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The Challenge of the Changing Curriculum

  • Curriculum
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Mark Enser 14 November, 2017

The Challenge of the Changing Curriculum

By Mark Enser

Schools are facing a number of pressures at the moment. Real term budgets are being slashed, there is an issue with recruitment and an even bigger issue in retention and we have had a decade of constant structural changes to the school system. To top it all off we have radical changes to both the GCSE and A Level curriculum. Certainly, in the case of Geography, the new specifications involve a complete re-write of the course and also mean that changes are needed to KS3 to ensure that pupils are well prepared. These changes present us with challenges but also with opportunities – if we look hard enough.

What does a 9 look like?

One of the challenges of the new curriculum is that not only have they replaced the old A*-G with the numbers 9-1 but we have no real idea of what pupils will need to do to achieve these grades. We know that the same proportion of pupils who achieved a C last year will achieve a 4 but with the new challenging content the grade boundaries are impossible to predict. Not that it has stopped people spending a lot of energy trying.

The opportunity here is to ignore the nonsense of trying to constantly track something as ephemeral as “progress”. Instead of worrying where pupils are we can spend our time worrying about what pupils need to do to improve. Instead of pretending we can work out what a Grade 6 looks like we can just decide what excellence looks like in our subject and then work towards that.

Raising the bar

One thing you notice as soon as you look at the new A Level specification is the increased level of challenge. I am now teaching things that I first encountered as an undergraduate. The new GCSE specification meanwhile has content brought down from A Level with questions in the exam lifted straight from the Key Stage above.

The solution to this issue is to look again at how we approach our Key Stage 3 and increase the level of challenge there. I never fail to be impressed with how our pupils raise to the occasion when we lift our expectations. I look back at some of the things I taught in Key Stage 3 in the past and feel embarrassed at how low my expectations were.

Planning to make the time

The biggest challenge of these new specifications is simply finding the time to write and resource the new courses. There has been almost nothing that we have been able to take from the previous specifications, it has all needed planning out fresh. Whichever way you look at it, this is going to need a huge time commitment.

This does present several opportunities as well. One thing it can do it to encourage collaborative planning. The only way to plan out the new courses, and keep your sanity, is to divide out the planning between the department. Plan out a rough sketch of the unit together and then work out who is going to take which part to write. Creating the overview as a team means that you get to have very important conversations about pedagogy and subject knowledge and dividing out the topic means that you can play to your strengths as a group.



Demands of the subject

The new GCSE and A Level specifications make new demands on a teacher’s own subject knowledge. In Geography I am teaching Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, organic and inorganic carbon pumps and adiabatic lapse rates all for the first time. And that is just one week of a topic. To teach these new specifications well we need to be on top of our game.

The opportunity here is to rethink how we use CPD. In my own school, we have given over most of the CPD time to departments to look at and explore subject knowledge. We have used this time to explore threshold concepts, identify gaps in our own knowledge and share our own areas of expertise with each other. It is a great time to reengage with our subject professional organisations and collaborate widely with others across our local area and elsewhere.

I don’t want to downplay the challenges that planning for the curriculum presents but I do want us to take the chance to find the silver linings and celebrate the chance to do things differently. One day we’ll look back on all this and smile. Trust me.


Mark Enser has been teaching Geography for 14 years in a range of different schools. He is now Head of Geography at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. He writes at and tweets @EnserMark