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It's all in the plan - Anna Dawe

25 April 2024

By Anna Dawe, Principal and Chief Executive of Wigan & Leigh College

Is strategic curriculum planning important? Definitely. Why then do we spend so little time discussing it, sharing best practice and most of all developing our middle and senior managers to understand it’s nuances? There are few strategically operational aspects of a college that wield such influence over the intersection of student interests, place-based needs, quality, inspection, financial resilience, organisational culture and workforce well-being. For me, the design of the curriculum offer and the model of delivery says more about the leadership, culture and values of Wigan and Leigh College than almost anything else. Yet throughout the many leadership courses I have undertaken, the strategic art of designing a curriculum has hardly ever been mentioned.

Curriculum planning means many different things within the sector. For some, it is simply number crunching student numbers, groups, rooms and formulating timetables. For me, it involves having a strategic vision around the curriculum offer, knowing what you want it to deliver and understanding the intended and sometimes unintended consequences of its design and shape. Of equal importance is how you operationalise your plan. Should it be centrally controlled risking a reduction in creativity or should it be dispersed to curriculum departments where creativity may thrive but wider aspects such as funding yield, quality assurance, utilisation and occupancy rates may not be considered?

A vision combined with a set of values can provide guidance around the choices, risks and pay-offs we make every day. Do you meet student needs by offering single full qualifications or an increased breadth of smaller qualifications that may provide wider skills? Do you offer apprenticeships to meet local needs or are the risks to quality and concerns around Ofsted unappetising? Do you limit the breadth of standards to those that provide a contribution and favour financial security at the expense of what may be needed by employers? Do you withdraw or opt out of courses or sectors due to resources or finances, potentially at the expense of meeting local needs and would you be prepared to work collaboratively with another provider to mitigate any negative impact? Your vision and values will not provide an automatic answer. But they will guide you in making decisions that work as part of a cohesive whole, making sure the plan hangs together and provides balance to the competing interests it serves.

The curriculum strategy adopted will undoubtedly depend upon the individual nature of your college, quality, financial resilience, mix of local providers and many other factors. However, in the midst of curriculum reform, accountability plans, LSIPs, placed-based agendas, devolution and a potential change of government - the curriculum is going to have to be even more responsive and flexible. A clear strategic ambition and direction around programme design and appetite for risk will be needed and it is essential that senior leaders are at the forefront of the decision making.

I may not always readily admit it, but in 2011 the Wolf Report had a profound effect on my strategic approach to the curriculum. The commitment to a simplified, core qualification study programme and the maintenance of a broad curriculum with growth in apprenticeship opportunities are the corner stones of our college’s curriculum offer. We focus our study programmes on a full core qualification, alongside maths and English, tutorial and work placement. This means we deliver a high amount of teaching hours to one core qualification, prioritising achievement and high grades and ensuring that students have the right qualification to progress to the next stage of their learning. It allows our teachers to focus on delivering, tracking and quality assuring one single certificate. Our exams, quality, and MIS teams benefit from fewer qualifications to juggle and we save on awarding body entry and registration fees. One downside to this is that we will never be high up in the overall QAR tables. Instead, the core qualification rates are key for us, enabling us to benchmark performance at a national level and signposting where to go to seek out best practice.

It also influences our appetite for risk in other areas of the 16-18 curriculum. Its consistent approach delivers predictability on resource planning and with 92% of students in the highest funding yield, it maximises income, enabling us to develop more bespoke place-based curriculum products. This includes ESOL study programmes, math and English support programmes for elected home educated pupils aged 14-16 and a pre-apprenticeship programme, funded via study programme funding and taking the best of the old traineeship programme but avoiding its limitations.

Our commitment to maintain a broad offer is regularly challenged, but most notably in 2016 -2018. The quality on our apprenticeship provision was a concern, the introduction of the levy was causing upheaval and we were migrating from frameworks to standards. We could have easily decided to withdraw provision. In line with our vision and values however we persevered and now in 2024 we are one of the largest college providers of apprenticeships in the north-west, have strong achievement rates and a grade 2 Ofsted. 56% of our apprenticeship activity is 16-18 and numbers have increased every year since 2016. The availability of this provision has meant that we have been able to meet the demand for 16-18 activity in space hungry disciplines such as construction and engineering and it has placed us in a strong position to meet the capacity challenges that are posing a real threat to the delivery of technical education across Greater Manchester.

In the current climate I expect our ethos to experience significant turbulence, indeed with the on-going reform programmes I would say we are being buffeted strongly and this is before the impact of the new maths and English entitlement. Our response as a sector needs to be clear and strong. We need to claim our place as experts at the centre of the discourse surrounding post-16 curriculum and when you get chance, along with everything else you do, ask yourself as a leader, what does your curriculum plan say about you?

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.