It’s time for teachers to take curriculum control!

August 11, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Innovation 

RSA and The Institute of Education launch a national pioneering movement in curriculum design.

On 15th July, the Benjamin Franklin room became a hive of vibrancy and enthusiasm for the new curriculum era. Forty of our pilot-school teachers arrived at the RSA ready to reflect on their progress and celebrate their graduation from Grand Curriculum Designs. There was laughter, incessant chatter and most of all pride in what they’ve accomplished as the champions of a new pioneering professional development programme and a movement to reclaim the curriculum.

In the first half of the event, teachers enjoyed the role of being students by presenting their final projects to the arriving national stakeholders. They shared and discussed the vision for their curriculum change, their journey, their evaluation criteria, and key learning they’ve obtained from the GCD programme.

The exhibit of their final works throughout the room and their reflections on this developmental process, gave our pioneers a sense of progress and confidence to embrace the freedoms they have!

Just a week after the national curriculum was announced, the National Launch of Grand Curriculum Designs presented a very timely debate about the current space that exists for schools and teachers to design their local curriculum.

National Launch of Grand Curriculum Designs presented a very timely debate about the current space that exists for schools and teachers to design their local curriculum

Chaired by the RSA CEO Matthew Taylor, our distinguished panelists -Liz Truss, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Education and Childcare, Russell Hobby, General Secretary of NAHT and Toby Greany, Professor of Leadership and Innovation, London Centre for Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education -  presented their views of the national curriculum and took the chance to reflect on the importance of our curriculum design programme.


Some highlights from the panel discussion:

  • What drives teacher decision-making in the classroom is ultimately the assessment framework for English and Maths. Thus, we cannot achieve a cultural shift if there is a change in the curriculum but not in the accountability system. 
  • The national curriculum is only a small part of what a school does. What the national curriculum does is to state the WHAT and leaves the HOW to teachers. Government claims that they are giving more flexibility to teachers on HOW to teach.
  • The national curriculum won’t be implemented until September 2014, so the government is ‘releasing’ schools from current curriculum requirement – as to give them an year to create their own school curriculum. This makes it the right place and time for teachers to embrace their freedoms and leadership in owning their curriculum.
  • National curriculum is a moral authority and a useful starting point. The level of inspiration belongs to the school. The curriculum is seen as a body of knowledge and a praxis in which it is important to recognise the ongoing social process comprised of interactions, knowledge and milieu.
  • There is an issue in that schools are not fully aware what is possible and how they can innovate and use their freedoms. “GCD presents an opportunity for schools and teachers who want to engage in exploring their freedoms and innovative approaches.” (Toby Greany)
  • My favourite was Russell Hobby’s use of the Shawshank redemption as metaphor for education system: “… when you have been locked in a prison for long time, you don’t just let this person out in the streets, you put them in a safe place to scaffold their freedoms. For a long time, we’ve been told what to do, to the extend which if we don’t see it in a written document we don’t think it is important. What we can try to do through the NAHT, is to try to take the government at its word and put responsibility back in the profession – to use these freedoms and to fill the gap, and to  show that the profession is the voice of ambition, not the government. The profession needs to step up!


Essential questions which sprung from the discussion:

  • To what degree is Ofsted the body controlling the national curriculum and the way teaching is delivered? “The government is actually transferring powers to Ofsted rather than to schools.” (Russell Hobby)
  • What is a better framework to capture the whole range of attributes, not just hard knowledge, that we are looking to assess?
  • With our current methods, we have already reached 80% of students but need to try new methods to reach those missing 20% of children. Is it up to the teachers to use their freedoms and reach those 20 percent?
  • What is the legacy that teachers should leave and what is the extra mile that the government will take to assist students? (Alex Bedford)


The Case for Grand Curriculum Designs

Building on the RSA’s longstanding commitment to social progress, Grand Curriculum Designs seeks to guide and empower the curiosity, reflective inquiry and leadership in educators. The core of the programme embodies a process of inquiry, while it also provides content and structured guidance for educators who would like to actively contribute to the life of their students and to develop a progressive vision for their institutions.

Grand Curriculum Designs seeks to guide and empower the curiosity, inquiry and leadership in educators

We are not alone. There is a growing number of online toolkits and university courses that have an interest in teacher leadership and curriculum design. It’s great not to be alone, and we only hope to instill a sense of competition! It is the right time and the right place to foster a movement of cultural change within our educational institutions. We hope to be at the top of the wave, though we encourage more ideas, CPDs and social enterprises that are inspired to use this space to promote change!

We are not perfect… but we have learned a lot.

Having the honour to work with twenty-one pilot schools from across the UK has made us confident that we can inspire and empower many more! Their insights and constructive criticism helped us develop the right balance between content input and activity output…and now we are confident and ready for the national roll-out. We now hope that our curriculum pioneers will ride the wave and help us foster a national community of change!

How do we define success?

This is not just another professional development course! Through this programme, we aim to foster a reflective inquiry, living process and a proactive community. We will know if we’ve been successful when –

  • schools start to own their curriculum and internalise key principles
  • schools are able to foster and lead a sustainable culture of change and innovation
  • educators do not rely on prescriptive measures from either government or consulting/training bodies
  • the market competition for curriculum design increases

Our next steps are ambitious…

In the next year, the RSA and the IoE will actively plan, facilitate, reflect, evaluate and engage with schools in order to mobilise a movement and an ambition. We plan to work with schools that are ahead of the thinking curve, but also aim to find the ‘hidden gems’ – the ones that who don’t know how to use their freedoms.

We plan to work with schools that are ahead of the thinking curve, but also aim to find the ‘hidden gems’ – the ones that who don’t know how to use their freedoms.

The programme will be expanding nationally in up to six regions in England during 2013-14, co-led by a small number of selected schools across England, most of which will be Teaching Schools –  Stourport High School in Worcestershire, Ashton-on-Mersey School in Cheshire, Fairlawn Primary in Lewisham and Park High School in Harrow, and up to two additional lead schools will be selected.


How to enrol in our November programme:

The programme will be run in London at the Institute of Education, by the London Centre for Leadership in Learning (LCLL) from November 2013. Any school in England can participate in the programme.

To register an interest in enrolling in the programme, contact


Plamena Pehlivanova is an RSA Education Associate and programme developer at UCL.

You can follow her @Plamennap and at

We have to know ourselves first before we get to know the world.

July 17, 2013 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

To always begin again should be the notion of education and ‘knowing thyself’ the notion of living.

In our busy lives, preoccupied with deliverables and outcomes, and forces that diminish our autonomy and authority, we forget to question the very essence of our existence. We react but hardly pro-act to the human condition. Where the newest fashion in business and in government is to talk about ‘comprehensiveness’, ‘behaviour change’, ‘sustainability’ and ‘holistic-approach’ to policy and strategy, these words hardly embody the work, attitudes and lifestyle we choose to lead. We instrumentalise the notion of education and prescribe creativity here and there, hoping to be more like Google. We label and package, but hardly internalize and embody the slogans we carry.

We have this social aspiration gap – this is the gap that we have between the society we want to create and the society we have. We say that we want to live in a society that is  fairer, but we don’t create opportunities for society to be fairer.  We want to live in more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways but we don’t do that. We want to live in stronger communities but many of us don’t do much about it. (Matthew Taylor)

What does cosmopolitanism have to do with all this?


Being ‘Cosmopolitan’ is an active verb, acting on the grounds of particular subjectivity and values that it embodies.

In its core, the cosmopolitan outlook has two values – 1) value of valuing and 2) the value of reflecting on value – in other words it is a mode of valuing the present and positions one to reflect on value itself.

These form the basis of ‘reflective openness’ which process in itself opens up an important space for mindfulness and vulnerability. And as human beings, we need to feel vulnerable and we need to challenge ourselves constantly. This is where education has an important role to adequately provide the space and freedom where value could be expressed and also challenged through dialogue…

In searching for space and freedom, I pursued the Philosophy of Education postgrad summer school and immersed myself in the unknown unknowns, within the depths of Roehampton University’s forest campus! A week-long emersion in nature – reading, discussing and self-reflecting – I had opened the depths into my soul  where I could aspire toward the cosmopolitan subjectivity and begin to embody its notion.

  • I felt what it is to combine reflective openness to the new with reflective loyalty to the known. There is no “universal moral law,” only the sense of responsibility (goodness, mercy, charity) and unconditional hospitality.
  • I understood how important it is for people to feel vulnerable, to belittle identity and nationalism and to consider humanity as a whole and appreciate the notion of ‘cosmos’ (not just their own bubble).
  • I found the art of open discourse as a gate to developing fundamental thinking, resilient attitudes and values that make us better people
  • I internalized the importance of non-instrumental writing as a process of meditation and necessary for self-cultivation
  • I celebrated the art of reflective thinking that humans are blessed with, and I caution against its instrumentalisation

… and if you ask how cosmopolitanism can be practically applied, then you have missed the point!

Cosmopolitanism is discussed within in political, moral, cultural and economic contents, which are nevertheless rooted in the idea of universal human community.

Thus, cosmopolitanism is not an abstract idea that has no bearing on our lives, political affiliations and economic ideology. A cosmopolitan community could be based on an inclusive morality, a shared economic relationship, or a political structure that encompasses different nations. Though a more positive vision of the cosmopolitan community is one in which individuals from different nation-states form relationships of mutual respect and mutual understanding of values. But what does it really mean to have mutual respect and how deep is this concept?

Does our society embody this notion of mutuality and why is it important?

We consume defaced westernized Chinese food… jump around to the ‘hip’ Balkan rhythms played by clueless hipsters… complain about our IT problems to a guy based in Bangladesh…and nonchalantly doze off to Beethoven with our ‘noise canceling’ headphones …  thinking and priding ourselves of being truly cosmopolitan! … but are we? Do we really embody the concept or just label or consumption behaviour as appreciating other cultures?

Just because we bump into each other on the streets doesn’t make us cosmopolitan, doesn’t make us better humans and using the hollowed-out popular vocabulary certainly doesn’t add to our social or environmental progress. We have hollowed out the sense of community and live by standards and slogans that we don’t embody… are we seem too busy to stop, step back and reflect on our own lives, on our own purpose and society? We don’t know our community or our planet because we simply don’t have the “luxury” to know ourselves.

O my friend, why do you who are a citizen […], care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? (Socrates)

Knowing thyself is an essential approximation and a necessary aspect of living a good life. That is opening yourself to understand the value of life, challenging your own restricted vision of the world, accepting your human limitations and embracing your vulnerability. Be open to confess that “[you] know nothing except the fact of [your] ignorance.” Be wiser and do not fancy that you know what you do not know. Be true to yourself and be vulnerable.

Being vulnerable makes us better, truer to ourselves and helps us live a better life by building stronger connections and more sustainable communities. Socrates dedicated his whole life to exploring what it means to be wise and what it means to live a good life, which didn’t necessarily make his life utopian but demonstrated that humans can do more than simply survive and exist but also esteem, share, appreciate and love…That is sharing and love not just restricted for the immediate circle of self and family but directed at community and nation.

I went, and sought to persuade every man among you that he must look to himself, and seek virtue and wisdom before he looks to his private interests, and look to the State before he looks to the interests of the State; and that this should be the order which he observes in all his actions… (Socrates)

concentric circlesBeing cosmopolitan must be critically internalized as it combines reflective openness to the new (outside our circle) with reflective loyalty to the known (inside our circle).

Its notion may entail a sense of world government, but to me cosmopolitanism is more of a perspective and subjectivity that must be embodied to be able to reflect more critically on the world and the self. It is not something that could be packaged and applied, rather it is a subjectivity and attitude that requires to be internalized and embodied.

Being cosmopolitan is a pro-active verb. Cosmopolitan perspective has a behavioural aspect and should not be a declared label!

Reflecting back on the space and freedom that PESGB summer school gave me in thinking this through, I want to believe and uphold that going back to fundamentals is not and should not be a privilege… I challenge all of us to simply make time to think and reflect openly. I advocate for education as an approach and the school as an institution that should provide for the freedom and space where reflection and dialogue could take place and build our cosmopolitan prism. We have to know ourselves first before we get to know the world. It is our prism that makes what we see of the world, but you first need to let the light in.

We can do more than exist but esteem, share, appreciate and love – imagine broader horizons!

Plamena Pehlivanova is an Education researcher and coordinator at the RSA and consultant to UCL

You can follow her @Plamennap and at

National Curriculum behold, here come the Grand Curriculum Designers!

February 7, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

It’s more than the national curriculum, more than lesson planning and bigger than building knowledge! Let’s design a curriculum by first asking Why

The first pilot day of Grand Curriculum Designs kicks-off tomorrow –  Friday! On board are representatives from twenty schools anxious to participate in a three-month pilot programme, which aims to develop their confidence and leadership skills to lead curriculum design within their own schools.

A rather groundbreaking CPD programme that fundamentally challenges ‘teaching for transmission’ and focuses on schools/teachers as the active shapers of curriculum and student experiences, the GCD is a partnership between the RSA and the curriculum experts - Institute of Education &  Curriculum Foundation. Over the past few months, we have worked to combine expertise and to design holistic seminar series that will fundamentally challenge educators in their thinking and approach to working with the national curriculum. The time and space could not be better to develop a ‘whole curriculum’ outside the murky future of the National Curriculum. As the rules, accountability structures and space for innovation are becoming clearer, the changing role of teachers presents opportunity for greater responsibility and creative leadership.

Informed mainly by the principles and approaches set out in Opening Minds, Area Based Curriculum and the Curriculum Foundation’s World Class Curriculum Mark, the programme digs deeper to enable understanding and thinking around all three levels of the curriculum:
- the curriculum set out by the nation,
- the teacher/school’s mediation of national expectations,
- and the curriculum experienced by the students
(B. Male and M. Waters, The Secondary Curriculum Design Handbook)

The national curriculum prescribes a common set of learning, the teacher/school interprets it, though success really depends on what students experience and absorb.

It’s a matter of a good design! The mediator paints the setting… and this is what GCD is after – to empower the artist, the educator!

GCD programme is designed to improve learning opportunities for young people by building the capacity of individual teachers and other education professionals, to design relevant and innovative curricula for their schools. The participants in the pilot programme will attend four face-to-face learning seminars, spread-out over a three-month period, during which they will actively participate in a dynamic online learning community and apply their learning through a curriculum change project undertaken within their own school contexts.

Even before its start, the GCD has already attracted international interest from schools and teaching associations in the US and Eastern Europe, who are hoping to engage in the later stages of the programme, as it expands nationally from September 2013.

With special thanks to Esmee Fairbairn, OCR and NAHT who have sponsored this programme!