Developing the arts curriculum
Or why now is the time to plan for a new curriculum with the arts at its heart
The rapidly developing new emphasis on the curriculum is a great opportunity to debate the place of arts within it. A proper process is required to develop the curriculum appropriately for each school.
As we discussed in our previous blog, Ofsted has recently announced that its proposed new inspection framework will place much greater emphasis on the curriculum, its intent, implementation and impact. Not surprisingly, Arts People supports the change in focus suggested by Ofsted and thinks the new emphasis can only improve the way schools support children and young people to develop.
In a recent GL Assessment study, over three-quarters of teachers (76%) and three-fifths of parents (60%) surveyed believed that schools have offered a more restricted curriculum from an earlier age over the past three years than they did previously, with large majorities (92% of teachers and 76% of parents) saying the pressure placed on schools to deliver good exam results is to blame. We know that curriculum statistics about arts provision back this up.
Thinking about the curriculum
Responding to the challenge, the three areas to consider are:
- Intent: What are we intending to achieve through the curriculum and why?
In the arts, there are the twin aims of increasing participation and promoting excellence. How might both be pursued?
- Implementation: How are we intending to achieve our curriculum aims in the most efficient and effective way?
For example, does a commitment to the arts mean the appointment of specialists, does it require good partnership with providers, or both?
- Impact: How will we know if we have achieved our curriculum aims?
How do we measure the impact of the curriculum beyond examination success?
The diagram below summarises the process that unfolds, providing a framework which is then further investigated. In this blog we deal with the intent of the curriculum: curriculum philosophy and aims.
The Scottish National Government has a really helpful definition of the curriculum on its website. it describes the curriculum as ‘the totality of experiences which are planned for children and young people through their education, wherever they are being educated. It includes the ethos and life of the school as a community; curriculum areas and subjects; interdisciplinary learning; and opportunities for personal achievement.’ This is a call to ensure a proper breadth and depth of curriculum planning.
This call is in accord with the traditional taxonomy of:
- Core and optional subject curriculum – captured in the daily timetable
- Extra curriculum – offered outside the compulsory school day: evenings, weekends, holidays
- Hidden curriculum – the learning gained from the school ethos, both planned and unplanned
All need to be considered, including in relation to the planning of an arts curriculum.
It should become quickly apparent that any discussion of curriculum intent begins with the school mission. In fact, we would argue, it begins one stage further back, with the identification of community need and characteristics. These should always influence the school mission profoundly, along with the ethos derived from school heritage, values and experience. As need and ethos determine mission, the aims of the curriculum flow from mission.
In practice, intent will be informed by curriculum principles as well as aims. Whereas aims are an outline of the desired impact of the curriculum, principles are an outline of the framework for the curriculum that will make the aims most likely to be achieved. Much has helpfully been written about aims and principles. We recommend using this as a starting point for shaping the conclusions about intent that arise from identifying need and defining ethos.
Student needs are most obviously educational, but also include their social, spiritual, physical and psychological needs. These will be known by looking at:
- Educational performance, both input and output
- Community characteristics, including student home challenges, both economic and educational
- Health information
- Student demographics, including SEND need
- Exposure to, and experience of, genres and types of art and cultures
Ethos and mission
A school must be clear about its mission for the young people in its care. To care for a child for a significant part of five to seven years is a great responsibility and must not be entered into lightly. It is also an amazing opportunity. How will it be used? What is the aim for young people after their time is finished with the school? How will they be equipped for what comes next? A collective agreement and understanding about mission will produce a more unified and focused school.
School ethos captures the values, beliefs and morals that underpin the school’s mission. Within this, a commitment to the value of the arts may be made. Under the last Labour government, this approach was made explicit within the Specialist Schools policy. Many schools still make this clear commitment, sometimes within their name. Close to Arts People’s base is Dixons Music Primary, where the name of the new school reflects its ethos. Many more will now want to address the issue.
An ethos of commitment to the arts needs to be established as an intent of the curriculum
All schools in England must offer a curriculum which:
- is balanced and broadly based
- promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils
- prepares pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life
- makes provision for a daily act of collective worship and teaches Religious Education
- covers personal, social, health and economic education (and, soon, relationships)
In addition, secondary schools must teach sex education.
Maintained schools must also follow the National Curriculum.
Rightly, the new expectation appears to be that different schools will arrive at different conclusions about aims. We have already seen why that might be. Nevertheless, there are some excellent suggestions for general starting points.
Dylan William, we outlined in our last blog, suggests the aims of schooling, and thus the curriculum, to be:
- cultural transmission
- preparation for citizenship
- preparation for work
- personal empowerment
to which we added:
- promotion of good mental and physical health
A more recent suggestion has been made by Margaret White’s book, A Good Education. Her book starts from a recognition of the importance of each individual within a community. Her aims of education and thus of the curriculum are based on four values. Each pupil is:
- inherently precious
- uniquely gifted
- mutually dependent
- continually learning
This produces four corresponding outcomes that the curriculum should be designed to achieve:
- experience of success – excellence
- variety of achievement – breadth
- good study habits – depth
- love of learning – length
The proposed new Welsh curriculum states its aims as to produce:
- ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives
- enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work
- ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world
- healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.
More simply, the English National Curriculum identifies the two broad aims already outlined above:
- to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society
- to prepare pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life
All these aims provide a space and rationale for commitment to arts education. Whatever the starting and finishing points, the need to decide curriculum aims is an important opportunity to have a practical discussion which produces an agreement on, and elucidates, the place of the arts and other subjects and themes within the curriculum.
We have already categorised the curriculum into three, with the framework of each aspect requiring consideration. The framework for the subject curriculum currently tends to be dictated externally, with most schools making decisions of detail only. For a secondary school, this may amount to no more than what to teach within PSHCE/tutor time and which options will likely deliver success within the third EBACC bucket. For a primary school it may be how much time to devote to the national curriculum subjects and what topics will be most engaging as vehicles for the non-core teaching. The danger, we have seen, is that the arts get squeezed out and into extra-curricular provision at best.
There may be an opportunity now to revisit the bigger question of the overarching framework adopted to deliver the chosen aims. As mentioned, the Welsh government is currently consulting on a new curriculum which closely follows the Scottish model. It emphasises the need for breadth and adopts a framework based on domains or Areas of Learning and Experience (AoLE). The arts have an appropriate place. The AoLEs are:
- Expressive arts.
- Health and well-being.
- Humanities (including RE which should remain compulsory to age 16).
- Languages, literacy and communication (including Welsh, which should remain compulsory to age 16, and modern foreign languages).
- Mathematics and numeracy.
- Science and technology.
It will also include three cross-curricular responsibilities: literacy, numeracy and digital competence.
Another way of thinking about frameworks is to have a checklist of desirable curriculum features, preceded, one would hope, by a vigorous debate about which are most important. To quote Dylan Wiliam again, he suggests six criteria or principles for discussion: balance; rigour; coherence; vertical integration; appropriateness; focus. It can be seen straightaway how these would encompass much of what we have outlined above. For example, a balanced curriculum will expose pupils to different subject domains; a curriculum which flows clearly out of the school’s mission will be focused and appropriate.
The renewed emphasis on the curriculum is refreshing and will allow a wider range of knowledge and achievement to be encouraged and recognised. It is an opportunity for schools to have a valuable debate on what this range should be. We would expect arts education to benefit.
References and Further Reading
Principled Curriculum Design, Dylan Wiliam, SSAT 2013
A Good Education, Margaret White, Routledge, 2018