Finding the ‘Front door’ to our new curriculum – Porthcawl Comprehensive School’s story as Curriculum Pioneers this year

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As the sound of Christmas carols drifts from classrooms and our senses are assaulted by a plethora of Christmas Jumpers, I am reflecting on the journey Porthcawl Comprehensive School has been on since joining the pioneer schools process last January.  I’d like to tell you what we’ve done and how it’s felt, and update you on what’s happened this Autumn.

As pioneers for the Expressive Arts we have been part of the process of curriculum development at a national level through monthly workshops, meetings and conferences, but also by trialling and innovating at school level.

Curriculum reform is a complex process.  The teaching workforce hasn’t been trained in the art of curriculum development.  However, we have had a call to action from Welsh Government to co-construct a curriculum, and colleagues from across Wales have taken on that mission with dedication, pride and vigour.

At Porthcawl Comprehensive School we have engaged staff and encouraged buy-in with the reform process by employing all sorts of communication methods – from whole school INSET sessions, to morning briefings, newsletters, emails, infographics – drip-feeding information whilst not over-burdening teachers.  We have tried to involve all parts of our school within the process – from the Headteacher to the learners themselves so that a sense of ownership is felt by all.

This is also the approach we’ve taken with our networking. From the perspective of a lead pioneer I have found it immensely rewarding to work with cluster primary schools, schools within our area and our consortium, getting first-hand experience of the breadth of excellent practice, innovative pedagogy and the forward-thinking structures in schools across South Wales.

There are so many positives to this process.  However there are tough realities too and I can reassure teachers across Wales that we all face similar pressures, regardless of whether we are pioneer or partner schools.  At Primary school level the accountability for teacher assessments and the categorisation system causes significant stress on the workforce; at Secondary school level teachers are under immense strain with new GCSE, AS and A Level specifications.  The challenge: to maintain high standards with exam classes in a period of change whilst keeping the energy and enthusiasm for curriculum trialling.

Adding to these pressures at Porthcawl Comprehensive School is our extra-curricular programme, a source of great pride for us. We offer enriched opportunities for our learners which are hugely enjoyable and often spark a love for the arts which, for most, remain well beyond their formal education.  However, there is a challenge in this – how can we ensure our curriculum and qualifications are equally as exciting, experiential and innovative for learners? To combine the merits of both curriculum work with extra-curricular activities requires commitment and dedication from teachers and a high level of skill.

Within the wider curriculum reform, a tremendous amount has been achieved this term.  Experts have been identified and invited to work with each AOLE in helping to devise ‘What Matters’ statements, and from January  we have the complex task of creating progression narratives for each of those statements.  The need for  ‘What Matters’ statements came out of Wynne Harlen’s work on the Big Ideas in Science, but also from the frustration of our Expressive Arts Chair!  When trying to harness the energy of very passionate and opinionated teachers, Vanessa McCarthy called a stop to a heated professional dialogue in one workshop and asked a crucial question: “what really matters in each of your disciplines? Let’s work from there”. The cathartic process of getting into the specifics within each of our EA disciplines helped us to then zoom out to the wider picture to create more holistic and conceptual statements.

The Curriculum Advisory Group recently reflected on the ‘What Matters’ statements, giving each AOLE group  feedback and guidance on how to progress.  I found it to be a turning point in my understanding of the purpose of these statements when Professor Donaldon said they will be “the front door to your curriculum.  Some may never read beyond this part of your curriculum”.  Those words reflected the need for our statements to be powerful, inspiring, interesting and to create a need for the reader to delve deeper. They need to reflect what is important to our learners, they need to form the headlines for the skills, content and knowledge needed for learners to become ambitious, capable, healthy, confident, enterprising, creative, ethical and informed life-long learners.

As part of our contribution to this, and despite our heavy workload, our teachers gave even more time and energy to the reform work this Summer.  We invited 186 Primary (Year 6) pupils to our school to participate in Art, Music, Drama and Dance workshops.  They were immersed in our theme of The Lion King’s ‘Circle of Life’ and encouraged to ask Big Questions that would lead to their first theme in Year 7 – ‘African Adventure’.  Our learners didn’t disappoint; their questions showed that when asked, pupils can lead learning; they are capable and inquisitive with their questions.

“What if ants were as big as lions, would they then be as powerful?”

“What would it sound like if we ‘mashed-up’ modern instruments with traditional African instruments?”

“Could we make African clay masks that represent our own identities?”

From so many Big Questions came a unit of work which opened the doors between what had previously been subject silos.  And wow!  It has been so enjoyable sparking discussions at the beginning of a music lesson with a piece of art or ending a drama lesson by listening to and interpreting a piece of music to movement.  The learning is more authentic as it is driven by our pupils, and it is contextualised. It makes sense to them that disciplines that have expression and creativity at their core are now sharing themes.

Trialling this thematic project was our first foray into new territory, but we didn’t get it right first time.  Sometimes  our trial created more questions than answers and we all queried the depth of the learning – was there too much superficial activity and not enough content?  Would we be able to lead from ‘Expressive Arts’ into our separate disciplines for GCSE? Would the knowledge and skills be transferrable and relevant to the next stage of learning?

What we can be positive about is that we have seen great potential for further development. We feel encouraged and energised to continue,  because our learners are enjoying the experience.  In a recent survey conducted by our Student Support Service, our Year 7 Year group overwhelmingly stated that Expressive Arts was their favourite ‘subject’,  testament to great teaching but also the well-documented benefits of creative learning, child-centred learning and offering children opportunities to express themselves.

We are a traditional school and like many others across Wales we haven’t wanted to jump in too quickly and make several changes at once.  We see the importance of laying the foundations with work on pedagogy and professional learning so that we are able to adapt to whatever content, knowledge and skills our new curriculum specifies.  But the time to start preparing is now, whatever school you’re in.  Small steps like embedding an understanding of the Four Purposes and how they are reflected within each setting, work on the 12 Pedagogical Principles or incorporating the Schools as Learning Organisation recommendations are all ways in which we can positively move to prepare for the curriculum.  If the foundations are strong, we will be able to adapt to the content that follows.

Now enough of reality, back to the Christmas music, the garish jumpers and the hope that Christmas brings!  Some of us may be wishing for an exciting, resource-packed curriculum to arrive in our stockings on Christmas Day…however, knowing that an innovative, interesting and authentic curriculum is being devised by colleagues across Wales for the learners of Wales is exciting enough for me.  It will come, but just like waiting for Santa, we’ll have to be patient!

Kathryn Lewis, Teacher of Music, Porthcawl Comprehensive School.

p.s. A rather formal final thought on pedagogy:

I have come to realise that embedding high quality professional learning practices, understanding and using relevant pedagogies and ensuring we stay abreast of the documentation and literature that is out there is part of how we as teachers can be involved in the learning progress and ultimately steer our curriculum.  The days of ‘learned helplessness – just tell us what to do’ (Priestley, 2017) are over; we have to evolve alongside the aims and vision for our curriculum.  Our new Professional Teaching Standards exemplify this and reflect that ‘teaching is an ever-evolving profession, no one ever “finishes” learning to teach’ (Breaux, Whitaker, 2016).

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