7 Tips for Leading a Foundation Subject

In primary schools, subjects are classed as being either Core or Foundation.

Core subjects are English and Mathematics. Foundation subjects are those which are not tested in the SATS. Now, in most schools this includes Science, History, Geography, Art, Design, Technology, PE, RE, Citizenship, Modern Foreign Languages and PSHE.

Schools cover the foundation curriculum in different ways.

Many schools take a topic-based approach, through which content from different foundation subjects is built around a particular thematic unit; the International Primary Curriculum is perhaps the most well-known example.

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An example of the organisation of an IPC topic based approach to foundation subject teaching.

Project-based learning (PBL) approaches focus not on a theme but on a specific challenge; an essential question, an end product and an intended audience shape the project through which the curriculum will be covered. Through this inquiry-led approach, as in the example of School 21 (about two minutes from my house) pupils are guided to develop critical thinking, collaborative working and an understanding of academic skills and knowledge.

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Screen grab from the School 21 website, in a section on PBL in the Primary Curriculum. (www.school21.org.uk)

There are other approaches in the primary curriculum.

My own school has traditionally had a split-subject curriculum that is more common in secondary schools. Our pupils study discrete subjects as a means to learn knowledge and develop skills in the foundation curriculum. Year 5, in Autumn, for example, study States of Matter (Science), Ancient Egyptian Civilisation (History), William Morris (Art and Design), Notation (Music) and so on.

Whilst I have my views on the primary curriculum, and on the different approaches to teaching it, these views are not what I am focusing on here. This is partly because I want to focus on practical strategies for subject leadership, drawing on my experience in the split-subject approach, but it is partly because my own ideas are in a state of flux at the moment. I am shortly to be moving from a split-subject curriculum in my current school to a topic-based curriculum in my new one, though my views and my readings are leading me in a different direction.

I’ll be writing on this again…

On to the topic at hand then, I want to share seven tips for leading a foundation subject. These tips derive from my own experience as a Geography coordinator in a school that really values the humanities within the foundation curriculum.

  1. Your scope is limited – this is a good thing

If you are coordinating a foundation subject, chances are that many of your colleagues will also be doing so. Being passionate about your subject, advocating for it, sharing it and building it up are all fantastic, but it is counter-productive to expect for it to become the centre of everybody’s universe. Where foundation subjects begin to creep into each others timetables, goodwill can be eroded and it can lead to professional pushing and shoving that creates winners and losers. So be clear about how much time is allocated for your subject in the timetables, and protect that but do not be tempted to grow things beyond their realm.

As a very enthusiastic new coordinator, I wanted to leave a strong impression on everybody and reinvent the subject. I got permission to run a Geography Week, and I put a five-lesson curriculum together for each year group from Y1 – Y6. I felt I was doing right by the the teachers because I had prepared and resourced everything; whilst the lessons went down well, it meant that none of the regular geography lessons were being taught and it also meant that everyone fell behind on their teaching of science, art, music, PE and so on. This is not fair on other coordinators.

    2. Prioritise fostering teacher subject knowledge

For as long as primary schools are judged on their SATS results, school leaders will prioritise the teaching of the core subjects over the foundation subjects. Few would argue with this anyway. A consequence of this focus on English and Maths is that many teachers are unlikely to receive CPD focused on the foundation subjects. This can be remedied by sound-minded leadership, but when things are so high-stakes, you can understand the decisions made by leaders, even if you disagree with them. So, because of this, we cannot presume teachers will have good up-to-date subject knowledge. This subject knowledge allows for improved planning, greater confidence in teaching and the feeling of capability.

With the Geography Bee, the enthusiasm of participating pupils is matched by that of the teachers. The deep focus on knowledge for pupils means that teachers have recognised the need to boost their own knowledge. Through studying atlases and maps, from doing independent research and – in many cases – from installing a few apps, teachers have been able to boost their own knowledge. From our Geography Bee teachers group, a subject network arose.

     3. Know how teachers feel about your subject

I sent out a questionnaire about the foundation curriculum. This questionnaire was to be filled in by all Ks1 and KS2 teachers; the questions focused on teachers’ self evaluation of how much they enjoy teaching different subjects, how confident they are teaching it and how capable they feel teaching it. It was a combination of quantitative data and qualitative. This mix was very useful. It showed, for example, that teachers enjoyed PE lesson but didn’t feel like they were doing a good job – they liked it because it was fun and there was no marking, but they would feel better if they received more training. This information is hugely valuable, but it requires a genuine commitment to listening to teachers’ views.

Here is a copy of the Teachers Curriculum Audit so you can use it in your own school.

    4. Make a stock inventory

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Foundation subjects may not get as much curriculum time as Maths and English, but they often have stock and resources to rival them. Science coordinators are especially affected by the need to keep track of stock since their lessons so often rely on the regular use of a wide range of materials – test tubes, batteries, wires, LED lights, force meters… As a subject leader it is really important for you to know exactly what you have. For one thing, you can distribute things out where they need to go, but being on top of your resources means you can also hold people accountable. Things tend to go missing far less when the coordinators know who most recently took out the tools. Sometimes you may feel as though you are trading convenience for systems, but it is far more convenient to have a signing-out system and be a bit prissy than to face a frustrated year group whose entire unit of work is scuppered because of a missing box of tape measures.

On this point, don’t be afraid to chuck out the crap. Foundation subject coordinators often pass on the same boxes of junk they inherit – be the one the break the cycle. If those 1990s books of Aerial Photography of Maldon in Essex are not in your curriculum now, and you won’t use them, either get rid of them or use them for something else.

    5. Know what progress looks like

Assessment may not be as systematic and rigorous as it needs to be in the core subjects, but to have no sense of assessment in the foundation subjects is not OK. As a coordinator, your effectiveness ultimately hinders on the quality of learning that takes place in your subject. Without a picture of what good progress looks like, and without some form of assessment (even if informal), you cannot demonstrate your impact in a tangible way. These kinds of documents exist for the core subjects, but are rarer in foundation subjects. In History, you can see the work that has been done by the History Association. This progression grid for primary art would be very helpful for a coordinator when checking through their own curriculum provision.

Take one for the team. Too many coordinators are too keen to just hand over an assessment grid to teachers and add that to their pile. As coordinator, let yourself be the one to check the quality of curriculum and lesson plans against these standards. Through good clear feedback, you can move the curriculum to where it needs to be; teachers have so many things on their plate, as you know (you are one too of course) and microscopic progression in recognition of Ordnance Survey symbols between Year 4 and Year 5 is not going to be their concern.

6.  Lead the visits the first time around

If there are going to be visits tied into your curriculum subject, there can be no better time for team-teaching/modelled teaching. Many teachers, especially new teachers, are understandably focusing much of their mental energy on the logistics of behaviour management and pupil safety when they are out and about on visits. The difference between a good day out of school and a really enriching learning experience is often in the quality of facilitation. Model the kind of instruction you want from teachers, and lead the visit how you want it to be taught. This means that in future years, the visit will continue more like who you want it to go.

One of the main elements of our Year 4 unit on Urban Settlements is a teacher-guided walk around Spitalfields. Whilst I produced a detailed teacher guide and an activity pack for pupils to record their reflection and learning, the quality of the visit rests ultimately on the ability of the teacher to confidently and passionately impart knowledge of the history of the local area. I set up the visit in 2013 and have done it every year since, working with new staff. Organising and leading this visit even formed an SLE deployment when working at another Newham school.

7. Know what marking for your subject looks like

When we mark in primary schools, we mark for many things all at once. We are marking for handwriting, correcting dodgy joins and errant letter formation. We are correcting spellings. We are correcting punctuation and grammar. We are correcting style. We need to be very clear that when children are working in our subject, there are certain clear expectations for what the learning looks like. If pupils have written out a sensory map of an area, building a locational knowledge and sense of place, it should not be marked as if it was a poem. If the child uses metaphors, that’s not a problem – it makes it better, often – but if pupils are to be praised in the piece of work, it should be mostly for the subject-specific content, be that sharing of knowledge, demonstration of skill and understanding, or effective inquiry. Teachers will need to know this.

Many of the afternoon subjects can become a powerful force for developing literacy, but this does not mean that foundation subjects become just a ‘vehicle’ for further literacy lessons. If children are writing a short essay about the history of trade in the British Empire, this will be a great way for pupils to utilise their knowledge of writing conventions in the demonstration of their thoughts and learning in history. 

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