In this blog I will be arguing that it would be extremely beneficial for many schools to engage in community curriculum making (CCM) whereby some of the curriculum is developed with community partners using community resources. It is notoriously difficult to define community, but suffice to say that such an approach would strongly feature the immediate locality but not be confined to it.
The Education Reform Act (1988) established in England that schools should follow a National Curriculum which lays out what subject knowledge and skills should be taught to school pupils. When first introduced, it was characterised by input regulation, in that copious content was specified as the chosen method of government control over schools. Successive reviews have chipped away at this content, and the preferred method of government control has become examination targets, or output regulation. There is a parallel context in the US where the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act imperatives work through state departments of education then down to districts and onto schools, creating strong pressures to teach to the test.
this is a very introverted system which determines curriculum, pedagogy and assessment strictly within the confines of the recognised education ‘industry’ following the policy lead of national government.
Anderson-Butcher et al. (p.161 ) critique the resultant school improvement process as follows ‘ … walled-in improvement planning reflects traditional thinking about schools as stand-alone institutions focused exclusively on young people’s learning and academic achievement, and also reinforces the idea that educators are the school improvement experts’. They argue that resources, opportunities and assets are ‘walled out’, creating an unnecessary gulf between in-school learning and out-of-school learning. In their view this is a very introverted system which determines curriculum, pedagogy and assessment strictly within the confines of the recognised education ‘industry’ following the policy lead of national government.
However it is increasingly argued (e.g. by the Cambridge Primary Review) that schools need greater freedom to offer a curriculum that is locally developed to reflect local resources, opportunities, issues and needs for a proportion of the school week.
One of the early advantages one might expect from CCM is interest and engagement. Much CCM work would naturally be issues focused, either national/global issues in local context such as an ageing population or substantial local issues. Evidence from the Royal Society of Arts and our own local evidence in North East England is that primary and secondary students find such work compelling, especially when it brings them into contact with local residents and adults other than teachers.
At a time when many young people have vulnerable identities with regard to sexuality, appearance, personal finance and ethnicity a CCM approach can provide very valuable raw material in terms of role models and experience
A second major advantage is that CCM projects and enquiries have the potential to help students build more complex identities. Generally identity is multi-faceted (albeit with a core), has individual as well as social dimensions, and is dynamic as it is being constantly updated. At a time when many young people have vulnerable identities with regard to sexuality, appearance, personal finance and ethnicity a CCM approach can provide very valuable raw material in terms of role models and experience. At a more basic level students would get to meet a far wider range of people if their school is outward facing. So meeting a dietician, a curator, a care worker, a sound engineer, an allotment holder, a fashion buyer, a joiner or a university researcher can all add to an early store social capital, as well as create insights into working and volunteering worlds and career opportunities. A third advantage is that via CCM, students can undertake commissions for community partners, working to a brief, which gives meaning to their work. This counters the problem that school work only produced for one’s teacher to mark, grade and provide feedback/target can very easily lose any meaning beyond compliance. Furthermore such community or even school briefs can lead to a wide spectrum of project products including reports, displays, films, cartoons, events, plans, food, gadgets, webpages, guides and menus. Although there is no clinching evidence, a compelling argument can be made that such approaches could have wider social leverage through encouraging more informed labour market choices, widening participation and greater social justice. These issues are significant research agendas.
Whilst many schools, particularly primaries, do use local issues and resources, so much is possible if schools open their curriculum development processes to community partners. For this to happen there is the need for mediators to help schools with process and for a very different model of accountability where much is devolved to the local level.