A new curriculum devised four years ago for 16 state primary schools in East Anglia has gradually been adopted by independent and international schools around the world and is now being used by more than 100,000 pupils every day. Lauren Meadows and Alex Bedford explain why the project has been so successful.
We know so much more about how children learn than we did a decade ago, yet many primary curricula have hardly changed at all. If they have, new thinking is all too often a bolt-on to an existing approach. But to achieve excellence in primary education, the latest findings in cognitive and neuroscientific research must be core to teaching and learning in schools, whether state, independent or international.
In 2018, we at Unity Schools Partnership (USP) set out to build a new curriculum for the 16 primary schools in our trust. We were determined to ensure that – unlike other curricula available – ours would be built on a firm foundation of evidence, research and cognitive science.
“We know so much more about how children learn than we did a decade ago.”
We conducted our own research through the Unity Research School, directed by the Education Endowment Foundation. The findings of this showed that, for robust progression to be seen, modules of the curriculum needed to be deliberately sequenced. This means that being systematic about how knowledge is introduced and revisited is key to pupils knowing more and remembering more over time.
Also, teachers need to be able to instil strong learning routines – to free up precious mental capacity for understanding demanding concepts. An emphasis on oracy and vocabulary acquisition, retention and use is also required, to break down learning barriers and accelerate progress.
The first subject curricula to be produced — history, geography and science — were not imposed on teachers in our partnership schools. Instead, we made them available and asked the teachers using use them to share their experience of how well pupils remembered the content and developed their understanding.
“Language is placed front and centre, with a clearly defined approach to explicit vocabulary instruction.”
This feedback then informed further development and evolution. Within a year, word of the effectiveness of the fresh new curriculum, which we named CUSP (Curriculum with Unity Schools Partnership) had spread through the trust and all USP schools were choosing to use it.
CUSP curricula for reading and writing, art, DT, music, French and spelling have followed, each developed by subject specialists. Language is placed front and centre, with a clearly defined approach to explicit vocabulary instruction and the content centres on key themes relevant to modern life. These include, for example, environmental sustainability, diversity, British and global heritage and exploration of important social, moral, ethical and cultural debates.
Pupils are encouraged to collaborate too, and we host CUSP festivals for art and design and DT. There are live “cook-a-longs” led by leading industry professionals, Q&A sessions with Joel the Farmer, Andy Griffiths, Nadiya Hussain and the Quadram Institute.
Ofsted’s validation of this new evidence-led primary curriculum in 2020/21 led to a tide of non-USP schools approaching us. Today, CUSP is in use in around the world to teach more than 100,000 pupils in 350 schools.
These range from small rural schools to large inner-city institutions, independent and international schools. There is no requirement for them to subscribe to the entire curriculum — schools choose specific subjects and for each one there is clear guidance on how to make adaptations for individual pupils’ needs, including those with SEND. This has rapidly improved the quality of education schools are able to offer.
“It is our aim to bring more subjects on board and ensure that all content remains current and relevant.”
Teachers tell us that it improves their practice and, over time, their workload. Pupils’ outcomes show that we are achieving a new standard of learning for our young people.
All that we do is founded on close evaluation and agility, allowing us to make rapid refinements as we learn more about what works in the classroom. Wherever they are in the world, teachers using CUSP report on their experience in the classroom, either through a digital platform or face-to-face visits. This, along with the findings of more formal cognitive research, continues to be reflected in the evolution of the curriculum.
As CUSP continues to grow rapidly, it is our aim to bring more subjects on board and ensure that all content remains current and relevant. The CUSP curriculum currently serves KS1 and KS2, with the CUSP Early Foundations curriculum being released in Spring and Summer 2023.
As a result of the better outcomes we are now seeing in our primary partnership, we have been approached by several secondary schools asking for guidance on how to recalibrate their KS3 provision.
“We can improve the quality of primary pupils’ education wherever they are in the world.”
To this end, we are currently piloting a series of CUSP KS3 modules, looking specifically at how the strong outcomes from CUSP Reading and Writing can be continued into Year 7 and beyond.
The strength of CUSP is in partnership. By offering a curriculum firmly based on evidence and bringing high-quality teaching methods and resources to any classroom, we can improve the quality of primary pupils’ education wherever they are in the world.