, to achieve the overriding goal of learner responsibility and improved standards.
No More Marking
Following on from the Feedback Policy, we have moved toward No More Marking to help us with writing assessment. This was partly entered into as another aspect of our attempt to address workload and put greater emphasis on planning over marking when it comes to managing time and resources, but it was also about finding ways to improve the assessment process. Whilst we have brought in various assessment changes across the curriculum, assessment for writing is more difficult, since it is more vulnerable to the risks of subjectivity, as well as shifting (and sometimes baffling) moderation frameworks. As such, No More Marking, with its layers of built-in moderation, seemed to offer the opportunity to improve both assessment of work, but also greater opportunity for reflection and discussion on our own moderation judgements as individuals.
To date, we have completed an internal moderation session, across the Federation, to introduce the staff to the process, and we are now aligning with the national moderation windows. This will become a part of our internal moderation schedule, but also give useful data against larger cohorts. Writing moderation has had its fair share of critics recently, though the move toward best-fit criteria makes No More Marking appealing as a valuable source of both formative and summative assessment. At this point, our goal is simply to monitor impact and see if it enables us to achieve our development points with regards to writing. This will include our own implementation and use of the opportunities it affords, in particular ways in which it might be used to impact more directly upon teaching (and thus CPD), rather than just assessment.
If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll have probably guessed that curriculum has been a particular interest over the past year or so (see here, here and here). The blog was the thinking aloud of changes we were already making to our curriculum, considering them in light of own desire for a knowledge focused curriculum that was not only faithful to, but articulated and illustrated, the contours of the Catholic vision to which we are committed. We have developed our curriculum accordingly, with an eye on developing ‘cultural literacy’ (though I have problems with that term – see here). However, it was also with the belief that it is the job of educators to furnish the mind of pupils with (to use a phrase common to Catholic educational philosophy) the good, the true, and the beautiful, the more so in contexts where, as in our case, exposure to such things might otherwise be minimal.
Nonetheless, we are not a large institution, meaning that resources, and time, is very much limited. As such, we have decided to phase our changes, and have focused on developing the foundation curriculum first. This is to better ensure the delivery of a broad curriculum that, if successful, also naturally supports and enhances the core subjects of Maths, English, Science and R.E. Without time to reinvent the wheel, we were guided by the Core Knowledge scheme, using these as templates for developing our own curricula.
To help signpost core content, we have initially taken an approach of content statements (see snapshots below). These are not used for assessment beyond a glance at what has been covered and how the pupil performed within the context of that lesson (as judged through written work and formative assessment). Instead, they are intended to outline what we expect the children to know as part of their learning over the course of any particular module. Further skills statements – particularly in Geography and History – run alongside the content markers. In places, these statements have the potential to be developed still further, and the move into module planning is a short one, though that would be a heavy investment of resources. As such, focus at the moment is on sharing of planning across institutions, building up planning and resources over the course of implementation.
We are aware that, to develop this approach, we will need to develop a more systematic assessment to accompany the curriculum, although having reached out to several schools it is notable how assessment within the foundation subjects is markedly undeveloped. I suspect this will change with the shift in broader inspection priorities. This is something we will be looking to develop over the course of the forthcoming year, as well as further considering the question of how such a curriculum might begin to inform pedagogical choices.
For English and Maths we are less embedded at this point, though the English curriculum in particular lends itself to a more codified knowledge-based approach, something we are actively developing over the course of this academic year. Of course, English contains many significant strands of study, and the nature of assessment frameworks means a focus on skills cannot be sidelined entirely – as such, the vision is for a signposted curriculum in which certain skills can be taught through certain identified texts, ensuring both breadth of content and attention to the detail of assessment criteria.
We have been itching to improve our science curriculum since we came into the school. Science can be a tricky one to get right – it can be very easy for development of practical skills and experimentation to find itself sidelined due to lack of resources, or lack of expertise, or indeed lack of teacher confidence, or lack of teacher time. At the same time there can exist an opposite risk, so that Science can be reduced down to general ‘whizz-bang’ without accompanying academic content. When we were looking at ways to improve Science, we noticed that so many courses seemed to offer a quick-fix piece of training for an individual teacher, or a standalone resource kit which would have little overall impact on delivery of Science across the school.
In the end, we came across Developing Experts, a new-ish initiative working in conjunction with various luminaries of the core knowledge approach, most notably E D Hirsch. The scheme is exhaustive, places emphasis on developing inquiry and experimentation skills alongside academic content, and provides all curriculum-linked planning (and even data analysis). It also has briefing sheets for teachers, video content to help explain and explore scientific theory and application, links for each area of discovery to testimonies of those who have developed careers in this area of expertise, and also how-to videos for the experiments outlined in planning.
To date, we have been delighted with the impact on Science in our schools, most notably transforming the frequency and quality of science practicals, but also, the development of scientific inquiry in our pupils, and the quality and depth of work being recorded in Science books.
Obviously, there is still a long way to go on our improvement journey, and but I hope this might be of interest to those who have, at various points, asked for details about some of the changes we have been making. If anybody has any further questions, or would like to know anything more, do please get in touch – or better still, pay us a visit!