In search of senior curriculum leadership : Introduction – a dangerous absence

This is an introduction to a series of posts exploring future possibilities for senior curriculum leadership in schools.

What does it mean to be in a whole-school leadership team and to be leading on curriculum? We still lack a properly developed model of what is senior curriculum leadership. Time was when a senior leader in charge of curriculum did timetabling and examination options, perhaps handled staffing and other resourcing attached to subjects. Most of this had little to do with curriculum, but when I first went into teaching, this is what the ‘curriculum deputy’ traditionally did.  More recently, curriculum has often disappeared altogether. Senior roles typically comprise head of teaching and learning, assessment, data, achievement….  Where is curriculum?

Curriculum is fundamental to schools. It is also fiendishly complex. Necessarily directional and dependent on recognisable channels, it must nonetheless be vibrant and changing for such is the character of knowledge and our relationship to it.  It is at once a thing of beauty and of utility, and both matter. More like the waterways of Venice than a set of roads or paths, it needs specialist maintenance or it won’t take you where you want to go, nor make it a rewarding experience. Moreover, like Venice, its waters don’t stand alone. If you don’t understand the relationship of knowledge in the curriculum to the wider oceans and rains of knowledge that renew or trouble it, you’re liable to flood or drought.

Such a thing needs leadership. To stretch my Venice analogy further than it deserves, the collective waterways of the city need overarching leadership not just the individual canals.

Trouble is, the term ‘curriculum leadership’ is associated with middle leaders – the ‘geography coordinator’, the ‘head of science’. It is, quite rightly, linked to subjects.  Subjects are derived from the great traditions of knowledge construction in academic and artistic fields, each with its own rules of enquiry and evidence, its own traditions of argument and debate or its own standards of performance and judgement. Each echoes a distinctive quest for truth and each carries accumulated wisdom that must be mastered if its wider ways are to be opened up. Children need to be brought into these traditions if they are ever to enliven and renew them themselves.  The traditions are interconnected all right, but they are canals. Without canals, we have no city, or at least, not a navigable one.  Their very separateness matters.

What can senior curriculum leadership mean, that is, leadership of curriculum in the whole school, given that one cannot know about all these subjects in their distinctive channels?

And why on earth does this matter so much? Haven’t we gotten along perfectly well thank you very much without such senior staff exercising curricular knowledge?

Actually no, we haven’t. The absence of an adequate model of senior curriculum leadership seems to me to deepen fundamental and longstanding problems in schools with which we have all wrestled, from weak assessment systems to problems with generation and interpretation of data, from problematical judgements about teaching and learning, to attraction and retention of fine teachers, from teacher development to the effectiveness of CPD.

My concern is therefore not just about what a person in SLT called ‘curriculum VP’ or ‘curriculum deputy’ needs to know, but what everyone in a senior leadership team needs to know about curriculum in order to lead on everything else.

Senior curriculum leadership is the whole SLT’s business.

Where SLTs have tried to reach into pedagogy with generic strategies that fail to attend to subject distinctiveness, all manner of distortions have occurred. In tackling the ‘how’ (teaching and learning) and in attempting to judge its efficacy (progress, assessment, data, outcomes), if we ignore ‘what?’ is being learned, we risk damaging so much else that school leadership and management ought to foster.

Let’s take a closer look at those two areas:

(i) teaching and learning

To talk about teaching without considering what is being learned, is to create an intransitive pedagogy, a pedagogy without an object.  Without the curricular substance supplied by such an object, so much school leadership conversation on teaching and learning is operating in a vacuum, and into that vacuum flows genericism.

A couple of years ago I wrote about a chronic example of such genericism : the practice of many schools who for a very long time insisted that teachers structured lessons around Blooms Taxonomy, and thus did violence to the structure and content of various subjects.

If such practice is now discredited, I’m not confident that it is for the right reasons. What should trouble us is not just the assumptions of hierarchy relating to ‘evaluate’ or ‘analyse’ but the fact that this was deemed a generic solution.

The problem of genericism is no respecter of ‘prog’ or ‘trad’.  While most now accept that expecting pupils to be doing group work every 10 minutes is ridiculous, I would be just as bothered if pupils are expected to be doing retrieval practice every 10 minutes.

Such a directive ignores the matter of what is to be retrieved, in what form, in what interplay with other content and for what subject purpose.

For example, a head of teaching and learning who draws on research in the psychology of memory to argue that that lower attainers should just learn fewer facts, really thoroughly, may be making a very sensible point in particular subject contexts.  But applied in blanket ways, it ignores how different subjects hold facts together in ways that make them memorable: through logical relations in some subjects, through narrative in others, through a supporting hinterland in others, and through other types of association in others.  So in some settings, certain kinds of surrounding material don’t necessarily get in the way; they can, paradoxically, help the retention of the core material.

Thus it may not be the number of facts to which we should attend, but to their status, function and interplay in the disciplinary accounts that give them subject meaning.

These are curricular questions before they are psychological questions. They are about the way in which factual material is ‘carried’ whether in text cohesion or in other disciplinary structures.

For non-scientists like me, such disciplinary carrying is beautifully explained by Rosalind Walker in her account of where genericism has compromised science teaching.  Rosalind writes this post in order to “successfully challenge blithe exhortations to do something in our teaching that is just not appropriate”. Notice how in order to explain how generic guidance weakened her students’ progress by distorting the curriculum, she needs to explain science’s vertical explanatory structure and its declarative elements. She also needs to talk about ‘inference’, and when she does, those of us reared in the stables of history or English know we have ridden into a foreign country.

Rosalind’s blog is a counterblast against misguided whole-school directives on teaching. She writes how she had frequently ‘gone off and performed what I now view as contortions, corruptions of my teaching of science subject knowledge, in order to please observers…. I’ve written up lists of ostensibly hierarchical success criteria so that pupils know how to improve their work….I’ve created lessons around a hinge question so as to make sure I’ve got a hinge question in my lesson.’

Her critique is severe. School science has been damaged by the effort to foist upon it inappropriate questions, activities and feedback models.


(ii) progress, assessment, data and outcomes

Conversations between senior leaders and subject leaders must be cognisant of the curriculum sits behind that data, or else the conversation risks being at cross purposes. At worst, it becomes a conversation that imagines it is about outcomes, but is actually just about measure of outcomes.

Stuart Lock, principal of Bedford Free School, once tweeted, “if in some schools every meeting on data was replaced with a meeting on the curriculum, those schools would have much better data”.

Stuart’s point was that instead of tracking numbers, we need to get much closer to what those numbers represent, to what pupils now know or can do, that they didn’t or couldn’t before.  If the curriculum itself is the progression model, then numbers change their meaning.  This places the burden of proof on the curriculum itself.

By contrast, all kinds of curricular blindness have done serious damage in recent decades. They clearly still do in countless school contexts. Perhaps most serious are the pressures that detract from precise formative analysis of progress pupils make in the steady building of underlying components such as knowledge increments or basic procedures.  Instead, teachers are too often required to track back from the skill-based language of final summative assessments, turning every lesson into a micro-exam, and for what? The push to use summative assessment for formative inferences has resulted in a confusion between performance and the means of its nurture.  Cue the clandestine lament of the conscientious head of department, that they have to waste time “kicking rubbish data upstairs to SLT”.


So much for the problem. How does this absence of curricular focus happen? And what can we do about it?

It happens because at the level of a whole school, the pull of the generic is strong and understandably so. Schools must be led and managed as coherent enterprises. Parity must be found across a school’s spheres. To ascend the ladders of school leadership, subject specialism must, to some degree, be transcended.  Whole-school leaders contribute in vital ways that transcend subject. They must communicate strategy, distribute resource, facilitate collaboration, align systems, review pupils’ progress across differing spheres, build policies for behaviour… In short, they must create the best environment possible for all teachers to make things happen.

Therefore, built into the culture of staff development is a sense of subject specialism as transient.  Built into the structure of a school is an imperative for common proxies – from performance measures to precepts for pedagogy – all at one remove from the actual substance what is being taught and learned.

How easy, then, to slide into the assumption of equivalence, especially with generic terms such as ‘learning’, ‘progress’ or ‘skills’.

Of course, in its necessary calculations that place one subject beside another for comparison and management, a school does produce a gain in its collective professional knowledge. But it also creates a loss.  It loses sight of the knowledge goods themselves, and these disappear in senior management and leadership conversations.

Yet one subject differs profoundly from another.  And these differences are significant. If SLT are to gain a sense of what kind of data might be useful in establishing attainment or progress, if conversations about matters such as ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are to have any meaning at all, then the substance of what is being taught and learned needs primacy.   In seeking to establish the quality of the work of a department or teacher, instead of going too quickly to the generic, SLT might more usefully go via the substance, nature, structure and form of the subject.

But how?

Pity the poor senior leader!  What on earth is he or she to do? The job of the senior leader is to hold middle leaders to account. But given that he or she cannot master about fifteen subjects, how is this to be done? A scientist deputy head cannot be an artist; a historian cannot be a mathematician. How do we break the eternal barrier of not being able to speak that subject’s language?

There must be a way.

Senior Leadership Teams need a curricular language for talking about teaching and attainment, a language which, because of its curricular character, illuminates rather than conceals the thing itself.  Such a language cannot be empty of substance. It must be rooted in a shared knowledge base, one that makes curricular communication possible.

So what distinctively curricular, professional knowledge base might equip a senior leader to discern and weigh, incentivise and question, the resource that is a teachers’ subject specialism?  What kind of knowledge base is necessary to be able to discuss teaching, learning, assessment and data in ways that allow a geographer to breathe geography?

In the remaining posts in this series, I will share a very tentative case for the structure of that knowledge base. Each area examined will furnish questions that senior leaders need to be able to ask if they are to do their core job – to take reliable and useful assurance from middle leaders, to do so without corroding the dignity of the thing being taught and to situate all this within the big picture of the whole-school curriculum with enough knowledge to strategise its future efficacy.




17 thoughts on “In search of senior curriculum leadership : Introduction – a dangerous absence

  1. I am very much looking forward to reading further. This blog has argued clearly for a common language without the dilution of subject-specific language and understandings. Could concepts and conceptual relationships within and across disciplines hold promise? H.Lynn Erickson and Lois Lanning have written extensively on this; putting forth a structure of both knowledge and process.


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  4. Beautiful piece. Your arguments are clear and correct and this discourse needs to be openly addressed and put to rest … The headache is unbearable

    I would very much appreciate it if you could have your May session streamed/recorded and shared on YouTube for interested viewers in other parts of the world.


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  7. Thank you for this – really enjoyed reading it. I am an Assistant Headteacher (Curriculum) and yes, I do the options and timetable, but I also work closely with the Deputy (T&L) to look at the ‘what’ is being taught with her ‘how’ it is being taught. 2 sides to the same coin!


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