I have been a teacher for 30 years, a Headteacher for 15 years and, at the age of 54, this much I know about how we own, we shape and we celebrate our curriculum.
My friend and collaborator, Tom Sherrington, recently said this of a school’s curriculum: “Your curriculum defines your school. Own it. Shape it. Celebrate it.” His sentiments have stuck with me these past 24 hours and prompted me to share a moment of teaching magic which exemplifies why we do what we do at Huntington School.
We are an old-fashioned, stand-alone local authority comprehensive school of 1,527 students. We serve our local community, which, in socio-economic terms, is diverse. Our students come from the full range of socio-economic backgrounds and arrive at our school with the full range of prior attainment. We teach a great deal of our lessons in mixed prior attainment groups because we find that mixed prior attainment groupings serve our most vulnerable students best.
Currently, however, we have a small group of Year 7s in a nurture group for English. That group has an English lesson for at least one hour every day. We have a curriculum for that nurture group that includes Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Not a modern English version of the Scottish play, but a full blown study of the original text. We do that because, in a state comprehensive school we believe that all our students should access “the best that has been thought and said”. Those nurture class students’ counterparts down the road at the renowned York independent schools will be studying the Bard, so why shouldn’t they?
And so it came to pass, on the Friday before February half-term, that I covered that Year 7 nurture group. They were in the computer room, aided by two of our teaching assistants, Libby and Jack, typing up their essays: “To what extent does the character Macbeth change during the play?”
Their teacher is one of our deputy head teachers, erstwhile head of English and one of the best English teachers you could wish for; she had told the class I would be taking them. Every time one of the class, let’s call her Mary, saw me in the corridor, she asked me whether I was really going to teach them. Even though I always replied in the affirmative, the next time I saw her she would ask the same question. We both got unbearably excited by the prospect.
The day duly arrived. I hadn’t taught Macbeth for a while. I wanted to begin the lesson with a bang! I know (or thought I knew) the first scene by heart. I got them to swivel 180° on their seats, away from their PCs, to face me. I stood in the centre of the room. I got them to imagine we were on a windswept heath. It was raining, the lightning was crashing down and the thunder rolling around our ears. I began, loudly and dramatically, to recite the opening scene…“When shall we three meet again?”
I swung round, getting louder. The ICT teacher in the next room began looking through the door to see what the hell was going on. “In thunder lightning or in rain?” It was at this point that doubt began to set in. As I roared the next line, I was thinking “What the hell comes next?” “When the hurlyburly’s done…” And I stopped for more than a beat because I had lost my rhythm and my banging start to the lesson was about to fade into a whimper.
I looked around the room, desperately, when I saw Mary up out of her seat. She caught my eye and, barely able to contain herself, she yelled “When the battle’s lost and won, That’ll be ere the set of sun.” Oh my goodness! I glanced at Libby and Jack who were transfixed in utter delight. Mary carried on and the whole class finished with a rousing, “Fair is foul and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air!”
Now, I recount this primarily because, in a career in the classroom which spans over three decades, it was one of the most magical moments. But I also record it here because it is about Huntington School. It is about putting great teachers with the students who need great teachers most (none of that would have happened without my amazing colleague), it is about deciding that what is good for the highest starters in curriculum terms is good for everyone, and it is about creating a culture where we educate children for the pure joy of it.
So, Tom, we own our curriculum. We have shaped it based on what is best for our students. And, here, and in many other places, we celebrate what our challenging, rich curriculum can do for girls like Mary.