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Thinking About Personal Development as a Curriculum

I originally wrote this blog for the CLA's Schools blog hosted here on the 26th of February.

The 2019-20 academic year is an exciting and challenging one for school leaders. Against the backdrop of a new Ofsted framework and rapidly shifting educational zeitgeist towards a focus on curriculum, schools are busily reorganising and rewriting their programmes of study.

Alongside this has been another marked shift in the educational landscape: a renewed focus on what Ofsted are calling Personal Development. Be it through the 2019 framework or the DFE’s incoming statutory guidance on relationships and sex education, leaders are also working on what in some schools could and should be a revolution in how we prepare students for the future.

Personal development refers to the development of knowledge, skills, dispositions and habits which will promote and support our students in leading healthy, happy and fulfilling adult lives. This encompasses PSHE, but also careers education, citizenship, character education and many other elements besides.

I and others have written elsewhere about the importance of considering ‘personal development’ as a curriculum. By curriculum, I mean a coherent body of material to be studied. The rationale for this appeals to prevailing educational thought: to teach anything really well we must attend to what we are teaching, not just how. Yet, in many schools the various strands of personal development and their planning are the domain of staff valiantly working with neither the time nor support to plan and implement the kind of curriculum that our children deserve. Therefore, personal development too often lacks the kind of senior curriculum leadership and attention now finally being paid to what might be called the ‘academic’ curriculum.

However, I’d argue that in planning the personal development curriculum we can and should learn from the most powerful lessons of curriculum leadership, and I’ve suggested how some of these lessons can apply below:

1. Begin with what must be learnt, and plan backwards

In ‘academic’ subjects this often means auditing the knowledge needed for excellence in GCSE and A Levels and working backwards to ensure that this knowledge is taught well from the earliest opportunity be it Year 7, Year 3 or even in the early years.

However, in personal development this is complicated. Leaders need to think carefully about what knowledge and skills are truly needed for children in their context to lead the healthy, happy and fulfilling adult lives to which they are entitled. This cannot be an afternoon’s work and demands the attention of the entire school community including parents and the children themselves. Once this body of knowledge is beginning to form, worthwhile attention can then be paid to how it shall be sequenced and taught.

2. Sequence the curriculum carefully

The question of when to teach what is an exceedingly challenging one, which can perhaps only be answered in the context of each school. Consider the competing importance of sexual health, internet safety, an understanding of bullying and puberty for a new Year 7 student in a school with perhaps limited delivery time. Making decisions that are right for the children in a given school demands more than one leader’s consideration.

Nevertheless, the idea of beginning with and embedding core knowledge, concepts, examples and experiences before moving on to those of greater complexity which require that prior knowledge is an important one. For example, before trying to teach children about, say, votes at 16 (a staple of many a Key Stage 3 tutor time activity) they really need a working understanding of things like parliament, democracy, MPs, government, and perhaps also universal suffrage and rights as well. There’s only limited value in asking students to debate and evaluate complex ideas before they have the knowledge to access them effectively.

3. Consider interleaving and retrieval

We are seeking to teach students about an enormous range of important things during their time with us, and many ideas within personal development are ideas that we will wish students to retain long after they have left our halls. However, we know that knowledge that is not used is not retained.

Ideas such as retrieval (the act of recalling information already learnt) and interleaving (the weaving together of different topics throughout the curriculum so that they are revisited and developed over a longer period of time) are powerful strategies which should be brought to bear in learning around personal development as well. Do we really want the totality of a student’s knowledge of STIs and contraception, for example, to be covered in a four-week block in Year 8 and then never thought of again?

4. Subject knowledge matters, and its development should be supported and ongoing

We know that the subject knowledge of the teacher matters. Why then do we expect every teacher in a school to be confident in teaching students about content as diverse as the biology of puberty and nutrition, the philosophy of different religious beliefs and ethical principles, the sociology of demographic change and the legalities of drugs and the criminal justice system?

Subject knowledge development need not be expensive CPD or complicated retraining, nor need it require enormous amounts of time. It can be as simple as resources with additional readings attached, or a few minutes on tricky concepts coming up in the tutor time programme in staff-briefing on a Monday morning. Leaders ignore the development of subject knowledge in their staff delivering personal development at their peril.

5. The core and hinterland distinction

Christine Counsell (2018) writes beautifully about the idea of the core and hinterland in curriculum. My clumsy summary would be that the core is the essential knowledge that we wish to be retained, and the hinterland is the stuff that we cover and experience that may not need to be remembered but that adds depth, breadth and richness to the curricular experience.

There is most certainly a hinterland in personal development. Be it a great assembly telling stories of wonderful activists and leaders, a series of embarrassing bodies anecdotes from a visiting facilitator or meeting a visiting MP. We mustn’t neglect this, despite the need to secure the core.

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