Go ‘beyond outstanding’

Helen Sharpe

Helen works at The Radclyffe School in Oldham as English AST and lead teacher for Literacy. She has worked tirelessly to build a culture of reading through regular assemblies and whole-school initiatives while trialling and sharing best practice in pedagogy. Helen is passionate about curriculum design and led the development of a KS3 curriculum, which followed 'the journey of literature' in her faculty, underpinned with fortnightly grammar and reading/spelling lessons.

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Website: helendora.edublogs.org Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Image credit: Flickr // jpbrm. Image credit: Flickr // jpbrm.

‘Being at the forefront of educational innovation' and 'never standing still' are two phrases that describe my faculty and school well. After we moved from Requires Improvement to Outstanding after our 2015 Ofsted inspection, the very next day our headteacher began to use the phrase “beyond outstanding”.

As English AST, I thrive on this ethos and am constantly on the lookout for the most recent research into best practice (it's the part of my job I love most!)

In the interim period between our 2013 and 2015 inspection, I attended a course with David Didau where he mentioned working with a school on a 'story of English' curriculum. Students journeyed through classic texts from Homer to present day, all underpinned with weekly grammar lessons. After contacting Didau to find out more about this, he offered to collaborate with us on a curriculum outline. This is what we came up with:

The results were transformational in a curriculum change which now seems to me so obvious and sensible. Lesson plans (and classroom talk) emphasised academic language, vocabulary and grammar knowledge throughout, empowering our students - many of whom come to us very word-poor - to write literary essays from term one of Year 7.

The curriculum is extract-based, therefore we did not need to buy any sets of books. Lessons were practically resource-free, as our resources were the myriad of high-quality classic texts flowing through the curriculum. For both English and grammar lessons, anthologies were produced with the text extracts and glossaries. We collect these and reuse them.

Admittedly, working with Didau was a significant (and we felt) justifiable expense, as this gave us the bare bones of a curriculum “This expense gave us a curriculum which we could flesh out and adapt as a faculty.” which we could then flesh out and adapt as a faculty. We are fortunate that we had some budget for this, however. In different circumstances, we could have developed this curriculum ourselves by deciding what knowledge (context, academic language, grammar, writer's craft/intentions, vocabulary) we needed students to learn, basing the curriculum around this. This approach could work for any subject area.

The other big commitment was time. To develop an entirely new curriculum, we needed to give staff time firstly to discuss and agree how each scheme would work, what texts to include etc, and then to develop the scheme. Again, we were fortunate to have a faculty conference (a Friday evening-Saturday afternoon event where we stayed in a hotel and used their conference facilities). Here, we could break the back of this project, using meeting time for further planning. The most essential part of making this a success, however, was dividing the lessons between a fairly large English team.

There was some reluctance and resistance to such a huge, whole-scale change. To tackle this, it was important to be clear about the rationale and 'sell' it as a long-term win. Once work was divided out and people were less overwhelmed by the job ahead (and, more importantly, when we started to see the results of a literary, academic, word-rich curriculum), attitudes changed.

How did we know the hard work was paying off? Students very quickly rose to the challenge of a curriculum built on 'desirable difficulties': they spoke using an academic register; they wrote essays from Year 7 (no more 'introduction to English' schemes!); the assessment results across KS3 were our best ever. We are currently enjoying our best ever exam results at KS4, too. This is undoubtedly related to the fact that this cohort has experienced a challenging and rigorous KS3 curriculum, with many of the same approaches now being used through KS4.

The grammar curriculum running alongside mainstream English lessons is based on the thinking of Debra Myhill and Helen Lines: that effective “It was important to be clear about the rationale and 'sell' it as a long-term win.”grammar teaching is rooted in context. Our Year 7 study grammar for writing - each lesson focuses on one element of grammar (eg compound adjectives) which is modelled using a mentor text from the grammar anthology. Once students have learned the skill, they practise using it in a piece of creative writing. There is a strong focus on redrafting and experimentation modelled first by the teacher, asking what effect does adding this adverb; moving this subordinate clause; changing this verb have on the sentence? All of this is resource-free, and therefore cost-free!

Year 8 study grammar for reading, the difference being that they use the grammar skill to write academically about a text. For example, what adjectives describe the tone of this passage? What active verb could be used in place of 'describe' or 'show'?

The high-cost elements of this process (working with Didau and a faculty conference) were worthwhile investments, as they gave us an opportunity to produce clear rationale and curriculum outlines, which we could then flesh out. It also gave us an opportunity to agree as a team on a unified approach to this curriculum development with everything we felt was important at the heart of our planning (academic rigour, oracy, challenge, high-quality texts, grammar, vocabulary, reading and extended writing).

Since experiencing such success, we have run English conferences to help other schools implement some of the ideas that have raised standards so dramatically for students of English.

The above has been a labour of love, and a real sea change for us in the way we approach the teaching of KS3. The students feel empowered, and thrive on the level of challenge at the heart of this curriculum. We will continue to 'never stand still', whatever that may mean for the future!

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