Today’s blog is written by Ben Ballin. As with all our authored contributions, what follows are Ben’s views which are not necessarily shared by NAEE.
What’s the big idea?
Back in April, Richard Dawson and I wrote a blog for NAEE taking a wide-ranging look at the content and purpose of a ‘green curriculum’. This blog picks up on that question and considers the related question of ‘curriculum intent.’
Curriculum intent is the first of the ‘three i’s’ in the 2019 Ofsted Inspection Framework. As we shall see, it begs questions about what a school’s curriculum is for and how it is organised, subdivided and sequenced. The other two ‘i’s are ‘implementation’ (basically, how things get taught and learned) and ‘impact’ (whether children or young people have actually learned things as intended).
Those schools in England that follow the 2014 National Curriculum know that it is a very different beast from the first, multi-volume National Curriculum of 1988 or subsequent national curricula, whose approach to aims was once memorably described by Robin Alexander as “The Mrs Beeton approach – first catch your curriculum, then liberally garnish with aims.”
The 2014 curriculum is neither pretty, nor easy to love, but it does have a very modest appetite for aims, having only two. The first of these is that it “provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.”
Let’s set aside the thorny question of who and what decides ‘the best’ for the moment. The only other aim for the National Curriculum as a whole is that, because it is also slimline in content, the statutory curriculum “is just one element in the education of every child. There is time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.”
Assuming that the curriculum designers are correct about that time and space, that aim might be quite useful. It means that the school curriculum can (in principle) include but go beyond the rather meagre fare in the National Curriculum. So, while the 2014 curriculum is notoriously short of references to the environment, sustainable development, climate change etc. (many of which performed a conspicuous vanishing act during its drafting process), they could still be part of the school curriculum … if a school wants them.
Do you want any greens with that?
So, back to ‘Intent’. What this seems to mean is that a school curriculum could have a commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainable development, not only as a rather generalised and overarching value, but as part of what its curriculum as a whole is intending to achieve. In my experience, many schools – provided that they are not otherwise in crisis – do indeed choose to do this.
This then takes us back to what I said earlier about curriculum organisation, subdivision, and sequencing. If a school wants to prioritise its green intentions, it makes sense that subjects too are invited to make their contribution to this agenda: especially subjects such as science, geography or citizenship, which obviously lend themselves well to it (but why not also P.E. art, music, English, drama and the rest?) To misquote John F. Kennedy, it makes sense to ask not just what the environment can do for each subject but what each subject can do for the environment. As an aside, Fran Martin and I had a crack at setting this out a few years ago in relation to climate change, on behalf of Tide~ global learning and the West Midlands Broadband Network.
Let’s take geography in primary schools as an example. What is the subject’s ‘Intent’ in the school? Maybe its contribution to environmental and sustainability education can be integrated into a subject statement?
If we are asking what the subject as a whole contributes to children’s experience and understanding of environment and sustainable development, then the statement is going to highlight opportunities for fieldwork and for learning in and about the environment, for exploring issues in the news, for global and intercultural understanding, for exploring how people affect places (and landscapes affect people).
In devising long and medium-term plans, subject leaders are going to make choices and prioritise opportunities accordingly. This might for example mean seeking out learning with ‘an edge’, where children make decisions about the management of local or school spaces, present arguments – supported by primary evidence – for measures that limit car parking and air pollution, design and develop wildlife areas, plan safe and healthy travel routes and so forth. It might also mean ensuring that children learn key vocabulary, skills and concepts that help them become environmentally-aware, thoughtful and active citizens. In structuring the school curriculum, it should even be possible to show how this understanding and skill-set develops from one year or term to the next, as part of a planned learning sequence.
Within those topics and plans, activities can be organised and resourced so as to achieve such desired outcomes: the NAEE journal is one of many useful sources of advice on quality resourcing to achieve such aims. For this particular subject, the Geographical Association and Royal Geographical Society also offer outstanding support (other subject associations are also available).
Thinking carefully and logically about ‘intent’ in this way can have knock-on effects for ‘implementation’ too: the quality and interestingness of teaching activities and strategies. With a little care, it means that a school is going to be offering a rich learning experience that minimises the use of worksheets, roots learning in experience rather than abstraction and provides children with reasons to want to find out about their world and to use and apply the language and tools at their disposal: the sort of learning that NAEE has long championed; the sort of learning that results in ‘impacts’ that benefit but go beyond the individual learner.
These three ‘I’s are at the heart of the 2019 Ofsted framework, but they are not the whole of the beast. It is also worth looking at what it asks, for example, in relation to wellbeing, personal and social development. Maybe there are significant opportunities here, too, for environmental and sustainability education? I would be interested to hear people’s thoughts on this – maybe it would be a useful focus for a future blog?
Ben Ballin is a primary geography consultant and a Fellow of NAEE. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org