On my #rEDBrum presentation: Redesigning the KS3 English Curriculum

With my #rEDBrum buddy Sarah Barker (@MsSfax)

I was thrilled to be invited to speak at #rEDBrum yesterday about KS3 English Curriculum design. It was a fantastic event packed full of great sessions (all killer, no filler) organised by the brilliant Claire Stoneman (@stoneman_claire) and hosted at Dame Elizabeth Cadbury School.

In this post I share the slides and notes from my session. Quick shout out to Sarah Barker for being my technical support at the beginning of the session and making sure the board didn’t cut off parts of my slides… What would I do without you?

Key Stage 3: The Wasted Years? 

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I started by talking about this report, published a couple of years ago. HMI commissioned a survey to get an accurate picture of whether KS3 was providing sufficient breadth and challenging and helping students to make the best possible start to their secondary education. A bit of a spoiler alert if you’re yet to read it but the short answer is that they didn’t think it was – they concluded that typically there is a lack of challenge and a lack of quality teaching at KS3.

The report suggested that weakness in teaching and pupil progress reflected the lack of priority given to KS3 by many school leaders – 85% of the senior leaders interviewed said that they staff KS4 and KS5 before KS3 which increases the chance of split classes and students being taught by non-specialists.

I don’t imagine the findings were much of a surprise to many of us – KS3 has historically been given low priority in schools. It’s certainly been my experience that the KS3 curriculum has been pretty poor and has not provided students with sufficient breadth and challenge – too often, in my experience anyway, too much of KS3 time is spent keeping students busy or having fun.

If it’s not good enough for Michelle Pfeiffer, it’s not good enough for me*

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I came across this book a couple of years ago when I was working at a school in Bexley. For whatever reason, I took it upon myself to clear out the stock cupboard (a Herculean task given what hoarders English teams tend to be…). The cupboard was filled to the brim with absolute rubbish – there were several class sets of this beauty.

Presumably the rationale for teaching ‘My Darling, My Hamburger’ at KS3 was that it was, in its day, an ‘engaging’ text. Now whilst I don’t imagine anybody is still teaching it (please get in touch with me if you are) I think it exemplifies many of the questionable texts choices included on KS3 curriculums up and down the country. Why are we wasting lesson time on this dross? Why are we picking texts based purely on how engaging or how relevant they are?

I think our job is to teach great works of literature however challenging that might be. Our job is to take Hardy or Bronte or Shakespeare or Dickens and make that accessible for all our students. If it was good enough for us and it’s good enough for students in private schools or grammar schools then it’s good enough for all of my students. Because of course these great works of literature are relevant to everybody – they’re part of our cultural heritage and I want my students to have cultural capital; they’re not going to get that from reading books that are the modern day equivalent of ‘My Darling, My Hamburger’ in lesson time.

*‘My Darling, My Hamburger’ is the text they’re studying in Dangerous Minds before Michelle Pfeiffer comes along. My new motto: if it isn’t good enough for Pfeiffer it’s not good enough for me!

I then shared an example of a typical KS3 curriculum map, like the one in place before I took over as Head of English, in which each half term has one focus e.g. year 9s might study non-fiction and media texts for 6 weeks followed by 6 weeks on poetry. I have quite a few issues with the half termly unit model:

  1. It’s quite a challenge to study a full text in just six weeks which is why many teachers resort to teaching from extracts of Shakespeare plays or longer novels
    Students will probably get one ‘go’ per year on a key skill e.g. in year 7 they might do a poetry analysis unit but then not get another opportunity to analyse poetry until year 8
  2. I also think there’s a flaw in encouraging teachers to select their own texts for study. Firstly, there’s a workload issue in that you end up with each of your team having to plan and resource their own six week units – surely it’s better for teams to share and enhance each other’s knowledge of set texts? Secondly, I think it allows for a worrying teacher lottery in which students in the same school get a very varying quality of WHAT they are studying.

O brave new world that has such new GCSEs in ‘t!

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Now it was perhaps not with quite the same delight with which Miranda marvelled at Ferdinand that we welcomed the specification changes but the new GCSEs did give us a unique opportunity or excuse to completely shake up KS3.

In my Tempest analogy here the shipwrecking at the start of the play represents the death of iGCSEs, coursework, 20% of the final grade being made up by Speaking and Listening and the end to open book exams – all of which represents a real challenge to both teachers and students which makes redesigning the KS3 curriculum an imperative if we want our students to be successful at GCSE and beyond. Us teachers are those poor souls on the shipwreck (Trinculo perhaps…) desperately swimming through the stormy seas to reach a strange and unfamiliar land.

The irony of being a teacher is that we most of us don’t like change – we are creatures of habit who mark with the same pen, drink from the same mug (if it hasn’t gone missing or been stolen) and sit in the same seat in the staffroom. And yet, the most abiding feature of teaching, certainly of my teaching career, is change. Just in the time I’ve been teaching we’ve had: the year 9 SATs scrapped; traditional coursework replaced with controlled assessment; APP coming in and going out; the death of national curriculum levels; changes to the GCSE and A Level specifications and so on and so forth. We’ve been washed up on plenty of shores before now.

But, I think if we keep the main thing the main thing (focus our efforts on key knowledge and skills) and design our KS3 curriculum accordingly we can weather the change and survive the stormy seas of new Education Secretaries wishing to make their mark.

The Foundations

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KS3 forms the foundations for future learning. If we get things right here then we’ll have students moving up to year 10 and beyond with a good knowledge and skills base which will mean they are more likely to succeed. It’s symptomatic, I think, of bad KS3 design that we end up throwing everything and the kitchen sink at intervention and revision sessions at KS4. Not only is it often too late for many students by then but we’re also working both students and teachers to the point of exhaustion. We need to play the long game. KS3 is AS important if not more so – to think otherwise is short-sighted. There’s no point in me trying to build a house on sand.

So… if you’re in the process of redesigning your KS3 curriculum I think you have to start by knowing what foundations you want your students to have. Plan backwards from what you want your year 9s to know, understand and be able to before they move into their GCSE years. Think about what experience you want your year 9s to have had.
I want our year 9s to have read some great literature and really know the plot, theme and characters of those stories. I want them to own some of that language and be able to use it in conversations about great works of literature or get literary allusions because we’ve given them that cultural capital. I want them to understand that the contexts in which texts are written is important. I want them to know why George Orwell wrote a dystopian novel about totalitarian regimes, I want them to know why Romeo is hopelessly infatuated with a completely unattainable woman at the start of the play and I want them to know why, in Duffy’s poem ‘Stealing’, a young thief makes off with a snowman in the night.

I want them to be able to write creatively, imaginatively and convincingly – I want them to be able to make people like me laugh out loud or cry (for the right reasons) because their writing is that powerful. I want them to read regularly and be able to use sophisticated vocabulary to express nuanced ideas.

So I want a lot of my students and why not? These students of mine, and yours, get one shot at this and there’s a moral imperative to do what we can to make sure that we’re setting them up for life.

Our Foundations

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I believe KS3 forms the foundations for future learning. I have explained all the things I wanted my students to have as foundational knowledge and skills. If I boil all of that down to three core foundations it’s these:

  1. Learning for good not just for now
  2. High aspirations and challenge for all students
  3. Sustainability

Because I’m not Oliver Caviglioli, I couldn’t draw a good image of foundations so I’ve used this one of a driveway; it shows all the foundational layers you need before the bricks go on top. I think it serves as a good analogy for the relationship between KS3 and KS4. We can’t park our GCSE car on a driveway with shoddy foundations unless we’re happy to see it fall into a mini sinkhole.

Learning for good not just for now: Learning is…

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It seems quite unbelievable to me now but for the first 8 years of my career I didn’t have a good definition of what we really mean by ‘learning’ or how students learn best. Luckily that didn’t hinder my career because, as it turns out, nobody I worked with seemed to have the answer either! I worked hard to ensure that my students were engaged in lessons and that they made good progress but lots of what I did was based on guess work or shiny ideas I stole from other teachers. My thinking and understanding about learning has really shifted over the past couple of years – largely thanks to reading blog posts by the likes of David Didau, James Theo and Carl Hendrick.

This definition from Kirschner, Sweller and Clark is, I think, a bit of game changer: ‘If nothing has changed in long-term memory, nothing has been learned’ In the light of this definition, curriculum maps with half-term long units (some of which focus on knowledge/skills students will never ever come back to) don’t seem like the best model for learning. Such massed practice is great for performance of learning: your students will probably appear to know a lot about a topic by the end of the unit. However, this gives us a false sense of security because it’s so easy for students to demonstrate that they’ve learnt something if we’ve only just finished teaching it. But how would we know if students have learnt how to write a great persuasive letter if we teach it in year 7 and then never come back to it? How can we ensure that the time and effort put into lessons, by both students and teachers, is resulting in long-term learning?

Learning for good, not just for now: Bjork

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I love this quotation from Bjork. I think our goals need to be long-term and we need to plan for learning that will provide students with durable, flexible knowledge and skills.

In his New Theory of Disuse, Bjork theorises that memories don’t decay. He suggests that it’s not that memories disappear but that we stop being able to retrieve them. I liken this to having a shoe cupboard and knowing there’s a certain pair of shoes in there but being unable to locate them. The shoes still exist you just can’t find them under the mountain of other shoes!

What’s really exciting about Bjork’s ideas is that it suggests we have an infinite long term memory store and what we need to focus on is getting better at retrieving the information that’s stored in there.

I think if we can improve our understanding of how memory works it’s going to make us better teachers and increase the chances of our students having durable and flexible knowledge/skills they can take with them into their future lives. So that gave me an excuse to explore a couple of analogies to explain some of the theory (I am an English teacher after all).

You remind me of the babe… 

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If our memories don’t decay, how can Bjork account for the fact that we can easily recall some things and not others? He argues that memories have a storage strength a retrieval strength. Some memories have high storage strength but are not easy to recall but, with a single reminder, can be restored quite easily (e.g. your childhood address). Whilst other memories have low storage strength but high retrieval strength (e.g. the name of the mum of the child your son was playing with at the park yesterday – you may be able to easily retrieve it tomorrow but the chances are that by next week you’ll be calling her ‘Jack’s mum’ again…).

I decided to use Labyrinth to exemplify this theory because I bloody love the film and it seemed to fit quite nicely! If you haven’t watched it, you need to.

At the bottom left is Sarah who, at the beginning of the film, is trying to learn lines. One of the lines is going to be really important for her to remember: ‘You have no power over me’. However, she clearly hasn’t been learning her lines effectively because she struggles to recall the line at a critical moment. I think this is because she’s been ineffectively learning her lines and trying to learn them in a way that leads to false confidence – she’s been reading them out of the book and has always had the prompt there making it easy for her. Therefore, the storage strength of that line is low and the retrieval strength is also low because she hasn’t had much practise recalling it. She does finally retrieve it and though it wouldn’t have made for quite the same tense scene with David Bowie, she could have retrieved that vital line much more readily if she’d put that book away and tried to recall her lines without the prompt.

Top right is the words to ‘You remind me of the babe’. The words have high storage strength in my memory – I’m convinced they will be in my head until my dying day – and high retrieval strength because they are very easily retrieved.

In the middle is a picture of me on my 30th dressed as Sarah to demonstrate my undying love for the film…

Hangar 51

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Sticking with the 80s film theme… I think Hangar 51 from Raiders of the Lost Ark is a helpful way to think of our long term memory. Hangar 51 is the huge warehouse where they hide the Ark of the Covenant at the end of the film because they don’t think anybody will find the anonymous box amongst all the other anonymous boxes.

In the vast warehouse of our long term memory are innumerable memories. Some are helpfully arranged together e.g. all our memories associated with long-haired cats whilst other memories are a single box on their own e.g. the thing we just learnt about goats having a calming influence on horses… Some memories have high storage strength like the memory of you saying ‘orgasm’ instead of ‘organism’ when you were in a year 10 Geography lesson and other memories, the ones we’ve just put in there, have low storage strength.

If we keep revisiting memories (why can’t I forget about saying orgasm?) then the retrieval strength and storage strength is going to increase. In the same way, the more often we went into that warehouse to find a certain box the more easily we’d find it next time and the time after.

I’ll never let go… 

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I think another helpful way to think about our long term memory is as of it being like the Atlantic Ocean: vast and deep.

The cross here represents roughly the site where the Titanic sank. That ship, like a high storage strength but low retrieval strength memory, is still there at the bottom of the ocean but will likely never be pulled to the surface. In contrast, we have Leo who is just disappearing under the surface. Leo is a brand new memory and if we want to improve his retrieval strength then we need to pull him back up the surface just before he disappears from view.

Units of learning

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Bjork suggests we need to move away from what feels comfortable and introduce desirable difficulties to improve the durability and retrievability of the things we are learning. It feels comfortable to teach in lessons and in half term units but these are a contrived notion – we only teach in half term blocks because that’s how the calendar chunks up the year. In fact, we only teach in lesson units because that’s a seemingly sensible way to break up the day; I think both contrivances lead us down a path of seeing learning as little discrete bundles we can neatly tie a bow around when, in reality, learning is messy and complicated and invisible. We need to plan for learning, not for lessons, and organise our curriculum in a way that is best for changing things in long-term memory. One of the ways we can do that is by spacing and interleaving learning.

So much of what we teach in a lesson, no matter how ‘outstanding’ that lesson is, is forgotten within days. We need to keep coming back to things to make the retention stronger and stronger – each time students retrieve that knowledge, the more durable their memory of it will be.

We need to plan time in our curriculum to keep coming back to things rather than perpetually moving on to cover more ground. And, of course, we can’t teach everything so we need to make some tough choices in the selection of what we will teach.

Don’t be wagged by the tail

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We need to be braver in our curriculum design. I refuse to be dictated to by the calendar and I particularly refuse to be dictated to by the data monster. The worst thing that we can do when designing our curriculums is distort the learning sequence to fit in with data drops!

Our KS3 Curriculum 2017-18

If you’ve made it this far in the post, well done! Here’s my KS3 curriculum design.

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You’ll see that it’s not very busy. Essentially each year group studies two units: a novel unit and a Shakespeare unit. We’d rather do less and do it better.

We will study each text over three half terms because we think that gives us enough time to read the entire text and really understand the plot, characters and themes. It affords us more opportunity to explore the literary contexts and engage with literary criticism. What it doesn’t mean, though, is that every lesson is given over to studying the text – I suspect that three solid terms of a single text would be too much for anyone! Instead, we’re interleaving the study of the text with analysis of fiction and non-fiction extracts, poetry lessons and weekly writing challenges inspired by Chris Curtis (@Xris32).
And because we’re interested in long-term learning, rather than performance of learning, we have moved away from regular summative assessments. We will only be summatively assessing at the end of the year at KS3 and twice a year at KS4.

An example Medium Term Plan


Here’s an example of what the curriculum map looks like at a medium term level. You can see that the Jane Eyre lessons are interleaved with poetry lessons, language skill lessons, writing lessons and Feedback/DIRT lessons.

It may feel wrong to have such gaps between lessons – and it has felt quite challenging and uncomfortable for use as teachers. But what we’re aiming for is not our own feeling of security. That desirable difficulty of interleaving learning should lead to durable learning and, believe it or not, the students aren’t at all phased by it. In fact, I don’t think they see learning in blocks in quite the same way we do.

What we’ve got to remember is that students are moving through the day learning about Medieval medicine in period 1 to playing rounders in period 2 followed by solving quadratic equations in period 3 and so on. Whether or not this English lesson follows on from the last English lesson is not as much of a concern to them as it is to us. How often have you stood at the front of a class and asked them if they can remember what they did last lesson only to be met by 30 blank faces?

A boon…

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Whilst it may feel uncomfortable to move away from massed practice, it has felt quite a bit more comfortable to move away from regular summative assessments (which would be pretty tricky with the curriculum model we have). Instead, we regularly give whole class feedback which has its benefits for students (regular feedback and time to act on it) and benefits for teachers (we can mark a set of books in much less time).


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One lightbulb moment for me in recent years was learning about Professor Rob Coe’s arguments about poor proxies for learning. For the vast majority of my teaching career engagement has been my guiding principle. To realise that students could be engaged and learn nothing really challenged my thinking. I thought, and had been told, that engagement was the gold standard in teaching practice – that students busy doing something = good practice. The more I thought about it, and the more I realised that unless changes were happening in the long term memory no learning was taking place the more I came to accept Coe’s arguments.

Of course, we can each of us be totally engrossed in an activity for quite extended periods of time and learn absolutely nothing: I love, for example, untangling necklaces which can take 20-30 minutes of really focused attention but I’m not learning anything. I bet, though, that if you took my face when I’m completing that task and transplanted it into the classroom it would look a lot like learning!

So part of what’s threaded through our curriculum is a move away from engagement for engagement’s sake. I want teachers to ask: what are students learning from this activity or in this lesson? Is colouring in a wanted poster for Lennie serving any benefit or am I just keeping my students busy? I want students to think hard and work hard in lessons; that’s exactly what we’re striving for.

Memory is the residue of thought

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I also love this quote from Daniel Willingham and his argument that ‘memory is the residue of thought’. I know I’ve fallen foul of distracting students from their learning by devising wondrously left field tasks for the purpose of engaging them or ticking them into learning. Students remember what they think about. If you’re getting them to pop balloons to reveal questions inside then it’s likely they’ll remember that lesson where they popped balloons but will they remember the questions inside? Perhaps not.
Of course I’m not advocating lessons in which students are bored to distraction but engagement should be a by-product of the learning.

Avoiding cognitive overload

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Our working memory is limited. Whether it’s 7/6/5/4 or 3 + or – 2 things we can cope with in our working memory, it’s limited. We can’t afford, therefore, to contribute to the extraneous cognitive load and we should do what we can to reduce it so that students can concentrate on the intrinsic cognitive load of what we’re trying to teach them.

That’s why, if you came to see my lessons, you’d see students sat in rows and you’d see large portion of lessons committed to independent practice in silence.


Retrieval practice is a key feature of what we do. Students self-quiz on their knowledge organisers as part of their homework and use quizlet to learn their ambitious vocabulary. And, of course, we use regular low-stakes retrieval practice in the form of 5-a-Day starters.

High aspirations and challenge for all: Pygmalion effect

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The second foundation of our KS3 is that teachers have high aspirations for all students. In their 1968 study, Rosenthal and Jacobson showed that if teachers were led to believe that some students would achieve better (so called ‘bloomers’) then those students would achieve better. The study supported the hypothesis that reality can be positively or negatively influence by the expectations of others: the observer-expectancy effect.

So we have high expectations for all our students – we expect excellence. I don’t want to hear any member of my team saying that ‘our students can’t do that’ or ‘my bottom set year 9s should be reading Jane Eyre’ because I think it’s rubbish and I also think that if the teachers think that then it’ll probably end up being true. Instead we need to believe that all of our students can engage with a text like Jane Eyre; we tell our students that they can engage with it and the more they have been engaging with challenging texts the more they’ve felt that they can actually do this. Nothing is beyond them.

High aspirations and challenge for all: Success and self-concept

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Self-concept is really important. If students think they can do something or think that they can’t then it’s more likely to be true. However, the effect on academic achievement on self-concept is stronger than the effect of self-concept on academic achievement. Lots of motivational talks telling students that they can do and achieve whatever they want is going to have lesson impact than them experience success in lessons; we need to ensure that success happens.

I think it’s really important that we don’t make too many assumptions based on data – I don’t think we should be pigeon holing students, almost as soon as they come in the door, as a grade 43 or a grade 5 student. If we assume a student is a grade 3 student then we’re likely going to limit what we teach them and that’s a crying shame. How are students ever going to produce something excellent if they never get to see what it looks like? How are they ever going to aspire to write a grade 8 or 9 (whatever that means) piece of writing if this hasn’t been modelled for them?

I expect my team to teach to the top and scaffold skilfully where needed with a view to taking that scaffolding away bit by bit. I do not expect my team to produce 5 differentiated activities for every lesson. I think we’re doing students a massive disservice when we ‘differentiate’ to the point of abstraction. It’s our support that should be differentiated not the task itself. If we assume Jess can’t write an essay and so we give her a gap filling exercise whilst everybody else is giving essay writing a go, and that happens week in and week out, when is Jess ever going to build up the skills and knowledge to actually write an essay which she’ll need to do when she hits year 10 or 11? The truth is that we’re making academic success even less likely even though our motivation might be out of kindness because we’re trying to protect Jess’ self-esteem. Instead, we need to scaffold essay writing for Jess so that she can experience success – we shouldn’t be getting her to do something intrinsically different from everybody else in the class.

High aspirations and challenge for all: Vocab

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In Daniel Rigney’s book ‘The Matthew Effect’, the message is that we need to address the imbalance between the haves and the have nots. If we don’t explicitly address the needs of those who are word poor we’ll see the gap between the word-rich and the word-poor get ever wider. At age 7, children in the top quartile have over 7000 words whilst children in the lowest quartile have less than 3000. That gap gets bigger and bigger. The word rich will gain more and more words as they read more widely and naturally gravitate towards other word rich children whilst for the word poor the opposite is true.

It’s no good giving students the feedback that ‘you need to use more ambitious vocabulary’ without teaching them what that is. We can’t rely on students going out and discovering new words – we need to explicitly teach them and empower students by giving them a rich and academic vocabulary with which they can understand and express sophisticated and nuanced ideas. We do that through one aspect of our KS3 homework which leads me onto the third foundation of our key stage 3 curriculum design: sustainability.


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On of the ways we hope to achieve sustainability at KS3 is with homework that supports the work that we are doing in lessons and supports teachers’ wellbeing – English teachers do enough marking without taking in KS3 homework every week which needs marking. One of the core homework tasks for all KS3 students is to actively learn ambitious vocabulary which they are tested on every week.

The words are very ambitious and initially we had some concerns from parents that their year 7 daughters were being expected to learn words which they didn’t know themselves but that just reinforced my resolve. How would these girls become word rich if they weren’t being exposed to a rich vocabulary at home and we weren’t providing it to them at home? Our KS3 students have really risen to this challenge, another idea that we took from Michaela, and feel empowered by having such a rich vocabulary.

The rest of KS3 homework is made up with an expectation that students read every day and that they actively revise content using their knowledge organisers – we will be doing more work next year to support students with self-quizzing. We don’t use traditional reading logs to track reading but we do have a Google Doc set up that students are expected to complete every week (it takes them about 5 minutes) which enables us to see what students are/are not reading and having conversations with them.

Another way I wanted to make KS3 sustainable for teachers was by reducing the number of assessments. Having read Daisy Christodoulou’s book ‘Making good progress’ I was convinced that we had been over-assessing students in a bid to keep feeding the data monster. Consequently, for the vast majority of the year we will only be doing formative assessments. I want teachers to focus on identifying what students know, understand and can do rather than worrying about what number we can apply to that to generate some kind of flawed shared meaning. So teachers will be expected to do regular diagnostic marking of students’ work but will only apply a grade to the end of year assessments at KS3.

The end! 

I wanted our KS3 curriculum to focus on students’ learning over the long term and I’ve designed a curriculum with long-term, challenging learning at its heart. I’d like for it to withstand changes to the way the domain is sampled at KS4. This isn’t about teaching to the test for 5 years, this is about doing what’s right for our students by ensuring that they have a really good foundational knowledge and skills which will set them up not only for success at KS4 but beyond. That’s the hope anyway…


  1. Amazing stuff Rebecca. It gives me much food for thought whilst realising that I am, gradually starting to put some of these ideas into practice. Thank you. I wish I worked with you! Best wishes.


      1. It is wishful thinking, since I have just moved to Oxfordshire. I am excited about my new post as well. You have the right approach. Thank you for imparting your wealth of knowledge and ideas.


  2. I am so glad I found your blog. I am currently taking a break from teaching in schools and sometimes feel ‘out of touch’ with that aspect of the world of education. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of your posts so far as it feels like I’m having a chat with a colleague about teaching! Thank you


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