From values and beliefs to mission statements, aims and purposes, the culture of a school is the symbolic glue that binds everything and everyone together.
If culture offers a blueprint for ‘how we do things around here’, curriculum provides the ‘what’ – a context for our activities and interactions. The two could coexist perfectly well if it wasn’t for a third element of school life, whose dominance acts like a brick wall separating culture and curriculum: I am talking about assessment.
Culture is built with community in mind. The aspirational words and phrases commonly found on a school’s website, in a prospectus and displayed in entrance halls and corridors, are there to promote social harmony, equal opportunity and synergy across the school’s community. These values-based appellations provide a script to leaders and teachers so they can promote positive attitudes and behaviours for learning.
Culture happens regardless of whether you have such words, and choose to use them, or not; but pegging out shared beliefs and values is better than allowing a culture to grow toxic through neglect. It would be ideal if a culture’s default setting were one of harmony and inclusion, without the need to actively promote positive behaviours, but sadly this may not be the case (as Golding’s Lord of the Fliesshows us). So we work to keep it positive.
Curriculum gives us all something to do. The canon of knowledge and proficiencies which we deem to be worth acquiring are laid out neatly in year-by-year chunks. A syllabus is planned and taught in classrooms – providing an agenda for the day’s learning activities and interactions. It is an arbitrary list of topics and skills; we could have chosen anything really, and I am still scratching my head trying to understand why algebra enjoys so much air-time, but it’s supposed to be a level-playing field and the attitudes and character traits acquired whilst ploughing through the curriculum topics are as beneficial to the students as the content itself.
Schools are beginning to recognise the value of ‘dual learning’ – learning how to learn at the same time as learning maths or science or geography. Some call it learnability, learning habits or learning powers.
It is possible, then, to deliver a curriculum at the same time as developing the attitudes, behaviours and capacities promoted by the culture that surrounds it. There is nothing in the curriculum that prevents this from happening.
You can learn how algebra works at the same time as developing resilience; if you try to solve an algebraic equation with your learning partner, you can develop some collaborative problem-solving and communication skills whilst you are tackling it.
The problem is assessment– or I should say, our obsession with it. The aims of a school’s culture and the aims of its curriculum rarely coalesce when you add assessment into the mix. It seems that everything which takes place in a school nowadays has to have a visible, measurable impact on pupils’ own individual attainment and progress scores. The success or inadequacy of a school today is measured almost exclusively by its performance data – the number of individuals who have met national expectations. So the emphasis is always on individual achievement. And our assessment procedures are honed and hammered into a design that filters out anything other than quantitative data that helps us rank individuals’ attainment and progress.
You could teach geography in such a way that brings culture and curriculum neatly together: geographical knowledge and skills can be taught alongside cooperation, communication, environmental and social responsibility, and creativity. Topics you find in a geography syllabus can be the context for collaborative work; you can provide opportunities to research and plan together, deliver presentations and problem-solve to find creative solutions to environmental problems.
In the same way, you can teach grammar or punctuation in real-world scenarios that bring meaning and purpose, through mantle of the expert, writing in role as marketing directors or sales & advertising executives working as a team. Or you can teach mathematics through construction projects or young entrepreneur initiatives.
Good teachers do this all the time, but it carries a risk, because at the end of term, when the summative assessments come around again, pupils will not be tested on the collaborative or communication skills they have picked up, or the resilient ways in which they have pursued their curiosity, or exercised their critical thinking; they will be assessed on the curriculum content they can remember. If creative and collaborative learning activities do not ultimately deliver adequate knowledge retention, then they will be challenged. If pupils’ attainment scores are low, then the creative practices the teacher employed in class will be questioned, no matter how much they may have helped to instil the values espoused in the school’s culture at the same time, and no matter how much such creative teaching may have raised pupils’ engagement too. These benefits are not currently measured.
This is why some teachers teach only from the front and why learning objectives are often reduced to uninspiring sentences taken directly from NC programmes of study. ‘Today we are learning to… apply phonic knowledge to decode route words.’
Schools must demonstrate that every pupil has made individual progress; so assessment procedures, from marking books to setting exams and sorting and ranking the results, are designed to show the progress which each individual has made. Assessments at the end of a topic inevitably influence the learning that is planned at the beginning of it.
Ours is not a curriculum for learning, it is a curriculum for assessing. It is not a curriculum-based assessment, it is an assessment-based curriculum and the aim is for every individual to make progress.
But the worlds of work and leisure beyond school do not work in this individualistic way.
Take sport. The result of a rugby match is not calculated by tallying up the number of tackles or catches each individual player has made and whether these have risen since the last match. Neither is the success of a drama production measured by calculating the number of performers who did or did not remember their lines. One hundred percent of them could remember their words and it wouldn’t necessarily make a good performance. Similarly, the success of a business is not measured by how much progress each individual employee has made compared with their own progress scores of the previous year or the progress scores of employees in a neighbouring business.
The same is true of any community: it cannot be built only on the individual achievements and goals of its members. This is how society breaks down.
In delivering an assessment system that only tracks and reports on individuals’ attainment and progress, we undermine the benefits of working together. There is no synergy in an examination hall, only competition and fear. There is no value to society in creating a climate in which individual success matters more than collective responsibility and working together.
The curriculum is influenced by the need to asses its impact, delivering knowledge and skills that can be assessed efficiently and quickly. Over time, the culture falls in line too, so that it promotes independence over inter-dependence.
But it is inter-dependence on which a successful culture is built, this is the paradox for school leaders.
For each and every one of its students to make good progress will always be an important purpose of school. But are there other facets that can be observed and reported on? What might other criteria be?
The principle focus of every SEO visit to my school seems to be the number of individual pupils who are on track to meet national expectations. This is not the SEO’s fault, that is his brief. But what if he came with a different script, one that looked at long-term as well as short-term aims? Could the SEO look at how our culture is working and delivering on the values we have?
Can we design an assessment system which monitors the attitudes and character traits we espouse within our school culture and for these to enjoy equal status with academic progress scores? Can we observe and track the children’s cooperation, communication, resilience and so on? Would such an assessment system bring benefits to the curriculum and to our culture? I think it would.
What kind of curriculum can deliver these attitudes and character traits? I would suggest that the curriculum we currently have need not change significantly – it is a syllabus, not a scheme of work, after all. But if teachers and school leaders knew that their school’s performance data included a commentary on the attitudes, behaviours and skills that are best developed within group work and creative challenges, then they would feel more confident to set up group scenarios and creative projects that would deliver them. And learning objectives would reflect more than just lines from the syllabus.
How you play your part, how you participate, what you bring to the table and what attitudes you display to others – these matter as much as your own progress trajectory and scaled score. Perhaps they matter even more. For when students leave school and enter the worlds of work, relationships, family and leisure, they will soon realise that these human activities are rarely measured in attainment and progress scores alone.
Change the assessment system, and everything else can change.