What might be the benefits of taking a prescriptive approach to the primary curriculum?
School A has a long term plan with a list of topics to be covered in each year group for each subject. There is some guidance from the National Curriculum as to what should be taught, but teachers have the freedom (and responsibility) to create a curriculum for their year group. Sometimes they can reuse material from the previous year; sometimes they start from scratch. Sometimes children repeat what they have previously learned; often, they lack the prerequisite knowledge which teachers expect them to have. Some teachers spend hours trailing the internet and spending a fortune on books from Amazon, trying to construct an engaging, evidence-based curriculum; some download a scheme of work from a subscription website (which they've paid for), ready to teach the following day.
School B has a similar long term plan to School A, based on the National Curriculum. Sometimes the topics are a bit of a leap from the NC: 'Chocolate' in Y4 and 'London' in Y5. As well as this, there is also a twenty-page teaching and learning policy which dictates everything which should be included in lessons: a hook, a pre-assessment task, differentiation etc. Lessons should be engaging, creative, interesting, include a variety of learning approaches, involve a variety of group structures, provide learners a chance to explore… the list goes on. On top of this, the written planning for every lesson needs to be submitted to the Headteacher by 9pm on the Sunday night prior to being taught. If resources have come from a (personally paid for) subscription website, school planning pro forma still need to be completed. Every piece of work needs to be marked with WWW (what went well) and EBI (even better if), to which children need to respond the following day.
School C provides a detailed, fully-sourced curriculum for its teachers, which has been designed by leaders to not only meet the requirements of the National Curriculum but provide coherent learning journeys throughout each subject . For English and Maths – which are taught more frequently - clear, simple teaching cycles have been constructed and are collectively tweaked every five or sixth months to ensure the focus is on the content and practice which works. Because the foundation subjects are all ready to teach, teachers can spend the time – sharing the load with their year group partner – on preparing the content of teaching sequences for the core subjects so that they are well-matched to the children’s strengths and needs. Teachers use high-quality resources, paid for by the school, for children to use in independent practice. Feedback is provided during the lesson and written comments are only made on four pieces of writing per half term. No written planning is ever required, though teachers use a common approach to lesson design and every lesson is well-resourced.
Which school would you rather work in or lead? As someone who doesn’t like being told what to do, I used to think that working in a prescriptive school would be professional hell. I used to think that teacher autonomy was a hallmark of healthy leadership within a school, and that schools which prescribed the curriculum, displays etc were inherently toxic places. Autonomy is a key component required for a motivated workforce, so I thought.
I’ve since changed my mind.
Whilst I’m not arguing for or against autonomy or prescription – and am aware I am probably creating a distorted dichotomy here – I do think there is much more nuance to be considered. An autonomy-heavy school can create as much workload as a prescription-heavy school, and both can leave teachers tired, stressed and burned out. In addition to this, I believe both can contribute to an unhealthy, toxic environment where teachers feel that others work unfairly less, or that they can never achieve what is expected of them.
If we require too much of staff, and don’t give them the resources to achieve it, then whether they have a choice or not in what they do is unlikely to bolster their motivation.
However, if staff are given the resources, and the expectations for the curriculum and teaching and learning are made clear, and – critically – are possible, then schools can strike a balance between autonomy and prescription to create an environment in which everyone can thrive.
Below, I’ve listed a few benefits of a prescriptive approach to curriculum intent and implementation and described the circumstances in which these benefits might be realised. I want to say at the outset, that I believe all teachers should be given the professional respect they deserve. This blog post in no way comes from a place of suggesting any thing other than that.
I am not arguing for schools to be prescriptive, but am seeking to provide my viewpoint on when and why prescription might not necessarily be a bad thing.
👍 Prescription depends on trust and integrity
If teachers are to be accountable for pupil progress in prescriptive schools, they need to be able to trust the curriculum they are expected to deliver. If the curriculum is poor quality or poorly-considered, it creates a huge tension and a high-stress environment. Having once been expected to use guided reading, where I could only work with struggling readers once a week, with a Y6 class at a school where the previous year’s combined was 24%, I can personally attest to this ‘stress’. Leaders must hold the confidence of the teaching team and the curriculum must be continuously evaluated so that it can be optimised to meet the needs of the pupils and reflect the approaches and content which should lead to improved achievement.
📈 Prescription can reduce workload (significantly)
If leaders invest the time in developing curriculum materials, ready for teachers to use in the classroom, preparation for teachers then becomes about thinking deeply about the content, the types of questions to ask to check for understanding, the potential misconceptions the class might have, and any additional scaffolds that might be necessary to make the content accessible for all learners. These types of information can also be provided, saving teachers even more time (to use as they need).
🎉 Prescription can improve teaching
By removing the burden of having to plan and prepare lessons about topics which teachers might lack subject knowledge, teachers can instead focus on either developing such subject knowledge, as well as on developing their use of teaching and learning strategies. If leaders make expectations really clear to teachers and reduce the workload, teachers have more opportunity to focus on areas of teaching which they want to develop.
🤝 Prescription can share accountability
A curriculum is a team effort. The success of a curriculum depends upon a consistent approach to content and teacher effectiveness from EYFS onwards. When leaders state what the curriculum is, teacher accountability becomes about effective teaching rather than effective teaching and curriculum design. This is important as developing competency and expertise in curriculum design is not something upon which many teacher education programmes focus. (This certainly hasn’t been the case for many teachers I’ve spoken to, though I’m happy to be corrected.) The accountability for the curriculum is thus shared among the entire team – it creates a collective responsibility.
⏰ Prescription can reduce time spent on monitoring
If leaders have prepared the content to be taught, looking at pupils’ learning then becomes more about the evaluation of curriculum impact rather than how closely the teachers’ planning matches the intentions of subject leaders. This is important as there is a lot that can ‘go wrong’ if planning documents lack specificity and clarity. I’d argue it’s very difficult for someone else to enact the vision of someone else, when guidance leaves a lot open for choice and interpretation. Leaders can use evidence of pupils’ learning to inform their evaluation of the curriculum’s impact and help make improvements to content, sequencing and approaches to teaching and learning.
🚴♀️ Prescription does not mean stagnancy
Curriculum development is an ongoing process and to some extent, a curriculum should never stand still. The composition of each school’s teaching teams is so different, as is the pupil population of every school. Every teacher can bring experience and expertise in many different areas, and where this helps support curriculum development, it would be silly for leaders to ignore. When teachers bring subject knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge to schools, leaders should make sure these teachers have the opportunity to be involved in curriculum development.
✨ Prescription can allow teachers to add their own magic
I think it is highly unlikely that any school has a ‘perfect’ curriculum. Unconscious incompetence tells us that there are things we don’t yet know that we don’t yet know. Once we find these out, we can make adjustments if they allow us to improve our offer to pupils. Tom Sherrington writes about the 80/20 split of Mode A and Mode B teaching. I’d like to extend this to think about the 80/20 split of prescription. Leaders can prescribe the 80% of the curriculum – the content, the sequencing, the vocabulary, the materials, the supporting documentation – and teachers can add 20% of magic. Teachers can add the 20% which brings the content to life and engages the pupils with their intended learning. Where this is effective, it should be reported back as part of the curriculum evaluation so that it can be included in future teaching sequences. Similarly, teachers' evaluation of what worked well and what was less successful also needs to be heard and their voice in curriculum evaluation is therefore vital.
🔍 Prescription enables teachers to focus on SEND and disadvantaged learners
Planning a unit of learning from scratch is a big time commitment for any teacher. To then have to differentiate any of the materials for specific needs in the class adds an even bigger time commitment and can at times be impossible – especially for teachers in a one-form entry school who have to plan everything. Instead, if teachers have more time to adapt pre-planned teaching sequences to the individual needs in their class, the most vulnerable pupils reap the benefits. These do not need to be big adaptions, and I’m not saying expectations need to be lowered; rather, it just provides the critical time teachers need to make appropriate considerations and source any scaffolds which might make the learning more accessible.
👣 Prescription enables teachers to develop at an appropriate pace
Not having to plan and prepare every single unit of learning across a school year can save teachers an enormous amount of time. This gives teachers the opportunity to develop expertise in specific subjects, rather than have to rapidly piece together a curriculum based on the limited resources that might be available to them. Subject expertise takes time and needs opportunities to develop; overloading teachers with having to plan up to ten different subjects expends a lot of time and energy for limited gain. It is far more sustainable to give teachers the headspace and time to develop, which then feeds back into the curriculum quality across the school.
🔗 Prescription drives consistency
If curriculum sequences have been coherently planned, and carefully considered, the consistency in approach enables learners to make significant progress in every subject. Through carefully planned teaching sequences, pupils can purposefully consolidate and build upon previously taught content. Importantly, all learners benefit from this consistency, which is important to reduce the attainment gap for disadvantaged groups of pupils.
💭 Final Thoughts
A prescriptive approach to curriculum is not everybody’s cup of tea.
The points I’ve made above are my viewpoints, and of course, schools with a different approach can be, and are, enormously successful. I’m not arguing that schools need to be prescriptive. What I’m suggesting is that a prescriptive approach can be both effective and positive, provided other important components of school leadership are in place. Personally, I believe that a school which creates a culture of trust, togetherness and shared responsibility can be a place where children thrive, and curriculum prescription is one way in which this can be achieved.