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Rebuilding the personal development curriculum – Part 1: long term sequencing

Over the last few months I have been busy redesigning our personal development (PD) curriculum in response to timetable changes coming to our school from September. This has come with challenges and opportunities, and has both crystallised some of my thinking on PD curriculum design and also given me an unexpected chance to try and enact some strategies discussed here which had previously been only theoretical.

As such, in this blog I’m going to discuss:

  • The context in which I have been curriculum making

  • The process of collecting PD content into ‘subjects’

  • The process of sequencing the content of these subjects across the years

  • The outcomes of this process, in terms of the curriculum itself and the way I have chosen to organise it

Hopefully this will provide some useful ideas for PD leaders seeking to do the same, and some of you may see represented in my context challenges which you face within your own.

It must be said, this process has been accelerated massively due to the time and space that I have had to engage in curriculum development while school has been shut to protect against Coronavirus. In many ways, I’ve been busier the last 5 weeks than ever, but the headspace and time to focus afforded by my isolation at my desk at home, bar my weekly duties in school, has certainly provided a silver lining from a school leadership perspective. My thoughts and best wishes to all colleagues across the country.

Why remake the curriculum?

In this blog, I described the process I went through of distilling the various themes and topics within PD into a 61 topic, 5 strand curriculum map, and then a little about how this was implemented through three delivery mechanisms:

  • Three taught tutor time sessions per week

  • Assemblies

  • Themed off-timetable days once per term

The lion’s share of the curriculum delivery, and therefore of the work around sequencing the curriculum, was focussed in the three weekly tutor time sessions. However, in order to accommodate a changing school day, we were forced to compromise and cut one of our weekly tutor sessions from 2020-21, meaning that I lost a third of my delivery time.

Rather than throw my toys out of the pram and bemoan the negligence with which my beautiful curriculum had been smashed mere weeks after I’d finalised it (true story) I decided to see the upside – this gave me a great opportunity to see how lean and efficient I could make my new curriculum. Indeed, I’d already been having doubts about the following in my initial model:

  • While spiralling was taking place, it was inconsistent and inexplicit. Some topics were rarely revisited, and I was worried that content taught in earlier years might be lost more significantly than I had anticipated.

  • The different year groups were studying often vastly different topics at the same time, meaning that drawing links to the PD curriculum through assemblies, school events and student leadership activities was difficult.

  • To some extent, the sequencing itself was random rather than logical – trying to sequence 28 topics over 5 years for each strand (PSHE, Citizenship and PDC) was naturally difficult but some decisions became close to arbitrary. I was aware that some years overemphasised particular themes like relationships (Year 7 and 8 in my original model) and then these were rarely revisited later.

More than anything, this gave me a chance to re-evaluate the design of the 61 topics themselves, as I was forced to take 61 PD topics and a large number of other ‘essential’ topics also delivered through tutor time (the Year 7 extended induction programme, our statutory safeguarding information programme, careers programme and more had filled to the brim our 84 gaps) and condense these into only 56 spaces.

What did we do?

Redefining the subject boundaries

The first thing I had to do was cut one of my three ‘subjects’ that I had organised my PD curriculum into. Naturally, it was the hodgepodge ‘Personal development and careers’ which was culled. However, this left my careers programme, various SMSC topics, our safeguarding curriculum and our character development curriculum homeless.

In order to re-home these itinerant topics, I went about a root-and-branch pruning of my PSHE and Citizenship curricula. During this process, I discovered that the more I tried to draw links between different topics and strands, the more I found existed, and into my mind popped the question: can I coherently organise these curricula into sub-strands which A) make sense and B) allow me to deal with less content at once when deciding on sequencing? In essence, I was looking for a way to hold less curriculum stuff in my head at once to enable me to sequence more successfully.

Out of this conundrum came the model I am now working with:

  • two ‘subjects’ through which my PD curriculum is taught

  • each ‘subject’ is organised into a six more or less evenly sized strands (e.g. ‘My relationships’ in PSHE, or ‘Democracy’ in Citizenship)

  • each strand is sequenced into four topics, one topic taught in each year from Year 7 to 10 (more on the exclusion of Year 11 later)

This also organically allowed me to solve an issue I had identified before: how can I pull together what the different year groups are studying to allow for more coherent messaging through the wider curriculum, and align with relevant national events? For example, the democracy strand is now taught during autumn 2, the same time as UK Parliament week, immediately allowing my entire cohort to engage with UK Parliament week alongside their actual learning through citizenship lessons. Neat!

Thus, citizenship became:

Notably, I placed careers education within Citizenship and our safeguarding curriculum within PSHE. Both of these areas are taught through a variety of delivery mechanisms, not just tutor time, but this fit naturally within the distinction that I am now working with. Within this model:

  • PSHE is essentially everything ‘personal’ – it deals with the individual and their circle of friends and family.

  • Citizenship is essentially about everything to do with the individual and society – it deals with the ways in which we play our part in our wider community, and the impacts that that community may have on us.

Sequencing into topics across four years, not five

I was finding it difficult to decide which topics were left for Year 11. This wasn’t just because it felt ‘late’, but also because of a pragmatic concern that most PD leads will have experienced: tutor time, assembly time, drop down days et al are the first casualties of the ‘Year 11 intervention’ culture which, like it or not, permeates almost every school working within our high-stakes accountability system. My school doesn’t even have Year 11 yet, but I have led PD in a brilliant school that did and you’ve got to be realistic about these things. Unless you’re the Head, there really is no guarantee that PD time is protected and perhaps this is right, too.

So, I cut my curriculum time again, now down to just 48 spaces (6 half terms per year over four years for two subjects). Year 11 will follow a bespoke PD curriculum designed for their needs and aware of the need for some to focus on intervention and catch up etc – more on this in a future blog I hope but at this stage it’s all academic as I won’t be executing said plan until 2022.

Sequencing the content to be taught in each topic

At this point I knew I needed to think extremely carefully about what goes where so as to avoid important content getting cut arbitrarily (‘oh, this half term is only 5 weeks so GOODBYE First Past the Post!’) and to ensure really effective spiralling.

The idea of teaching ‘the right things at the right time’ is an immense challenge with PD. Unlike most academic curriculum subjects, PD learning is inextricably linked with children’s development and learning at home. As such, the sequencing of content to fit their age and stage is messy and will never suit everyone – kids develop at wildly different rates and so finding the ‘right time’ to teach content like relationships and sex education or safety and awareness around drugs is immensely difficult. Too early and you risk teaching a watered down version which won’t give them the knowledge they need, too late and they don’t have the knowledge to make safer choices when faced with them. Moreover, there’s nothing worse than trying to teach poorly chosen topics to Year 10 and 11 students who:

  • Know it already

  • Were taught it already by you four years ago but you forgot because your curriculum model has changed twelve times since

  • Found it out online or through experience because you didn’t teach it to them and they needed to find out somehow

  • Are thirsty for a challenge which you aren’t giving them

As such, having done the initial sequencing of topics I spent a lot of time fine-tuning, making sure that the questions and topics at each stage were interesting, more complex than those which had come before and most importantly pitched to challenge all of our students, but also relevant and timely with regards to the needs to the majority of students at each age and stage within our student community.

Nevertheless I was finding the process of fine-tuning these sequences difficult, without a really clear idea of the specific questions and concepts to be covered within each topic. This led to the inevitable conclusion that I was going to need to sequence all of the lessons too, not just the topics themselves, before I could be reasonably confident that the model would cohere well enough for me to implement it.

All of this led to twelve strand overviews like the below:

Hopefully this gives some idea of what the end result of this stage of my curriculum-making process looks like.

In summary, my curriculum making process involved:

  1. Pulling together all of the content (statutory and otherwise) that I wanted to teach

  2. Deciding on the overarching categories or subjects into which I would organise this content

  3. Categorising the content into these subjects

  4. Dividing the content within these subjects into manageable subject-strands, which could be internally sequenced

  5. Turning this content into discrete lessons, focussed around specific learning questions

  6. Sequencing these learning questions within these strands over the four year curriculum

I’ve tried to visualise this intangible process in the animation below:

What’s next? Turning plans into reality; implementation and impact

I’m really happy with the long-term plan for this curriculum – I definitely feel that it’s an improvement on what I had before. However, I’m well aware that good intentions can often come to nothing, so I’ve now turned my attention to how this long term plan becomes real resources in the classroom which our diverse team of tutors can teach effectively. I’ll hopefully talk more about this in the next blog.

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