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A reflection on the Teacher Development Trust Conference

The Teacher Development Trust is an organisation in England supporting teachers at all stages of their career. I was invited to their conference in October. The emerging key message was that middle leaders need to be able to create the time to work collaboratively to develop the curriculum. This is a message that resonates.

Working with middle leaders in Scotland, I was keen to learn from colleagues south of the border and take some ideas back home. The day was packed with esteemed speakers including Daniel Muijs, Deputy Director of Research and Evaluation at Ofsted, and Tim Oates, Director of Assessment Research and Development at Cambridge Assessment, with all contributors focusing on the importance of the development of curriculum in school improvement.

For me the highlight of the day was the panel discussion around the roles of middle leaders in driving the development of their teams. Summer Turner from the Inspiration Trust, Tim Mills from the STEP Academy Trust and Vijita Patel, the Principal of Swiss Cottage School, discussed their thinking around the key roles of middle leaders in developing the curriculum. One of the main themes to emerge from the discussion was the need to create time for middle leaders to collaborate and co-create.

In answer to the question as to how senior leaders could improve their schools, Summer mentioned three key themes; time, trust and community. Senior leaders need to create concrete blocks of time for middle leaders to co-plan the curriculum, they need to trust their middle leaders’ expertise in leading curriculum, and they need to enable their middle leaders to be part of wider learning communities to learn from each other. Vijita described how in her school, the timing of the school day was altered to create ring-fenced time at the beginning of every day for professional dialogue, enquiry and reflection. She acknowledged that although this may not be possible in all schools there are other ways middle leaders can create time to work together by making small adjustments to how in-service days are run, using departmental meetings more effectively and enabling teachers to create their own timetables to build in time for collaboration. She argued that in terms of curriculum, middle leaders need to have real ownership of the improvement process rather than delegation from above.

Tim Oates argued that in terms of curriculum we need to focus on principles rather than priorities. He argued that all too often teachers are pulled by priorities without understanding the principles behind curriculum and the culture of school is vital in delivering a quality curriculum, using the example of whether ‘we teach democracy on a wet Friday morning or make sure our school is built on democratic principles’. Tim’s main point was that leaders need to ‘forget the fads’ and create a curriculum where the end point is a clear school vision rather than just imposing change after change.

There was an equally passionate presentation from Ros McMullen who had been an executive headteacher of a multi-academy trust in Nuneaton. She spoke about the ‘invitational leadership’ that led to improvement across all her schools where middle leaders and teachers were fully involved in the curriculum redesign. By involving the staff in the curriculum redesign process the twin aims of accelerating pupil progress and reducing teacher workload were addressed and the schools developed their capacity for improvement. Senior leaders in the schools had really stripped back the ‘stuff’ to enable teachers to focus on what was important to the curriculum.

The final presentation of the day was by Julie Jordan from Sheffield University. She spoke about Japanese Lesson Study or Kyouzai Kenkuu where the development of curriculum and teacher professional learning are inextricably linked. This is a process where a carefully planned open research lesson is observed and studied by a group of teachers to improve their knowledge and expertise. Julie compared it to a group of surgeons improving their skills through observing an operation and studying the process. Julie had researched this in Japan and was keen to see how the approach could be adapted for use in schools in England.

For me, the main message of the day was that middle leaders are key to driving the curriculum and they need the trust, the time and the opportunities to collaborate, to create a shared language and to focus on the principles of curriculum. I was heartened by Daniel Muijs’ statement at the beginning of the day that all pupils should have access to ‘beauty and wonder’ and we need to make time for the thinking around curriculum for this to happen. I think that England and Scotland are certainly on the same page where this is concerned!