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Inspire Partnership Conference: A Curriculum for Excellence and Equity by Hilary Gresko

Inspire Partnership Conference: A Curriculum for Excellence and Equity by Hilary Gresko


With so much interest in creating a curriculum for excellence and equity, Inspire Partnership hosted a one-day conference which took place at Foxfield Primary School on Saturday 29th June to explore the big curriculum questions facing schools today. We explored the practical ideas and resources to support curriculum design and development at whole school as well as partnership level. There was much excitement leading up the event, with over 100 delegates attending from across the UK! Everyone was ready for the immersive, informative day of sharing ideas and networking. Roundhay Primary School tweeted:


Key themes were rife throughout the day and on the lips of many of the delegates, including: collective voice, recalibrating the curriculum, connection, networking and relationship building.

Prestigious keynote speakers included, Rob Carpenter, who spoke about building a curriculum for equity and excellence; Sue John who spoke about models of leadership and the future direction of education; And Mary Myatt who spoke about coherence in the curriculum. As the conference begun there was a real anticipation in the room.

Rob Carpenter: Building a Curriculum for Excellence and Equity


Background: Rob is CEO of the Inspire Partnership, the author of ‘A Manifesto for Excellence in Schools’, a National Leader of Education and a senior partner with Challenge Partners. Rob has experience of school leadership in a range of contexts, including schools in special measures and with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils.

Rob Carpenter gave a very engaging and inspiring talk. He celebrated the delegates, all brought together in one room through the power of connections across the United Kingdom. He welcomes these connections whole-heartedly, speaking for the first time of how we are stronger together and how we can learn so much from one another and support for each other.

He calls for a recalibration of the curriculum across the UK, a curriculum that goes below just surface level learning. At a time where the teaching profession is at an all-time low in teacher retention and at crisis point in recruitment, he believes the best schools invest in a school improvement culture (school improvement culture was a theme explored by all three speakers).  Not one with a top down model however. The Inspire Partnership is a great example of intrusting teachers to lead the way of innovation. He believes it’s about giving colleagues in our schools autonomy to work in collaboration. Rob quoted Doctor Sam Sins on teacher retention who says we are in a ‘perfect storm’ of the number of children coming into our schools verses teachers leaving the profession. What is it going to take for this to change?

Rob gave an open and honest reflection of himself as a headteacher over the years. One who thought good teaching was picking up the old National Strategy to know how and what to teach. What he realises now is he was not focussed upon all the things he knows now makes great teaching: slowing the learning down, pre-teaching, learning the substantive knowledge and applying learning into different contexts.

He spoke about his plea to remove labels, such as below average and greater depth, that get cast upon children (a point that was addressed by all our key speakers). He spoke of a report on elitism documenting pupils who go to our comprehensive schools and have limited opportunities to go onto our top universities. Attending universities like Oxford and Cambridge all increase chances of getting top jobs in politics for example. However, he believes we can and we should give children the language and learning they need, to feel at home in such places. He discussed his thoughts on what the purpose of education was: developing human potential, creating social change, preparing for work and teaching them about the best that’s been said and done to date, and how we should be providing this for our children.

Rob feels strongly that we should recognise and celebrate diversity, heritage and culture in our design for the curriculum which reflects the schools’ locality. He referenced Stormzy the grime artist/rapper in the current music charts, who has provided higher education opportunities for black youths to excel at one of the top universities in the world. Rob spoke of his regard for Stormzy who used his moment playing at Glastonbury festival to highlight another area of culture where black faces are scarce, ballet. Stormzy is quoted to have said:

“Ballet shoes have traditionally not been made to match black skin tones. Until now. Previously ballet dancers pancaked their shoes with makeup. Now there are ballet shoes to match all skin tones. A huge leap forward for inclusion in the ballet world”. 

Rob made an argument that our curriculum learning has been too weighted on the cognitive domain, where we prepare children for tests. In a cognitive learning domain paradigm, what we value in terms of learning skills does not necessarily reflect this changing world.  In other words, a learning taxonomy based on cognition fits with our schema of what learning we reward both socially and culturally, but this is not necessarily what young people need to learn to compete, thrive and be successful in the future. In schools, in some cases, this has reduced children as functions or human resources rather than individuals. Schools have sought to narrow their curriculum and restrict what is valued in learning to what will be tested in SATs.  Pupils as young as 6 are being drilled weekly in what we think matters most because teachers have succumbed to the external pressures of accountability. This in turn limits pupils’ creative spirit, independence and confidence. Rob believes it is time to think differently.

Rob talked about the need to provide learning in the affective domain, when it affects the heart and the psychomotor domain allowing children to go out and get things done. The affective domain is concerned with feelings, motives or emotions. Essentially, affective domain is concerned with the relationship between learner and learning concept. Affective domain connects much more deeply with the ‘why’ of learning so within the higher order of the taxonomy, learners form a lasting bond with the learning content.

He shared his thoughts that the affective domain is closely linked to the culture and climate within a school. It necessitates a framework for teaching that goes beyond surface reproducing learning or teaching children to pass tests.  It is fundamentally about deep learning. It necessitates that children fail and learn, it means promotion of risk taking, confidence building, growth mind-set and our ability to challenge perceptions in an appropriate way. You can’t build affective domain through booster classes.

All the domains of learning need to be present if we want our children to be present in the world, not at the centre of the world.22

Rob spoke of the inequality of language which hold children back, diminishing their potential as learners, holding them back in future careers. He shared a new speaking programme designed by an Inspire colleague and Early Years Practitioner, Sophie Alder. Sophie and practitioners across the EYFS phase use a scaffolding model where speaking is like a game of tennis where the teachers holds a speaking rally with children as they build confidence. Rob’s point being is, as professionals in teaching and learning, we have to begin at children’s starting point (another point that was later reciprocated by another speaker).

Rob speaks often of collective efficacy and quotes John Hatty in saying, ‘learning happens better when you are learning with other people’. What we need to do is give children the time and space to make mistakes. We need to appeal to a schema within learning. You must have the disciplinary and substantive learning together to compliment teach other. To get this right is critical. In talking depth – how do we esteem depth of learning? He argues in our modern society, knowledge is not enough, it needs to be rooted in an ethical underpinning so that children are agents of change (this notion of ‘agent of change’ was later explored in the curriculum break off session).

Dame Sue: Models of Leadership and the Future Direction of Education 


Background: Dame Sue, is an Executive Director for Challenge Partners, member of the Sutton Trust Education Advisory Group and of the Royal Society’s education committee. She is currently involved with two major educational charities and is the chair of the Brilliant Club Board of Trustees.

Dame Sue argues that excellence and equity can be achieved through courageous leadership which invites challenge, collaboration and innovation through its door. Dame Sue spoke about a call for the current accountability system to be changed in a bid to reduce inequality in our system. She calls for school improvement and ‘judgements’ to be made through professional dialogue, combined with wisdom from our teaching colleagues.

Dame Sue shared how in 2011, 70 schools signed up to Challenge Partners, welcoming this new kind of school improvement tool. Now 500 schools, both primary and secondary, have signed up, resulting in a national network which values growth and aims to reduce inequality in our system. The Inspire Partnership also champion the need for external review and as a partnership of schools have an Inspire Challenge Partner Hub and take part in yearly reviews.

‘We need to be courageous leaders,’ she told the conference! We can use our collective voice to step up and say what matters – not OFSTED or politicians!  OFSTED’s new framework and new focus on curriculum says children should have a broad and balanced curriculum, but Dame Sue argues that the curriculum also needs to be connected. The word outstanding is very misleading for parents, instead her preference would be the term, ‘stand out schools’, who can support other schools on school improvement strategies.

Dame Sue believes that OFSTED should complement peer reviews. She believes that when we all support each other this is when schools will improve. Schools feel empowered to ask if others can help and support them to deal with issues they may have, leading to a vertical system of accountability. Through peer to peer reviews, leaders are identifying and sharing excellence as part of the process and this will lead to better progress of all schools.

Dame Sue talks about the need to have humility and animosity to take part in a review on another school and shares that there is something about doing a review, rather than have it done for us by OFSTED.  She asked us, ‘How do we avoid mediocrity in our system?’ And argued that if we don’t keep challenging ourselves then we’re going to drop down. Dame Sue’s advice to us was to, ‘Be curious at all times, be courageous and strong to explain what we are doing. Better is possible. It takes diligence, it takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try!’

Mary Myatt: The Curriculum as 'story'


Background: Mary is an education adviser, speaker and author of books including ‘The Curriculum: Gallimaufry to Coherence.’ She works in schools talking to pupils, teachers and leaders about learning, leadership and the curriculum.

Mary advised the professionals in the room that there are no quick fixes to great outcomes for pupils and that they are not achieved through tick boxes.

Instead, learnt principles of great quality outcomes are underpinned by great values.

In considering children’s starting points, she advises us of two sectors to particularly keep an eye on, EYFS and SEND, both that place a considerable focus on children’s starting points to base children’s learning around and getting this right. Does this happen consistently throughout the rest of the school though?

In discussing children’s oracy and language development, Mary said, ‘Talk in the classrooms should float around like a sea’. She challenged teachers who expect children to stop talking about their learning the moment they tell them to, instead advising us to tell children to ‘stop talking when you’re ready’. We need to consider how we draw conversations to an end to ensure we are honouring what’s being said and let children finish. She believes all learning should primarily involve talk, pointing out, ‘they can’t write it if they can’t say it!’ She spoke about how self-esteem of the teacher should never trump the learning and that we need to move away from the teacher being the focus for everything. This just leads to the children not listening when others are responding. This prompted the question whether talk is really embedded in our schools and how we can get better at this?

Mary warned the delegates of the conference that we were about to sit an unseen, unprepared for test which would be ranked. She questioned, ‘How does this make you feel?’ Many of us feeling insecure, nervous and anxious. She argued instead of thinking of the job in hand, we’re thinking about what the consequences will be. Statistically, 90% of us feel very uncomfortable, whereas 10% of us feel quite excited, getting a rush of adrenaline at the thought of it. She calls this ‘Sudoku’ – putting ourselves under cognitive pressure that stretches us. Most of us don’t mind doing this as long as it doesn’t make us feel stupid. Our bodies get a rush of dopamine when we’ve achieved something difficult. When we perceive a threat we step back and don’t want to take a risk. This led delegates to consider two questions: how would this be different with the knowledge that school improvement would be high challenge, but low threat? How would it make a difference to the learning we present to our children in our classes?

Mary believes what should be at the heart of school improvement is being able to share our strengths and weaknesses honestly. She advises that there is a need to separate the work from the person to stop people becoming big headed or disheartened. If people get inadequate in an OFSTED review you hear, ‘I’m not good enough’, on the flip if they get outstanding they think they don’t need to listen to anything ever again! She calls for us to stop labelling our schools, leading to too much inflation (a point already raised today). Mary shared that an indicator of a healthy school is high levels of challenge and support, believing our educational values need to be lived not laminated, children are humans first and learning comes second.

She said if she was running OFSTED, the first piece of evidence gathering that would be done would be pupil voice. What children say has a strong correlation to the final judgement.

She believes we should have high expectations for our children in schools, arguing they can cope with things that are above their pay grade as long as it’s low threat. She questioned, ‘How are children going to catch up if they are being given a diminished diet, when they get stuck with a label? She talked about the children in our below sets, majority of whom are receiving pupil premium funding. Mary believes, they are getting a double disadvantage, generally working with the least qualified members of staff, always sitting on the ‘ghetto table’ – a double whammy! Whereas, if you are higher ability, you get known as the bright ones who get the special challenges. In contrast, the middle ability know they will never get the challenges of the more able. And then there’s the lower ability who just feel dumb and know it’s never going to happen. In other words, we are telling the lower ability and middle ability we are rationing the work, you’re not worthy. She argues you should never put a ceiling on learning, children rise to expectations. Professionals need to privilege thinking over task for every child. There needs to be challenge for all and no such word as ability in our schools. Mary’s observations challenged professionals in the room to truly consider how we as professionals integrate children in our schools?

Mary mentioned a study where two SEND children were learning to play the guitar. One child was given a checklist, and the other was told they would be playing at a concert on a set date. Because the child playing at the concert had a goal, they were able to rise to the occasion and played in front of the school, thus excelling, whereas the child with the checklist made slow progress.

Mary spoke of how our brains privilege story. Stories underpin how we need to tailor our curriculum offer. Mary believes, as a sector, we don’t use stories enough to engage children and extend their learning. Why? Mary explained, when we read to children it’s magical. Because we think it’s deeply pleasurable, we don’t think it’s work. We make emotional and intellectual connections with the story. How are we going to grow vocabulary if children aren’t read to. Research from Sussex University showed that children who were read two novels back to back fast over 6 months made fantastic progress. The better readers made 9 months progress, whereas the poorer readers made 16 months progress. Another point our leaders took back to schools – are we making enough time to immerse children in a love of reading and books?

She makes ends in some points for delegates to consider, ‘What’s your big vision for the school? What do you pupils need in your school? In subject matter: What’s your big picture? Where’s the magic? Why is it important?’


Leaders at The Inspire Partnership put themselves forward to share Inspire’s vision on identified areas. As a partnership, Inspire are open to sharing their teaching and learning practices to ensure good outcomes for all children including children outside of the partnership. Delegates were given a workshop menu to choose from so the afternoon was personalised and tailored to their interests and school targets.

Maths Learning Journey led by Melissa Molnar and Iman Imandeep Atwal


The purpose of this session was to outline this structure, which is based on a process of pre-assessment, fluency, reasoning, application and reflection. Delegates were taken through making the maths learning journey clear and progressive. More time is dedicated to explicitly teaching the skills of reasoning and problem-solving being the reason for rethinking the planning structure for maths at the Inspire Partnership. In this workshop they looked at the rationale for using this planning structure, task design for all stages and how this process can lead to an outcome with connections to real life, and to global curriculum themes.

Global Curriculum led by Idil Yusuf


This session focussed on the design and development of a curriculum with global themes that strives to do just this. At the Inspire Partnership, our goal is to provide children with a curriculum that equips them with the knowledge, understanding, skills and attitudes they will require in an ever-evolving world. The session examined the different global themes that form the basis of the Inspire Partnership curriculum, looking at examples of successful learning journeys and project outcomes based on these themes, as well as the theory behind, and process of, redesigning a curriculum.

Let the World Come to You With Lyfta: immersive storytelling for a global curriculum led by Penny Rabiger


In this interactive session, delegates explored Lyfta's fascinating immersive documentary story worlds and considered where themes of global learning, sustainable development goals, diversity, representation, resilience, compassion and empathy would fit into their curriculum.

Planning Backwards: English Learning Journey led by Jo Capes and Aimi Vdovin


This session took delegates through the process of planning backwards from a writing outcome, ensuring that the knowledge, skills and attitudes are in place to write for their purpose and audience. Within the Inspire Partnership curriculum, teaching and learning is based on a high-quality core text with strong themes that link to the global curriculum. These global themes are carefully woven into the English learning journey so that pupils can make connections across the curriculum.

Effective Feedback led by Lauren Murply and Sunita Vyas


Based on research conducted by a working party within the Inspire Partnership, this workshop explored a wide range of strategies for giving feedback, both verbal and written, that has a real impact on pupils’ learning. We looked at ways of using feedback for addressing misconceptions and identifying next steps. It also encourages children to think deeply about their learning, reflect on their progress and outcomes, articulate the learning process clearly, and evaluate their own work, identifying what they could improve for themselves.

Mastery in the Maths Curriculum led by Melissa Molnar

This workshop focused on reasons for embedding a mastery approach into the teaching of maths, as well as how we do so in a way that develops a deep understanding of mathematical concepts and processes that pupils can adapt to a wide range of scenarios. During the session there was time to look at planning, task design and implementation of the approach as well as examples from the classroom.

Using Key Performance Indicators to Support Formative Assessment and Evidence Good Practice led by Kerry Sutcliffe and Louise Robinson

In this workshop, leaders from Hill Top Academy shared how the use of KPI’s enabled teachers and pupils at their schools to make accurate judgements when assessing against national curriculum objectives. Teachers were given an insight into the process of planning backwards, using an end outcome to plan in smaller steps to success. Leaders shared how to use KPI’s to inform pre-assessments for English and maths, and how to create sequences of learning that are pitched to the needs of the individual pupil.

Character Skills led by Carissa Lichty and Lauren Murphy

This session outlined an ongoing project focusing on embedding the development of key character skills within the global curriculum. Inspire recognises the importance of promoting and valuing character skills as part of our curriculum alongside academic knowledge and skills, and values and attitudes. The session provided an insight into how projects are conducted within the Inspire Partnership and how new initiatives are designed, trialled and shared. Also explored was the importance of prioritising and valuing character skills, and how this can be done in a meaningful way that connects with the curriculum, rather than being something that is celebrated separately.


A truly inspirational day where professionals both connected and networked. It was a privilege to attend the conference, listening to such engaging speakers. With so many people coming from far and wide to be there, there was a real sense that professionals want to see a change. Impassioned by the discussions of the day colleagues shared their wishes for our future curriculum, some of which are documented below:

‘A beautiful, relevant curriculum, designed to empower our children to make a difference in our world.’

‘To ensure we are changemakers; have a voice backed up with substantive knowledge, reasoning and open-mindedness.’

‘An accountability framework to allow you the time and space to experiment.’

‘To give our children the world they deserve.’

‘A curriculum that leaves children wondering, excited and ready…’

‘Collective drive for a moral purpose.’

At the end of the conference there was a feeling that together we are stronger with our collective voice as professionals of the kind of education we want to provide for our children in schools. All speakers spoke with wisdom and passion, and points raised threaded the day. School development doesn’t have to be an interrogation, rather a supportive process which drives forwards whole school improvement. All our children deserve a school and curriculum which is not going to stunt their future, rather enhance it with the language, knowledge and skills where there is no limits in what they can achieve. 

Practitioners shared their thoughts from the day on postcards:



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