When the new specifications for GCSE English were published, the focus was on how to cover the content of the course in two years and how the skills of analysis, evaluation and comparison could be taught in a way that met the exam board requirements. The next question was how to embed these skills in Key Stage 3. At first, the process involved simply adapting the units of work in Key Stage 3 so that students could answer ‘GCSE-style’ questions based on the units already in place. This approach was in response to the speed of change and the workload required to create a new Key Stage 4 curriculum, leaving little time left to meaningfully develop Key Stage 3. However, it was soon clear that this would only result in a curriculum of disjointed units of work merely connected by the command words of the GCSE exam papers. There was no real sense of cohesion: units of work were episodic, with no clear sense of direction beyond approaching a text as they would for the GCSE.
We had to start thinking about our curriculum in a different way – not as a series of stand-alone units of work based on what was in the shared area or in the book cupboard, but based on a curriculum ‘structured as narrative over time’ (Counsell, 2018). Having read Daniel Willingham’s Why Don’t Students Like School? (Willingham, 2009), we also realised that to design a powerful curriculum, ‘knowledge must precede skill’ (Willingham, 2009, p. 19). Therefore, rather than a focus on skills taught through an ad hoc choice of literary texts, we began to consider what knowledge could be taught in Key Stage 3 that would ‘manifest itself indirectly, but powerfully and critically, in future learning of other content’ (Counsell, 2018).
We began by identifying the prior knowledge that might act as a foundation for students to better access the GCSE set texts. When teaching Macbeth, we identified the frequent use of allusion in the text, recognising that an understanding of these allusions would lead to a more integrated approach to both context and analysis. To help students understand the allusions to Greek mythology and biblical testament, we aimed to do more than simply tell them that Golgotha was the site of Jesus’ crucifixion or Hecate was the Greek goddess of witchcraft; we aimed for students to understand the wider implications of Shakespeare’s choices through a deeper knowledge of these references within the context of literary history.
To achieve this, we developed a Key Stage 3 unit of study based on allusion. We focused predominantly on Greek mythology and The Odyssey, but also explored the power of allusion throughout literature, looking at examples from modern texts and discussing the enduring power of language. This culminated in students writing speeches where the criteria included using literary or biblical allusions to support their argument. This unit taught students the powerful effect of allusion, both as a point of analysis and in their own application, whilst also creating a sense of cohesion between what was taught at Key Stage 3 and their later study of Macbeth.
We then began to consider what other layers of prior knowledge we could embed in Key Stage 3 to help assimilate new knowledge later in the curriculum. The most obvious example was in the teaching of the GCSE poetry anthology. We found that the time restraints for this unit often meant paying lip service to the literary movements that the poems sprang from. We would tell students that Wordsworth and Keats were Romantic poets and give a brief overview of the key characteristics of that movement, but there was no time to explore the nuances of the movement or fully explain what it was a reaction to and how later artists responded to it. We wanted students to have a better understanding of where the Romantics sit within the history of our literary heritage and to realise that the texts they study had not been written in a vacuum – exploring nuanced connections, such as Romanticism being connected to the Enlightenment and Classicism, and the later responses to this movement by Modernists.
Our aim was for students to understand that the Romantic movement was an artistic, literary, cultural and political movement, and that this interconnectedness spans far wider than the few poems they study in Year 10. A unit of work was then developed based on a journey through literary history, from Classicism to Modernism, so that when studying La Belle Dame Sans Merci and A Complaint at GCSE, students had a more meaningful understanding of the context of the poems and the poets’ choices, thereby offering far more than a shallow acknowledgement of these poets as being Romantics.
As our curriculum has developed, there has been far more focus on each element having a ‘function’ (Counsell, 2018), whereby the content taught earlier in the curriculum has a clear relationship with what is studied later, thereby creating a coherent curriculum with a clear sense of narrative from Year 7 to Year 11.