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Justifying curricular enrichment in performative times

Kay Livingston, University of Glasgow Catherine Doherty, University of Glasgow

Much has been written about the tendency to narrow the curriculum to focus on what counts in measurable terms in testing times. This effect is felt most acutely in schools servicing disadvantaged communities, under pressure to improve schooling outcomes. We argue that it is equally important to document the counter-narrative efforts to enrich and augment the official curriculum in such sites despite the demands of performative times.

In our recent Curriculum Journal article, ‘A counter-narrative of curriculum enrichment in performative times’, we explored a sample of Scottish schools that chose to engage with British Council programmes that cultivate modes of global citizenship (Livingston & Doherty, 2020). We were commissioned by British Council Scotland to understand how these programmes were contributing to the Scottish Attainment Challenge in its efforts to improve literacy, numeracy, health and wellbeing outcomes in the most disadvantaged communities. This piqued our own interest in the relationship this request constructed between curriculum and assessment.

The British Council programmes serve as examples of a proliferating array of external programmes available to be hosted within schools. For example, in Scotland, many schools proudly highlight their involvement with Keep Britain Tidy’s Eco‐Schools, Duke of Edinburgh Awards and UNICEF’s Rights Respecting Schools. We treat these augmenting programmes as curricular enrichment, not extra-curricular or hidden curriculum, because their work is planned and enacted within the school day.

When it comes to curricular enrichment to promote global citizenship, developing an international outlook for all students has been a longstanding ambition in Scottish education. However, it has been encouraged rather than required and has never been conceptualised as a dedicated curricular subject. As weakly classified curriculum in Bernstein’s (2000) terms, such good intentions rely on processes of ‘permeation’ (Whitty, Rowe, & Aggleton, 1994, p. 28) and, like other well-intended cross-curricular themes, students’ learning towards these goals is not subject to explicit assessment. Rather, this learning is assumed to contribute to other curricular goals and must find its expression through the associated assessment. This means it becomes difficult to evidence the specific outcomes of these more ‘invisible’ pedagogies (Bernstein, 2000), and renders them vulnerable under performative pressures.

‘When it comes to curricular enrichment to promote global citizenship, developing an international outlook for all students has been a longstanding ambition in Scottish education. However, it has been encouraged rather than required and has never been conceptualised as a dedicated curricular subject.’

We conducted interviews and focus groups with teachers, school leaders and students in a sample of seven schools, including some in communities targeted specifically in the Attainment Challenge, and others in less disadvantaged communities. We asked our participants to articulate what the British Council programmes had contributed in terms of added value and student learning. In our paper we profile two schools in Attainment Challenge areas: one a secondary school with a long history of British Council engagement, the other a primary school that had only recently engaged.

In the first case, the headteacher described how the international outlook cultivated was embedded ‘so it then grows and develops… [I]t’s actually organic in its growth rather than instructed’. Teachers at this school provided many accounts of diffuse impact pertaining to literacy, digital literacy, media, numeracy, health and wellbeing, biology, art, modern languages and curriculum links through school visits and virtual links with schools abroad.

In the second case, the headteacher described a similarly embedded design, but one that served as a means to strategic ends of school improvement in the policy priorities of literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing. Notwithstanding this design, the headteacher was also intent on extending the horizons for the students:

‘I think one of obviously the kind of main reasons for that is where we are in [local area]. The opportunities are fairly limited for children, for families, so we’re always seeking to do something which is different, something new … [Q]uite often we are the people trying to pick up the tab on developing their aspirations, you know?’

In both schools, British Council engagement facilitated learning that is valued while not necessarily visible or measurable using performative measures. Our analysis suggests that these teachers are necessarily engaging in a double game: they comply with official policy priorities in their focus on student attainment in priority areas, but at the same time they do what they believe is important for their students by enriching learning experiences. They recognise the power of such experiences for their students and appreciate the complex interplay between learning experiences, outcomes, engagement, pedagogy and curriculum.


This blog is based on the article ‘A counter-narrative of curriculum enrichment in performative times’ by Kay Livingston and Catherine Doherty, published in the Curriculum Journal. It has been made free-to-view to non-subscribers for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Bernstein, B. (2000). Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity (revised ed.). Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield.

Livingston, K., & Doherty, C. (2020). A counter-narrative of curriculum enrichment in performative times. Curriculum Journal. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.32.

Whitty, G., Rowe, G., & Aggleton, P. (1994). Discourse in cross-curricular contexts: Limits to empowerment. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 4(1), 25–42.