November 2012


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  • A move to the middle
    Concerned about flatlining results, Abbeyfield School in Wiltshire has switched to a curriculum for 11-14 year-olds built around 'big ideas', encouraging students to explore the links between subjects – and to their own lives. David Nicholson explains the thinking. More
  • Social network
    Is participation in social media a time-wasting distraction or a not-tobe- missed opportunity to engage with parents and communities? Susie Kearley reports. More
  • Growing potential
    Schools spend billions employing teaching assistants (TAs) with little evidence that they make a difference to attainment. Sue Tate and Ben O’Toole explore the challenges schools face in realising the potential of their support staff. More
  • All systems Gove...
    Following the government reshuffle, Daniel Cremin looks at some of the key personnel changes and their potential policy implications and explores whether the return of David Laws will put the brakes on Michael Gove's radicalism. More
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Concerned about flatlining results, Abbeyfield School in Wiltshire has switched to a curriculum for 11-14 year-olds built around 'big ideas', encouraging students to explore the links between subjects – and to their own lives. David Nicholson explains the thinking.

A move to the middle

Our mission at Abbeyfi eld School is to prepare students for their move into adulthood. To achieve this, we have introduced a fresh approach to learning supported by a new framework: the International Middle Years Curriculum (IMYC).

Our motivation was that improvements were on the verge of a plateau and doing more of the same was not an option. The traditional examination system failed 25 per cent of our students year on year. They weren't meeting the five A*-C benchmark because we hadn't developed their skills of resilience, research, managing time and independent learning sufficiently in the lower years. But it was also the case that too much testing was warping the work of our school, something we saw clearly in our students’ utilitarian attitude towards learning.

The IMYC is specifically designed to empower students, stimulating them to be good enquirers and developing their thinking skills. Created by Fieldwork Education, the organisation behind the successful International Primary Curriculum, it was ready-made, to a degree, but flexible enough that we could adapt it to the particular needs of our school.

Skills-based learning

The IMYC responds specifically to the developmental needs of 11-14 year-olds, particularly to the needs of the adolescent brain at this point. It encourages independence and interdependence in students' learning and embeds discrete subject learning within thematic units. This enables students to make connections between the subjects they study and to their own lives.

Active skills-based learning and subject knowledge are incorporated into every theme, as is the opportunity for self-reflection. A unit exit point asks students to make sense of their learning using media platforms like podcasts and videos.

It is a combined approach that appealed greatly to us. The transition from primary to our school – moving from one to 15 different teachers – was diffificult for some students, but the IMYC addresses some of these issues because the Year 7s are familiar with its thematic style of learning.

Each theme focuses on a 'big idea', an abstract concept that challenges students to think about its meaning and connection through each subject and to give some personal reflection over one six-week unit. The IMYC Balance unit, for example, is based around the ‘big idea’ that "Things are more stable when different elements are in the correct or best possible proportions". In the Collaboration unit, learning follows the ‘big idea’ that “When people work together they can achieve a common goal”. Throughout each unit, students investigate how the big idea relates to each discrete subject, making connections between their various classes.

Taking a Risk

We started the IMYC this academic year with the Risk unit and the ‘big idea’ that "Progress involves exposing ourselves to, and considering the impact of, forms of danger, harm, uncertainty or opportunity".

The project had a spectacular launch with a school visit from a fire-eater: watching someone plunge flaming torches into his mouth symbolised risk for students in a very tangible way.

After that fiery start, students explored the theme through each different subject.

In geography, for example, they have been looking at issues around settlement provision and patterns in the UK and beyond and the risks involved in meeting housing needs, today and in the future. Their learning goals included developing an understanding of the main physical and human features and environmental issues in particular areas and being able to use and interpret globes, maps, atlases, photographs, computer models and satellite images.

In history, they studied risk in the context of the fight for the control of England in 1066 between William the Conqueror and the Saxons. Learning goals ranged from being able to describe how the countries studied responded to the conflicts to pinpointing how historical sources can contradict one another.

In science, risk was analysed through an introduction to scientific principles with learning goals such as identifying and minimising risks associated with practical work and by discussing examples of people who have taken risks to secure a scientific breakthrough.

Teacher collaboration

Teachers collaborate at the planning stages of the units to identify connections in content between their different subjects and to help avoid repetition.

“For example, both science and geography will look at earthquakes but collaborating on planning means the teachers in the two subjects can share the content and make links between lessons – rather than repeating the same things,” says David Drake, IMYC coordinator and Advanced Skills Teacher (AST).

Each member of staff also has a copy of the unit mind map so they know what is happening in other subject areas and what prior knowledge students have.

A key element of each unit is the tutor group blog, David explains. "Each week students will use one period of tutor time to record what they have learned that week. On one level, it allows students to see the links between their work in different subject areas and how everything relates to the central big idea. It also allows their tutor, who has not been teaching them, to see what learning has been taking place. And it enables those students who may not have understood certain things in lessons to have another opportunity to have something explained to them."

After six weeks of subject learning, students then collaborate for two or three days to produce a media project – a podcast or video – to present their personal understanding of the 'big idea' to classmates. This also gives teachers a vehicle to assess a student's developing understanding. An IMYC Assessment for Learning programme helps teachers to track the progression of students' skills, too.

The media project encourages the use of a range of technology, which is seen as another benefifit at Abbeyfield. "We'd been trying for some time to find a way to harness new technology and the IMYC has forced us to think about how to incorporate this technology into the exit points for each unit," says David.

Exploration, hypothesis, discovery

The IMYC is firing the imagination of students and stimulating them to explore their learning further; to continue to harness early childhood traits of enquiry, exploration, hypothesis and discovery; and to create a school where learning is 'real', purposeful and immediate.

"Our teachers are already seeing the impact of the IMYC", says David.

"Every school I’ve worked in has targeted building cross-curricular links and up until now, it's always been one of those things that you put in your scheme of work in the final column but never really happens – it's an afterthought.

"What the IMYC will mean for us is that – because the big theme is the same across all of the subjects – those links are embedded in the curriculum and they’ll be happening not just once a term or once a year but every single week."

As with all changes, taking on a new curriculum was daunting. You do need sufficient planning time. A lot of the good work that happens in schools already can be adapted to the structure but you need space for teachers to overcome the initial impression that it will mean a heavy workload and to absorb the idea that they will not be working in separate subject silos any more.

But everyone at Abbeyfield has run with it, and they like the opportunity to work with other staff who they would not normally work with. It’s definitely been a good thing for the children, staff and the whole school.

Adult world environment

It's still early days, but already Abbeyfield has a clear sense of who and what we want our learners to be and how the IMYC will be able to help achieve this. Through it we believe we are empowering our students so that their learning feels within their control. It’s enabling them to utilise their learning in a real, 'adult world' environment, so they understand better the world around them, the opportunities available to them and their responsibilities as emerging citizens

  • David Nicholson is head of Abbeyfield School, Wiltshire

For more information about the IMYC go to