Designing a curriculum that can help to bridge the attainment gap


Newcastle upon Tyne-based assistant headteachers Robyn Bonnick and Louise Reay are studying on the Ambition Institute Curriculum for Senior Leaders programme. Here, they share how it’s helping them to support students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and what they have learnt so far.

It’s a cold day in a Newcastle Upon Tyne secondary school classroom but the windows are still open and Louise Reay’s students are looking at photos of sunny beaches. “It’s hard for them – a beach is where we all want to be right now,” she says. “Plus, some of my students have never been outside Newcastle. So, I have to think about how I make learning Spanish, and a trip to Spain, realistic for them. Especially, when Covid-19 has magnified the deprivation gap which affects a lot of my students.”

The classroom windows are open at Benfield School, where Louise teaches Spanish, because of the pandemic. Louise is an assistant head who leads curriculum design at the secondary school, which has 66% of students on the pupil premium. In February 2020, she started our 18-month Curriculum for Senior Leaders programme which has helped her to think more about how the curriculum can engage students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is something which is even more important following the pandemic.

Plugging learning gaps

“We have a significant number of students without IT and internet, so remote learning has been difficult,” says Louise. “I have seen the attainment gap widen, with students missing chunks of their education when they are in lockdown and isolating.”

The programme has taught Louise about the importance of looking at students’ starting point to see how the school can plug these learning gaps.

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“The curriculum is a key way we can bridge lost learning,” she says. “For example, we had a three-week recovery curriculum in September 2020 to identify gaps in learning and consider wellbeing. And, as a result of what I learnt on the programme, we now have a section on ‘hinterland’ in all our curriculum plans.”

That means asking ‘What might the children not know because of their level of deprivation?’ For example, Louise’s history colleagues might need to explain what a windmill is to children who have never seen one before, if it comes up in a text. Or, English teachers may need to discuss Victorian dress in a class of year sevens reading The Hound of the Baskervilles.

“The curriculum is the skeleton to everything we do,” says Louise.

The science of learning

Louise’s colleague Robyn Bonnick agrees that getting the curriculum right and fit for purpose will help to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds who have missed out on learning during the pandemic.

Robyn is the assistant headteacher at Tyneview Primary School, which is in the same education trust as Louise’s school, the Newcastle East mixed multi–Academy Trust. There she leads on curriculum design and is also studying on the Curriculum for Senior Leaders programme.

With 51% of students on the pupil premium, Robyn says there’s already evidence of the attainment gap at her school, following Covid-19. Normally, around 80% of year ones pass the end of year phonics screening check. But just over half (53%) did in 2020.

The programme is supporting Robyn to help her teachers get their kids back on track through the science of learning, in particular memory retrieval techniques.

“The programme has really brought home that there’s all this theory about memory and retrieval of information out there, that through busyness, gets forgotten about,” says Robyn. “I’m drawing that back together and creating training to share it with staff and make it a priority again.”

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Robyn’s new knowledge about structuring and sequencing teaching, based on how children absorb information, has directly benefited her students. She has also changed the curriculum to make sure staff revisit learning more.

For example, through an end of unit history debate, it was clear that Robyn’s year two students retained more information after she had revisited content with them. They had been learning about the Victorians, and particularly Newcastle-upon-Tyne-based nineteenth century steam locomotive inventor, Robert Stephenson.

“In the debate, half of the children were farmers and didn’t want rail roads and the others were in favour of them,” says Robyn. “They were using dates, facts and statistics which I’d made sure they had learnt about five times. I knew from Curriculum for Senior Leaders that this repetition helped with long-term memory. They could communicate that type of information at a distance from learning it, so they had a secure understanding.

“I felt proud of the children and saw how much more they could talk about the history topic because of the way we designed it. We’re teaching skills as well as knowledge within curriculum areas.”

Harnessing the knowledge of subject specialists

The programme has emphasised to both Louise and Robyn that they don’t need to be subject specialists to design the curriculum. Robyn is currently coordinating work to join up the history curriculum across the four primary and one secondary schools in the trust. This involves supporting subject leaders to create subject-specific long-term plans and progression maps.

Likewise, the programme has helped Louise to develop her interest in sequencing learning and to harness the expertise of department heads in designing an integrative curriculum. This includes everyone, from a vulnerable learner teacher who is primary-trained and supports children to transition to the secondary school, to special educational needs staff.

“It’s not about my subject knowledge,” says Louise. “It’s about planning a curriculum that is fit to enhance the learning of students by using the subject knowledge of practitioners.”

Time to reflect and plan

Louise and Robyn’s Curriculum for Senior Leaders programme finishes in July 2021. They both hope that it will help them to decide how to design the curriculum to best support students’ lost learning in what’s left of the academic year.

“I hope the programme will support us as a senior leadership team looking at what elements of the curriculum are now a priority,” says Robyn. “What are the key things that we must cover? What are we going to try to do? And what are we going to have to leave out because we’re not going to have the time?”

Louise says that having the time to reflect on challenges like this through the programme has been really beneficial. She’s also valued the opportunity to see how other people have shaped their curricula and articulated it to subject leaders in their schools, including Robyn’s.

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“It has brought research on core skills, the hinterland and from leading curriculum developer, Christine Counsell, together and made it workable so we can go and develop our own plans,” says Louise.

Like Louise, Robyn is passionate about designing a curriculum that helps the children in her school break the cycle of deprivation. She is now teaching the children of the children she taught when she first started in the profession 14 years ago. They are the third or fourth generation who haven’t worked.

“If you get the curriculum and starting points wrong for some children, you’ve missed a major opportunity to help them progress,” says Robyn. “I’d like to see the impact of an improved curriculum on the children and them go on to have a successful secondary or further education.

“The Curriculum for Senior Leaders programme has given me time out of school to slow down and really evaluate what is being taught in our school, why and how.”

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