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  • Tom Oakley

Thinking Curriculum (2): Context

In the previous post – where I simply describe the 6 inter-connected parts that make up my mental model of curriculum, teaching and learning – I describe Context first and curriculum and everything else follows. Here’s an extract where I state what I mean by context:

Context - Context in this sense means thinking about what your community of learners need and what your team can offer (the collective expertise you have) including the resources/facilities you have access to. These factors should influence your curriculum planning.

In this blog post, I’ll offer a deeper insight into what I mean and explain why your school and curriculum are unique and shouldn’t aim to mimic anyone else’s. As ever, I’ve included questions to support our thinking.


Where you work, who you work with and the community you serve goes a long way in the make-up of your context and each of these should influence your curriculum offer because these contextual factors will guarantee that even if you have the same ‘planned curriculum’ (i.e. you teach the same things in the same order) as the school down the road, the ‘lived curriculum’ the children experience at your school will be unique.

Also, it’s worth stating straight away that your context is ever evolving and this is true for curriculum too - it’s important to ensure that what we offer, matches what our pupils need and that our CPD curriculum matches our colleagues’ needs. More on this another day.

Where you work:

No other school is in exactly the same location as yours and no other school has exactly the same premises and facilities as yours. Already, before you begin to plan a thing, you’re starting on a unique footing and it’s important to be aware of this, embrace it and factor this into your curriculum, teaching and learning designs.

Where you work can influence not only who comes to your school, but what connections you can make to the local area: the history and heritage, the environment and the economy, as well as the people within the place.

But when thinking about where we work, it’s important to make sure we don’t overlook the importance of the school site and facilities. For example, primary schools with access to a subject-specific room or two, or with their own huge playing field or forest area, will be able to do some activities other schools can’t. Your setting is unique, so do make the most of what you have (and bring in resources where you can) to meet your needs.

In maths this could mean creating a nearby Maths Trail to learn from the locality, and the inclusion of Maths Eyes images of interesting places. Or it might involve buying further resources to support our pedagogy. I want to add here, that Juliet Robertson’s wonderful book Messy Maths gives loads of ideas about the things you can do in an outdoor space. It’s a truly inspiring read.

Q: If someone walked around your school and talked to your pupils, would it be clear from the things you see inside and outside, and in the threads within your curriculum, what your students learn from and what your school gives back to your local area?

Who you work with:

The people inside your building and in your local community are also unique and who you work with can also make a huge difference to your provision and practices.

Think about the skills, interests and talents of those on your team - not just your teachers but everyone from your site staff and governors to the PTFA. Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know that makes the difference. I’ve worked with colleagues who are multi-talented at art and music, and others with a vast knowledge of children’s literature. They generously shared their expertise, and the school was richer for it.

I’ve also worked with inexperienced colleagues, who had less subject knowledge but expertise or skills in other areas. In this instance, it meant that there would be challenges if we tried to teach what was previously taught, by knowledgeable experts, without putting support in place. In time teachers developed the requisite subject knowledge to teach our curriculum topics well, and our curriculum was also adapted to make the most of what they could offer too.

(Remember, your curriculum evolves with your context - this is something we will look at in future blog posts.)

So, how about the local community? What can they offer?

No matter where you’re based, there’s people in your community with fascinating experiences and expertise to share, it’s just a case of finding them and welcoming them in. Now, I know that not everyone lives near a farm or an airport, a beach or a river, a castle or building site, a hospital or a factory… but there’s bound to be someone who or somewhere locally that can help you to positively shape your pupils’ lives and enrich their ’lived curriculum’ at your school.

I was fortunate to be a student at a ‘city technology college’ with links to local companies including Rolls Royce and Thorntons and the school capitalised on these links. So, later in life, as a school leader I was keen to do the same and make the most of the knowledge, skills and expertise of parents and local companies. It worked. People generously helped arrange once-in-a-lifetime school trips, came in to speak to the children, or loaned personal treasures that enriched our curriculum topics. It all began with a letter to the parents to ask, ‘what can you or your workplace offer our school?’

Q: Does your curriculum make best use of the skills and know how you already have on side? Do you know where these skills, expertise and talents are?

However, a word of caution, deciding which of these resources and talents you choose to use is an important decision. We shouldn’t just choose any activity and then retrofit a purpose. Remember, try to keep the main thing the main thing. If it meets the children’s needs, and adds to their curriculum experience, go for it. If not, it might be a nice addition but there might be better out there.

Meeting the children’s needs

Finally, and most importantly, learning about your context involves finding out about what your pupils need.

No matter whether you work in a school that serves a student population of 70, 170 or 700 there will be a diverse range of needs and wants that you must aim to provide for in your curriculum offer.

In my day job I’m fortunate enough to work with schools of all shapes and sizes, in various locations and they all have to answer the same challenging questions:

Q: What does your community of learners need, and can you help to provide it?

Q: What else do you want children to learn about your local area, and can your community provide it?

Q: How can we support our community of parents and carers with home learning to remove some of the barriers our pupils face?

I will discuss these questions and more in the next post, where I look at curriculum coherence and my ‘four E’s’: expectations, engagement, enhancement and enrichment.

As ever, I’ll end by sharing some things I have found interesting in my reading/listening. If you’ve been reading anything interesting about context, please do share it on Twitter at @thinkingcpd.

Recommended reading

Blog: The First Hundred Days of a New Headship by David Carter This is an interesting read about the challenges of leadership.

Book: Messy Maths by Juliet Robertson -

This is an inspiring read about learning maths in different ways, using what’s available in the environment around you.

Recommended listening

Thinking Deeply About Primary Education podcast contains some very thought-provoking conversations about whole-school curriculum transformation as well as subject-specific discussions. In particular, you might find the episodes with Gareth Rein (Season 3, episode 2) and John Hutchinson (Season 3, episode 6) particularly interesting if you’re thinking about curriculum leadership.

Note: Link is to Amazon music, but available wherever you get your podcasts from.

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