Creating a diverse curriculum: A subject-by-subject approach

Written by: Stephen Whitney | Published:
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Diversity has become a key area of focus in recent months and many schools are reviewing their curriculum. Stephen Whitney describes his school’s subject-by-subject approach, including some subject-specific examples


At a time of student bubbles, track and trace, and rapid and repeated change, September 2020 saw the start of my second year of responsibility for curriculum at The Hazeley Academy, part of the 5 Dimensions Trust in Milton Keynes.

When an issue gains attention, the tendency is that suddenly everyone needs to be doing something and this often leads to an ever-changing focus and lip-service being paid to things that are crucially important if we are to hold true to our values as educators.

Fortunately, after discussions with deputy principal, Gemma Williamson, who has responsibility for teaching and learning and manages our crucially important subject leaders, we had already decided on a less is more approach to delivering impactful change.

In my discussions with Gemma, we identified that by focusing on different areas, we would have a range of starting points, boosting our ability to drive change and widening the impact we could achieve.

We decided to ask each subject leader to work on one of three key areas as a curriculum target within their development plan over the course of the academic year. The choices were:

  • Transferring intent into impact.
  • Improving provision for able, gifted and talented students.
  • Celebrating diversity and promoting equality.

When Jez Bennett, principal of the 5 Dimension’s Leadership and Training Centre, conducted his annual review of the curriculum at Hazeley in September 2020, we asked for the areas two and three to be given particular focus.

When it came to diversity, the review confirmed my expectations that although these areas were addressed – and issues well responded to when they arose – we were not consistently using the curriculum to drive our aim of growing a vibrant community of exceptional people who know that the differences between us make us stronger.


Ownership by subject leaders

With guidance and support, subject leaders were asked to select one of the three areas as their curriculum target.

Looking back after a tumultuous year when we were hit hard by cases and isolations in November and December, having a narrow focus enabled our subject leaders to keep this work going amid the many other adaptations they were having to make. The ownership provided by their involvement in the selection of the target was also a significant factor.


A focus on diversity and equality

Subject leaders for geography, history, philosophy and ethics, and modern foreign languages were those who put themselves forward to work on choice three – celebrating diversity and promoting equality.

These subject leaders were given the following broad target: “To ensure that the curriculum in your subject reflects the diversity within it and promotes equality.”

Along with a draft example for an action plan in mathematics (chosen as it is both my subject and often seen as more challenging to change), they were also given the following steps:

  • Identify a year group/s that you will focus on.
  • Identify a unit/s still to come this year that you will improve.
  • Identify opportunities to improve within the units and consider how you will deliver this.
  • Identify any barriers.
  • Deliver the project.
  • Review the impact.

Each of the leaders in these subjects was now working towards a common goal but had the freedom and support to make it happen in a way that was intrinsic and long-lasting in their subject.


Geography

Glenn Attard has led the geography department for several years and decided the time was right to push his curriculum to make sure that students understood their place in the world.

He has worked with his team to develop a thematic, continent-based approach to the scheme of work in years 7 and 8. This builds on a style of learning that students have experience of when arriving from year 6 and enhances the impact of diversifying the topics they study.

By “travelling” around the continents, it allows students to understand the impact of geography on other societies as well as enabling the revisiting of knowledge and skills in different contexts, enhancing their ability to recall and apply them as they study new areas. It also enables the curriculum to build better connections to other subjects.

As a school, we are continually looking to improve students’ metacognition and their ability to connect learning across subjects. By reflecting on diversity and equality, Glen has been able to identify next steps to grow the connections between the subjects.


History

Our subject leader, Alex Laurie, led his team in an approach that sought to view events in context, thus avoiding studying them in isolation or introducing areas or topics in a way that would seem tokenistic or bolted on.

Instead of students studying the history of Britain chronologically, he used Britain as a base to study the events of the world. By looking at how Britain relates to the rest of the world over time, events are contextualised into the broader world.

For example, by looking at Thomas Beckett as part of the religious transition happening across the world at the time, students are better able to understand the events and pressures that shaped his life and death.

Studying the Spanish Armada in the context of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation enables students to understand the event in a far more sophisticated way.

By seeking to increase the range of stories represented within the scheme of work, students are better able to understand their own history and their interconnectedness with the world and historical events.

This approach has increased students’ range of knowledge and understanding. However, their ability to communicate evidence has decreased, but by monitoring for the impact of these changes within lessons, Alex has been able to plan to address the issues that have arisen.

His next steps are to embed those lessons that address current societal issues more effectively within the scheme of work along with unifying lessons and integrating homework.


Philosophy and ethics

We are proud of how students from a diverse range of backgrounds come together at Hazeley to be part of one community. Our Philosophy and Ethics Department, led for many years by Matt Bonnett, offers one of the most consistently popular GCSE options for students.

Matt is reflective in his approach to his curriculum and focused on the equality unit that students in year 7 will study at the end of the academic year.

Black Lives Matter, treatment of LGBT+ individuals and gender inequalities have been integrated into the unit and after first delivery, Matt and his team will reflect on the changes to improve delivery going forward.

The team had already carried out work to ensure that the taught curriculum reflected the lived experience of students, such as ensuring that in teaching Christianity we covered the aspects of the religion that our students experienced in their everyday lives.

At the same time, teacher Suhail Dhanji is currently carrying out research for his Master’s with the University of Oxford into the extent and role of implicit bias in the RE classroom. This will be used to understand how this affects the delivery of topics within philosophy and ethics, and also to increase awareness and reflect on approaches that teachers take when dealing with potentially sensitive issues.


Modern foreign languages

At Hazeley, our UPS (upper pay scale) staff are asked to select a project that reflects their increased experience and ability to develop areas of the school.

Amy Maslin, learning leader for key stage 5 languages, took on the curriculum target for her UPS project this year and, inspired by students in the Academy’s Equality Group (who were awarded the Mayor of Milton Keynes’ Local Heroes Award in May for dedication towards anti-racism in school), she aimed for every student to feel seamlessly represented in the MFL classroom (so that they don’t even notice).

This term, year 7 will study the unit “Mi familia y mis amigos (My family and friends)” and one of the most powerful things that Amy has done as part of her work on the Spanish curriculum is to ensure that the vocabulary taught enables all students to be able to describe their physical appearance in as much detail as they would like and to see their diverse family models represented.

She is also continuing to work on ensuring that our students are exposed to different voices and traditions from around the Spanish-speaking world, so that the experiences we give them are beyond the European, building on the excellent work that the MFL team already does around important festivals such as the Day of the Dead in Mexico.


Conclusions

A school’s curriculum is never completed and should constantly evolve. If we are to connect our young people to the world around them, we need to give them the skills and knowledge to do this. We need to ensure they feel valued as individuals with a unique history and can see how they fit into their wider community.

By giving subject leaders the freedom to work towards a broad target in a way that suits their subject, we will see impactful change. It also means that I have a range of leaders who will be able to share best practice and support other subjects when it is their turn to reflect on diversity and promote equality within their discipline.I have been able to do this as we are part of an outward-facing, values-led trust that understands the impact that effective middle leaders provide.

By placing trust in the skills, knowledge, expertise and passion of subject leaders and their teams to do fewer things really well (and giving them the support, time and opportunity to make it happen), we will have a curriculum that is only going to improve over time.

  • Stephen Whitney is assistant principal at The Hazeley Academy in Milton Keynes, part of the 5 Dimensions Trust. He will be discussing more about his school’s curriculum diversity and equality work at the SecEd two-day curriculum design conference taking place online on July 6 and 7. Visit www.curriculumconference.com


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