Case study: Turning around a curriculum

Written by: Nadia Paczuska | Published:

When turning around a school, a focus on creating the right curriculum is the most important priority, according to headteacher Nadia Paczuska

Three years ago, I relocated from London to Lowestoft to take up headship in a struggling school. I chose Lowestoft because I’d heard that some of the poorest performing schools were in the east of England. I was also drawn to the beautiful coastline and countryside.

When I arrived, Meadow Primary School had a sadness about it and outcomes were at an all-time low. Incidents of poor behaviour were high and parents and the community were angry that the school had been let down.

One of the key things we changed to turn the school around was the curriculum. Many people were keen to give me their advice when I first arrived, saying that behaviour was the most important thing or the environment. However, I believe that behaviour and environment have improved as a result of delivering a high-quality curriculum and ensuring the staff have the skills to deliver it.

Although we still have a way to go before the school is in a securely strong position, we have overcome a number of obstacles and have built an effective team of teachers and leaders. I have been asked many times what the key ingredients are to turning around a school, and in the case of Phoenix St Peter, as the school is now known, I believe the answer is how we developed the curriculum.

Redesigning the curriculum

I decided that we should design our own curriculum to better meet the needs of the varied range of pupils attending the school. During her first week of living in Lowestoft, our deputy headteacher Stephany saw her first Suffolk sunrise over the sea and decided to name our emerging curriculum the Horizon Curriculum.

We wanted to celebrate the positive things about living in rural coastal Suffolk. At the same time, we wanted to provide the pupils with the opportunity to see life beyond Lowestoft and the UK, which is how the concept was born. The Horizon Curriculum uses foundation subjects as a vehicle for reading and writing. It is a skills-based curriculum that focuses on developing historians, geographers, scientists, theologists and culturalists, and develops skills in reading and writing through a cross-curricular approach.

I decided to trademark the curriculum because it was relatively easy and inexpensive to do. This also chimed with my vision of wanting to support other schools in the area that faced the same challenges. I wanted a curriculum that we could share and train other schools on, so that they could implement something that worked quickly.

Through the Horizon Curriculum, pupils start their new themes through the use of a “fertile question”, which is an open-ended question that they will spend the length of the unit trying to investigate and answer. This idea was inspired by a session led by Oliver Knight and David Benson during my time on the Future Leaders programme.

Through the challenging moments on our journey the idea of developing the skills needed to make a conceptual leap has helped the team and the community keep the end goal in mind. The aim of the unit is to ensure that all pupils can answer this question in their final lesson.

Mission and curriculum

We have four core values – aspiration, courage, creativity and kindness – which underpin the mission statement and determine the classroom culture within which the curriculum is delivered. Our school’s mission is to ensure that all children are confident, well-educated and prepared for the future, and every decision we have made about how the Horizons Curriculum came about has been based on how we achieve our mission.

For example, the arts play a key role in developing confidence for our children so they can compete with their more privileged peers. Expectations are extremely high so that we can give our children the best chance at academic success – which we define by being well educated. We ensure that we think carefully about transitions from one key stage to the next to ensure children are well prepared for each stage of their education.

Enriching the curriculum

Although for many schools enrichment experiences are not unusual, in a town where infrastructure is poor and access to such experiences is limited, we go the extra mile to ensure our children have as much enrichment as we can possibly provide. One class took a trip to London to visit the Natural History Museum and not one child in the class had visited their capital city before.

Enrichment opportunities are at the heart of our curriculum and each half-term every class has a trip, workshop or unique experience. Some examples of this are Bollywood dancing in year 3, a trip to a synagogue for year 5, and science workshops.

The art room has evolved into a magical place where children develop their artistic skills, the drama space is used for performing arts, yoga and mindfulness teaching, and the school employs a full-time sports specialist, meaning children are learning the rules of team games and entering more sports competitions than ever in the school’s history.

Developing core skills

Another reason why the curriculum is key to us turning the school around is the emphasis on developing the children’s key skills. Phonics is taught from nursery and then comprehension, spelling, handwriting and grammar are all taught discretely from year 1 upwards.

Arithmetic and times-tables are taught daily in every class. These key skills have enabled the children to access the broad curriculum and ensure that they have increased their confidence to learn and succeed.

Future of the curriculum

Turning a school around has to be about long-term goals and curriculum. It can also be the vehicle for developing a leadership team. Stephany, the deputy head, has driven our curriculum development, and has learned so much in the process. The emphasis on curriculum forced her to think deeply about how to drive change and how to remain focused on our mission (there are many, many distractions from teaching and learning when a school is in crisis).

Conclusion

I have now heard people describe the school as vibrant and exciting with a buzz about it. There are very few incidents of poor behaviour and where the teaching and learning was inadequate, it is now good or better. Most children are making good progress from their starting points and key stage 2 outcomes have improved from 14 per cent combined in 2015/16 to a predicted 67 per cent combined this year. I’m pleased that we stuck to our focus on long-term goals and the curriculum. 

  • Nadia Paczuska is the headteacher of Phoenix St Peter Academy in Suffolk. She is a graduate of the government’s Talented Leaders initiative, which was run by the charity Ambition School Leadership.

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