Pupils in Leeds Discovery Centre

Designing the Leeds Curriculum: building a place-based cultural curriculum

Kate Fellows, Head of Learning and Access, Leeds Museums and Galleries

Everyone loves a story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin… Once upon a time, there was a city in Yorkshire, England called Leeds. Magical things happened in Leeds. Prehistoric hippos once roamed where now there are houses. An elephant got stuck in a small alleyway – how did it get out? In Leeds, brilliant people built a vibrant city that shouted out to the world, opened its doors and welcomed people back. Leeds makes things like Monopoly boards full of tools to help prisoners of war escape in the Second World War. Leeds greets people from across the world, across the centuries. Leeds celebrates having the one of the largest West Indian Carnivals outside of the Caribbean. These are just some of the stories we uncovered as part of the development of the Leeds Curriculum.

What is the Leeds Curriculum?

Leeds Museums and Galleries led a city-wide consortium of over 50 arts, cultural and community organisations and over 30 primary schools to co-create the Leeds Curriculum. The Curriculum provides primary teachers with the resources they need to teach using a place-based, local approach through which they can teach any subject and any age group. The Leeds Curriculum is focused on the action research question, ‘what stories do we want our children to know about Leeds before they leave primary school?’ It took two years to develop, and launched in June 2018. The Curriculum is openly and freely accessible on MyLearning.org, a website hosting free national teaching resources, managed by Leeds Museums and Galleries. It can be found on: mylearning.org/collections/leeds-curriculum

Each story contains a ‘hook story’, something interesting and curious about the city. Many of the stories are based on objects within the LMG collections. The stories cover a geographical, chronological and diverse range, linked to the past, but also highlighting a contemporary issue. They are co-produced with communities. They contain images, films, oral histories, archives, access to accessioned museum objects and resources drawn from all the arts and cultural providers across Leeds. Teachers told us they didn’t want lesson plans, they wanted progression-linked, suggested cross-curricular arts activities and experiences, and links out to all the organisations who host information, workshops and resources.

Why did Leeds choose a place based approach?

A place based curriculum is about a place, for a place and by a place. It is designed to enhance the learning experiences of our children by ‘giving them roots to give them wings’ (First Nations proverb). Research indicates that grounding children in their city through place based learning addresses local challenges, raises attainment because they develop a greater sense of community (thersa.org). Research also shows that primary age children engaging in arts and culture are three times more likely to get a university degree, more likely to be active citizens engaged in democracy through voting, and experience better mental and physical health in later life. Combining research and expertise in the city, we are aiming to raise the educational achievement of all 170,000 school age children in Leeds.

Currently, only 56% of children aged 8-11 achieve the standard of education required by central government. This is below the national average of 61%. The difference in the achieved and expected standard for children is known as the ‘attainment gap’. The attainment gap is particularly noticeable for children living with special education needs and disabilities, those who are looked after by the authorities and those living in poverty. The Leeds Curriculum is not a magic bullet to solve these issues, but we can raise aspirations, foster enjoyment and achievement in school, and raise attendance. We can do this by targeting a culturally based curriculum at all 232 primary schools in Leeds. Sallie Elliot, Head of Swillington Primary, reflected: “every child and young person should have access to a high-quality arts and cultural education and all of the proven benefits it brings. As a Headteacher, I think that the Leeds Curriculum is a fantastic idea and one which will benefit our pupils for years to come.”

How did we do it?

We began consultation with directly with schools, academy trusts, teaching alliances, universities with teaching training provision and arts and cultural organisations in 2016. We piloted one story in early 2017, then held story gathering workshops in autumn 2017. We fostered buy-in through strategic conversations and advocacy with schools, local government and arts organisations. We employed a freelance Project Developer to add capacity and give a unified voice to the Curriculum. Throughout 2018, we worked closely with teachers and pupils to sift the stories, looking through the lens of the National Curriculum objectives, and giving a chronological, geographical and diverse spread of stories. We launched the Curriculum on 14 June 2018 at Leeds City Museum.

What did it cost?

Development has cost many hours un-costed of staff time in building relationships and trust and gathering resources. However, this has built partnerships that make the city stronger culturally, foster an embedded positive attitude to arts within formal education and position Leeds Museums and Galleries as a strong, sustainable service. The only funded costs were the freelance Project Developer (around £20,000 over 2 years), and the launch event both funded through Arts Council England.

What’s the size and scale of the Leeds Curriculum?

We want to reach every child aged 5-11 in the city. That’s about 55,000 young people. That’s a tough ask, but a good ambition! Through the development process we have gathered over 300 stories and questions, worked over 80 arts professionals and members of the community from 40 organisations, and a further 210 Yr1-6 children, and 80 teachers from 30 schools. We had over 100 teachers and cultural professionals at the launch event. We know the curriculum is currently being used, at least in part, by half of the primary schools in Leeds (approx. 100 schools), reaching around 10,000 children so far. The MyLearning.org dwell time for Leeds resources as part of the Curriculum had increased by 44%. LMG and partner organisations have seen rises in engagement for story strands from the Leeds Curriculum. The curriculum will grow over time, and we will truly only see the impact over the next 5-10 years. 

Image captions / credits:

Image 1: The Leeds Curriculum on MyLearning.org – a free to access teaching resource website.

Image 2: Pupils at Leeds Discovery Centre finding out about, and writing, their histories. (Credit Sara Zagni).