‘The pupils are enjoying it. Their writing length and depth is better, oracy is much better…’
Olchfa School in Swansea is one of the largest in Wales. It has 1,700 pupils, including almost 400 students in the Sixth Form.
Q: Is it true you’re already embracing the principles of ‘Successful futures’?
A: It is, but it’s more by luck than design that what we’re doing fits so well with Professor Donaldson’s thinking. We felt that the curriculum from year 7 was too narrow, so by 2005 we already working on a ‘smart’ curriculum which was inspired by work we saw in Bristol. It was more skills based but always starts with knowledge.
The former Education Minister Huw Lewis once referred to Key Stage 3 – meaning ages 11 to 14 – as ‘wasted years’ in school as they were only used to prepare students for the GCSE syllabus. We wanted to produce more rounded students who could learn independently. When we saw Donaldson’s Four Purposes they immediately chimed with what we were trying to do.
Q: How did you begin?
A: We started to group subjects with the idea of breaking down subject barriers, linking across learning areas to make lessons more relevant and stimulating. If we’re teaching a project about creating a computer game, why wouldn’t we include ethics, well-being and entrepreneurship as well as maths, computational thinking and coding?
Q: Are you doing this gradually?
A: We set out by changing our management structure, moving it away from individual subjects. Once we had a structure based on groups of subjects we were ready to start. But it has happened through evolution; trying new things, self-challenging, and not being scared to try and fail – just learning from that.
Q: What were the leadership implications?
A: Perhaps by good fortune the senior team weren’t hard to convince – they were almost waiting for it. Reducing the number of subject area leads from 16 to 6 was potentially fraught as people worried about their jobs and lead responsibility allowances, but we kept everything open and transparent and resolved things positively.
Q: Did you promote the change in a particular way?
A: We didn’t have much opposition to the changes. We have been open and encouraged experimentation. We’ve involved everyone along the way and moderated to help people work together. We invested in management time for the six subject area leads to support staff and lift quality.
We did have some ‘healthy sceptics’ but on the whole staff were positive about the freedom it offered. But even the sceptics are enjoying the change now they’re involved.
Q: Was your ‘Pioneer School ‘status important/helpful?
A: Being a Pioneer School brought some funding and we valued being involved, but it was our leadership approach that opened the way for us.
Q: Did teachers need development to take on the new approach? What kind?
A: We involved them from the start rather than training them after the fact, so they understood the approach. There’s a vulnerability for teachers in taking this leap but we were all in it together, all in the same boat.
Q: How does the new approach manifest itself in the classroom?
A: We’ve stopped trying to cram subjects into short steps. We’re using projects that engage the pupils, spanning a group of subjects, letting the children think and be creative rather than gathering facts.
Q: How are your pupils responding?
A: The pupils are enjoying it. Their writing length and depth is better, oracy is much better, and they are happy to feed back to teachers about the approach and quality of lessons – sometimes too happy!
Q: What do parents think?
A: Parents have had no objection to us pursuing this. We opened forums for their views but comment was limited. When we do explain our ‘iLearn’ concept they’re totally won over.
Q: Any issues with qualifications?
A: It’s fine! The content is relevant, skills are improved and pupils are latching on with vigour. It certainly won’t hinder them.
Q: Any issues with accountability?
A: We’re not worried. We don’t have evidence of the impact of change yet as we’ve not been through a full cycle but we expect positive results. Recently some of our pupils were selected for PISA testing and they performed well beyond our expectations.
Q: Have Governors been supportive?
A: Very. We gave them the context and they were happy. They trust us – we’re an established team.
Q: Do you have tips for other schools that want to start their new curriculum journey now?
A: Starting with the right management structure is crucial. That needs to come first. We re-structured to have six learning area leads to match our ‘iLearn’ structure, then the senior team could work with them to start implementing year group by year group. Ideally this needs to roll-out so it can evolve.
Having learning managers for each ‘iLearn’ area is very helpful and supportive for a school of our size.
Development-wise, we like to use courses less and involve people in building the curriculum more, as the key to developing their skills.
A final tip is don’t wait for this to happen. Start to win hearts and minds early.
With huge thanks to the senior team at Olchfa; Headteacher Hugh Davies, Assistant Head Jim Probert, and Nicola Bekmezci, Learning Director.