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News | Published November 26 2019

FEATURE: Understanding the value of a knowledge-rich curriculum

In May, Ofsted published its framework for 2019. Among the new objectives was a new focus on "Quality of Education", an attempt to move away from a data-driven analysis of school performance. 

Instead of solely studying exam performance and progress data, schools will now be assessed on the breadth and depth of their curriculum, with a particular focus on establishing a "knowledge-rich" teaching offer. 

Carl McCarthy, executive headteacher of Frogmore Junior School and two other schools within the GLF multi-academy trust, is a champion of knowledge-rich curricula and powerfully explains the impact they can have on disadvantaged pupils. 

When I was growing up in Oldham, one of the highlights of each week was a Friday night visit to the cinema. 

I’d meet up with friends and we’d look forward to the next offering of Michael J Fox or Rick Moranis, or some new idea that would have us quoting and re-enacting for months or even years later.

We also looked forward to "Bruce" – a young man who used to always stand outside the cinema queue, his Sony Walkman strapped close and headphones on. Bruce would dance and sing his heart out; the waiting crowd would cheer, smile and clap. Some would snigger or even be cruel. 

Of course, "Bruce" couldn’t hear himself; he couldn’t hear the disparity between his own vocal efforts and those of "The Boss" and really he didn’t care. With nothing but kindness, I reached out to him in my own small way by cheering enthusiastically. My applause was genuine and heartfelt.

I think that in some way I have always been fighting for the underdog.

Education, for me, has almost always been about trying to create a more equal and just society but for most of my professional life, I had no idea how this could ever be anything more than a distant dream that might only ever be found on screen, like a Hollywood movie.

Education, for me, has almost always been about trying to create a more equal and just society

School life in Oldham at the time rarely felt "equal and just".

My perception was that the town was divided between the "haves" and "have nots", with the "haves" all camped in the towers of the local grammar and the rest of us divided into slightly warring factions of schools, set up against a backdrop of arranged or impromptu fights and tribalism.

Survive these and the classroom itself was further divided: teachers appeared to make their minds up about "potential" and that was it. 

Your lot was given and if you could avoid corporal punishment, stay quiet and be physically present in lessons, the system would just about work. If there were ever any doubts as to who the underdogs were, we had plenty of people to remind us.

But 2019 has been a special year for education and we may, finally, have reached a turning point for the underdogs - wherever they may be. We may finally hold the key to a more equal and just society. It sounds idealistic, I know.

But 2019 has been a special year for education and we may, finally, have reached a turning point for the underdogs

I believe that the current focus on knowledge-rich curricula is one of the most inspiring developments in education in a generation. 

 It has the potential to unite rather than divide; to build bridges and create a new collective wisdom in the profession. Robert Tressell once wrote: "No matter how much he may excel or fall short of his fellows in other respects, in one thing at least he is their equal – he is one of the heirs of all the ages that have gone before." 

Might we step into 2020 and realise this through a shared understanding of the value of knowledge-rich curriculum provision?

I believe that the current focus on knowledge-rich curricula is one of the most inspiring developments in education in a generation. 

Since May 2019, we now have a revised Ofsted framework where leaders must:

"…construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners, particularly the most disadvantaged and those with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) or high needs, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life."

We have already seen stories of incredible improvements, where educators have chosen to unravel the unequal fabric of our education system directly in classrooms - with astounding success.

There is a growing body of evidence, with research from Hirsch, Christodoulou and recently from Natalie Wexler, providing insight that perhaps helps the most cynical of our profession see that we are at the start of a new-era where we can bring powerful learning into all school environments.

And we see outcomes in knowledge-rich schools were pupils achieve beyond what might have been expected, with the best part being that all pupils benefit, especially the underdogs. 

We have already seen stories of incredible improvements, where educators have chosen to unravel the unequal fabric of our education system directly in classrooms

At one of my schools, we have been using a knowledge-rich approach to the curriculum for the last two years. 

In that time, we have seen results dramatically shift in the number of pupils working at the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics, with the total number increasing from 64 per cent to 79 per cent. 

Greater depth outcomes have improved from two per cent to 15 per cent across all pupils – higher than local and national averages. Perhaps most significantly, disadvantaged pupils have made the greatest amount of progress.

The combination of a knowledge-rich curriculum together with deliberate pupil-premium spending strategies has seen our disadvantaged pupils outperform their non-disadvantaged peers nationally at both the expected level and at greater depth for the last two years. 

Instead of limiting opportunities, we have created them. 

We’ve helped some pupils to see past fights, movies and distant dreams and given them a reason to look forward to their next steps in education.

Perhaps most significantly, disadvantaged pupils have made the greatest amount of progress.

I have seen pupils and teachers find a rediscovered love of school, a passion for learning and a commitment to self-improvement.

In 7 Myths,  Daisy Christodoulou wrote: "where our society is democratic and equal, education should aim to help preserve the situation; where it is not, education should seek to change it."

We should be calling time on inequality in schools. Schools can no longer rest on affluence as a proxy for good education or disadvantage as an excuse. 

In the age of the underdogs, we can replace prejudice with knowledge as an entitlement and everyone will benefit as a result.


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Authored by

Carl McCarthy
Executive Headteacher at GLF Schools
@
November 26 2019

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