“From the teachers’ perspective, the education system is “noisy”: Teachers are surrounded by multiple and conflicting messages about what is most important to do. Furthermore, if they focus too much on any one of these important ideals, they may compromise their effectiveness with another.” 

Mary Kennedy, ‘How does professional development improve learning?’

Pretty much every school in England is ‘doing curriculum’. It is a laudable but challenging aim to reconfigure the ‘what’ of curriculum, with all the related issues, such as supporting teachers with time and expert guidance to make changes to multiple habits. Amidst all the noise, we should also consider ‘what are we stopping?’ to ensure that we clear the ground for our teachers’ best efforts.

Most teachers are – rightly – intellectually engaged by the challenge of curriculum change. Some of my most exciting work was redevising the curriculum and assessment of my English department and leading whole school change for yet another curriculum cycle. And yet, as we know, teachers in England are overworked. Any focus on curriculum needs to be matched by dropping other initiatives and work. 

Perhaps most importantly, teachers have the unenviable job of integrating lots of new knowledge, strategies and habits into an existing plethora of hard-won practices and habits. We simply cannot disconnect a new curriculum design from our existing school planning models and assessment practices. 

We should ask: are teachers still inputting internal data – with targets and more – whilst they are grappling with teaching a wholly new century of history, or a new literary text, or a wholly new set of foundation subject units in primary? 

Too hard to stop?

We should then ask: are we thinking hard enough about de-implementing school approaches at the same time as we coin a re-devised curriculum? 

In medicine, there is a whole set of literature about not just implementing complex changes in settings like hospitals, but there is also a concurrent focus on de-implementation to ensure that doctors and nurses make manageable, sustainable changes. Certainly, I had never heard much about de-implementation when I was a head of department or Deputy head. In truth, I would probably have dismissed it as management speak. And yet, without intent, I likely loaded too many changing on my colleagues without enough consideration of what to stop. 

My colleague at the EEF, Professor Jonathan Sharples, co-author of the EEF guide to implementation, first posed the question to me whether school leaders actually needed training on how to stop doing stuff (maybe it should be the NPQH project?). Once you get past the initial counter-intuitive nature of the idea, it becomes more obvious why we need to spend much more time on de-implementing practices in schools.

Put simply, stopping things in schools is devilishly hard to do well. We need to actually plan to do it effectively.

Take homework for example. It is a contentious topic in many schools and would likely be described as ‘important to do’ by most teachers. Schools have committed to their homework policy, though too often, fifty percent of parents love it, and want more, whereas the other half hate it, wanting less. It is tricky to commit to a position but we work hard to do so, annoying some staff and teachers in the process. 

The reality is that any dropping or stopping a much heralded homework policy is really difficult. School leaders can lose face. School improvement plans have to be rewritten. Perhaps most problematically, a full de-implementation is required. That is to say, communication with staff, parents and pupils about the change is needed (the ‘why‘, ‘when’ and ‘how‘). Then there is the changing of lesson planning approaches, curriculum plans and more. The single thread of homework is woven through the whole tapestry of our work and habits in school and so proves hard to unpick. 

Of course, our homework approach and policy is linked back to curriculum. Most things are linked to curriculum: homework, assessment, teaching, lesson planning, CPD, and so on. Given this is the case, ‘doing curriculum’ means that school leaders are faced with the tough challenge of changing, or stopping, lots of other aspects of the work.

We can make a start. We should ask: does our school development plan focus on considered de-implementation and stopping stuff? For every initiative we add, what are we taking away? Our success, and the efforts and energy levels of our teachers, may well depend on it.