Primary curriculum – Saving the world one pupil at a time
From bread fossils to an exposé on plastic, diving into a brand-new way to structure learning has revolutionised our Trust, says Claire Hardisty
When our CEO, Stuart Bellworthy, joined our Trust of five schools in 2018, he was keen to find a focus to unite staff and students in a common purpose across the primary curriculum.
We are based in Plymouth, Britain’s ocean city. We have several marine scientists on our teaching staff, and board-level links with the Ocean Conservation Trust and leading UK marine research institutions. So, our thinking quickly turned to the ocean.
We wanted to go further than studying the ocean within topic work, however; our vision was for marine learning and conservation to become a key driver for the curriculum.
The ocean lends itself to cross-curricular activities in English, art, geography, science and history.
For example, this may involve understanding the water cycle in science, or exploring paintings of the sea in art. Or in history, children may look at seasides past and present and, location permitting, undertake a beach visit.
Even in Plymouth, some of our children haven’t visited the sea. We felt a moral purpose to give them opportunities to widen their experiences and understanding. Particularly about the role of the ocean in protecting our planet’s future, and how individuals can make a difference.
So early in 2019, we embarked on creating a scheme of work. We started with content that could be embedded within the science and geography elements of the national curriculum.
In October 2022, we launched our new scheme of work through a CPD day at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth.
Our Ocean Experts (scientists from local marine organisations) joined us and shared their knowledge through hands-on workshops. They even created a human wave machine!
I co-opted another head and a lead teacher to forge the project with me.
Our task was to develop a progressive scheme with age-appropriate, scientific rigour, and engaging teaching resources, while working collaboratively with staff to build it from the ground upwards.
We aimed to create the programme within two years.
Firstly, we set up a working group that consisted of two ‘Ocean Champions’ from each school. These were teachers with ocean or science expertise.
We invited scientists to join us from the Ocean Conservation Trust, Marine Biological Association and Plymouth Marine Laboratories, whom we termed our ‘Ocean Experts’. They would provide scientific expertise and academic review.
We met regularly to share our progress, pitfalls, and discuss principles and timescales for the next stage of work.
We soon developed working bonds as a team. Tea, biscuits and humour were all a very important part of this process!
The team also regularly reported back to our Trust Board, to keep trustees and members informed.
It was important to have a strong foundation for our work. So, we decided to explore in more detail the seven principles of Ocean Literacy, adopted by UNESCO.
The National Marine Educators Association in the USA had developed a framework of objectives around this, which we used as a point of reference.
We decided that each unit of work would focus specifically on one of the ocean principles (excluding principles one and seven, which apply to every unit).
Each school in the Trust would take responsibility for designing a unit for one principle.
Primary curriculum design
We agreed to design each unit for teaching across a double-year group. This allowed schools with children in mixed-age year groups, or with curriculum projects carefully mapped out, the flexibility to match units to their own circumstances.
I created a proforma for the designs, so that everyone would follow common guidelines. Over each two-year phase, we wanted to cover five units. Some would be ‘deep dives’ – short, focused units to be compressed into a few days; and some would be cross-curricular units, delivered over a few weeks and incorporating wider curriculum subjects.
We gave staff some release time to do this work, and attend online meetings.
The Champions used their own knowledge, carried out research, and liaised with their Ocean Expert to explore the best ways to bring learning to life.
Staff trialled some of their ideas, checking in with pupils along the way.
For instance, Year 6 made detailed cartoon flow charts illustrating the beginning of life and the role of phytoplankton. They then went on to do further work linking this to both their literacy unit and scientific explanations.
In science, teachers also explored the use of plastics, testing literacy with investigative journalism techniques.
We met regularly to take stock as a team, to keep us all on the same page, and make sure everyone’s workload was manageable.
Our lead teacher was given a half day per week to focus solely on writing up each unit, carrying out a residency in each school alongside the Champions, and then further fleshing out the units of work.
By Summer 2022, we had trialled several sections.
Now in the final phase, our Ocean Experts are checking our science content and developing ‘teacher guides’ to help give staff the knowledge and confidence to teach each unit.
Developing a whole new scheme of work for our Ocean Conservation Curriculum from the ground up, and in the midst of a pandemic, has not been easy.
To be honest, the process has been rather messy, (but that’s fine as the creative process is like that!), and we’re not quite finished yet.
We are still working through our expert sign-off on the scientific content, and the next step will be to publish our work in a form that we can share more widely.
Our Trust has now grown to eight schools, and the new additions are keen to embrace this work.
In the five Plymouth schools, every child will undertake at least one of the units this academic year; next year, all eight schools will be delivering the scheme of work, so all our pupils will have equality of opportunity.
It’s too early for any hard evaluation, but already we have seen changes. We have all increased our awareness and understanding of how connected we are to our ocean, and it has galvanised our thinking on personal responsibility and sustainability.
Our children have an increased exposure to ocean studies and are acquiring a scientific approach and vocabulary from a very early age.
They too are becoming more aware of how their actions and choices can impact the future of our planet. After all, our children are our future.
What the kids say
“Making fossils out of slices of bread was the best thing – we pressed objects like model dinosaurs down into the bread, and then we could see next day how it had made the shape.”
“I had no idea of all the places we can find plastics, and this [investigative] work has inspired me to become a journalist.”
“We have a responsibility to our children’s children. If we want them to be able to enjoy the ocean, we need to do something now.”
Claire Hardisty is headteacher at Thornbury Primary School, part of Connect Academy Trust in Plymouth and Torbay, and is a driving force behind the UK’s first Ocean Conservation Curriculum for primary children. To find out more about the ocean curriculum, please visit connectacademytrust.co.uk, email email@example.com or call 01752 790990.