Relationships and projects: A new curriculum focus post-Covid?

Written by: Julie Norman | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As we develop our curriculum for after Covid, we must focus on nurturing children’s relationships with parents, peers and staff and developing their vital characteristics and skills. Julie Norman considers some ideas, including the role that a project-based learning approach can play


A child who is loved, cared for, valued and nurtured will be confident, happy and resilient. To this end, I believe that nurturing a child’s wellbeing, mental health and healthy relationships comes from small but vital behaviours in school.

In this article, I will offer you a number of ideas, including looking at what we do at my schools, but also how your curriculum, ethos and culture will achieve so much more than you ever thought possible in this regard.


Three healthy relationships

A child coming to your school should expect to have three healthy relationships for the duration of their education – with parents, peers and staff. Each relationship offers opportunities for them to build characteristics that will support them in being a healthy, resilient and ambitious child, keen to learn about themselves, others and the world around them.

If we want each child to grow and adopt the characteristics needed to become the learner we want them to be, engaged in building their own thoughts and feelings, embracing of others and looking for opportunities to change the world for themselves and others, this cannot happen by using their time in school solely to follow schemes of work, revision for tests or by focusing on tests themselves above all else.

Pupils must be given ample opportunities to grow in character, and as stated above, this can happen through relationships. For example, here are some small steps to improve academic achievement in your school through relationships.

Your school staff can nurture the child. Consider the following:

  • Praise the child for the smallest of things.
  • Be happy to see the child – smile when they come in; wave when you see him/her.
  • Thank him/her or apologise to him/her when appropriate.
  • Be interested in what he/she says and listen to them. Value their opinion.
  • Talk about the child in positive tones, knowing they can hear you.
  • Check in with the child regularly – are you okay?
  • Celebrate them often and at every opportunity.
  • Reassure them when they make social or behavioural mistake – just as you would with academic learning.
  • Help them because you want to, not because they asked.
  • Trust them and tell them you trust them, often.

Your school can support parents to…

  • Offer unconditional love. Forgive quickly, forgiveness every time.
  • Know their child’s gifts/talents.
  • Understand their child.
  • Reassure their child that they are supported.
  • Listen to their child.
  • Champion their child privately and publicly.
  • Praise their child privately and publicly.
  • Like their child and to ensure they know that they are liked and loved.
  • Talk about their child positively so they can hear it.
  • Nurture their child.
  • Ensure their child’s basic needs are met.

Your school can support peer relationships, including promoting traits such as:

  • Loyalty – with prearranged group tasks, peer assessment, ambassadors.
  • Friendship – with adult support in the playground and play leaders.
  • Challenge – with time to talk and debate in class.
  • Forgiveness – with ELSA (emotional literacy support assistants) group support to resolve issues.
  • Accountability – encourage children to help each other.
  • Compromise – in class, all the time when making decisions.
  • Debate – with a debate group and hot topics for discussion in assembly.
  • Equality – via assemblies and visitors?
  • Laughter – with time for them to play and time in school to have fun.


Maslow before you Bloom

Always ensure basic needs are met before expecting high academic achievement. You might achieve this via the following approaches. Help the child to learn a sense of self by giving them:

  • Responsibilities, leadership opportunities and self-growth opportunities.
  • Input into their learning.
  • Time to share their ideas.
  • A voice in the school (can they write or guide some of the school policies?)
  • The chance to make changes.
  • The chance to work on projects that have a huge impact in their community.
  • A chance to fail, followed up by reflection and celebration.
  • The time to speak to others about their achievements; to be an ambassador for the school.

You can develop your children’s sense of others by giving them:

  • A chance to help others as part of a team of ambassadors.
  • Responsibilities around other people.
  • Time to get to know others – mixed social events.
  • Opportunities to support other people and celebrate their achievements.
  • The chance to learn about the people around them.
  • The chance to gain empathy and understanding of how events can affect others.
  • Time for charity work.
  • Training to be a mentor/coach.

You can develop your children’s sense of the world too. Consider the following:

  • Let them participate in their learning journey by planning with you.
  • Create a curriculum with projects that they can help to plan and execute with real outcomes for the world.
  • Help them to make the world a better place – reality and purpose.
  • Teach them how to be a global citizen.
  • Help them to be confident online and use their skills to communicate with the world.
  • Help them to carve their place in the world before they leave school; to know where their strengths are needed and valued.

If the child receives these relationships and opportunities throughout school they will be able to grow in a wide range of characteristics, such as courage, happiness, empathy, self-motivation, risk-taking, compassion, integrity, self-worth, courtesy, community, reflection, leadership, aspiration, curiosity, communication, reasoning, independence, love of learning, responsibility, and forgiveness – to name but a few!


Project-based curriculum

If, like my schools, you want to give more opportunities for the children to grow in the ways I have listed above without it being yet another bolt-on, change your curriculum to a character curriculum. This ensures progression, relevance and time to consolidate. You could even take the radical move of merging your subjects into projects.

We set projects each term that are topical and offer opportunities for children to join in the conversation, learn about real-life issues and be part of celebration or change. Children lead the project development and the school’s role is to facilitate and guide.


So where do you begin?

First, list all the characteristics that you want to promote and then look to create a progression from Reception to year 6, as you would for any curriculum subject. Then pool your objectives for each year group for every subject.

Combine the two sets of objectives for each year group and then look to topical issues that you might focus on and place at least one-third of the year’s objectives into a project related to this area. For example, this might be climate change, Black Lives Matter, single-use plastics, democracy and so on.

We found that we cover far more objectives throughout the year by teaching like this. Alongside that you will need visitors, visits out or anything else that enhances the learning (Covid restrictions permitting of course).

Allow the children to decide in consultation with the teacher what they want to achieve at the end of the project. They then discuss their strengths and weaknesses of the plan as a group.


Co-constructed

Whether you go for a character curriculum or creative curriculum or other approach, it is vital that the children are involved in the planning and delivery.

Usually, project-based approaches allow for real-life purpose and pupils see the desired outcome being a real measured change in their community or the world that they can put their name to.

So why not review if your curriculum meets your desired outcomes (intent – to use Ofsted’s terminology). If not then instead of changing your intent, just change your curriculum.

And this work can be taken further. Where the projects achieve real change, why not allow the children to manage marketing and PR activities. They can write the articles to send out to the community and local media.

At the same time, begin to share with the children the characteristics they may want to adopt and explicitly speak of them daily – celebrate where you see them and where you are working on them.

And as their characteristics develop, begin to let the children write the policies that affect them, such as marking, feedback, curriculum policy, behaviour and many more.


Why do we work like this?

We wanted children to enjoy school and see real purpose in being here. We wanted them to take more responsibility for their learning and with the projects they became passionate, collaborative and took control. What is more, attendance went up.

And with the projects, the teacher is working 20 per cent of the time and the children 80 per cent. Workload for teachers hit an all-time low and children started to go home tired – result!

We also wanted children to be prepared for the next stage in their life, whether that be the next year group or their next school, and we find that this way of teaching created very informed and confident children.

There is no doubt that with these big changes the children’s achievements rose considerably. More children gained greater depth in their studies as all learning was purposeful. Even more interesting is that our SEND children engaged and made outstanding progress, as did our Pupil Premium children, all of whom made expected or above expected progress.

  • Julie Norman is the executive primary lead for the Quantock Education Trust in Somerset and also managing director at School Omega Solutions. Email her via julie@schoolomegasolutions.co.uk



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