Let Teachers SHINE winner 2023: Sean Harris – Crafting a Curriculum with Poverty in Mind

Back to: Our impact
In this section: Latest News StoriesCase Studies Twitter

Sean Harris, a passionate teacher dedicated to tackling educational inequality, has been awarded £18,000 to develop a curriculum for primary and secondary school students that takes into account the challenges faced by students from low-income backgrounds.

Sean, who is the Improvement Lead at Tees Valley Education Trust, a group of schools on Teesside, has received the funding from Let Teachers SHINE.

Sean believes that designing a toolkit and a fresh approach to curriculum can significantly enhance its impact and effectiveness.

His strategy involves anticipating potential difficulties that children, especially those from low-income backgrounds , may encounter and incorporating the students’ perspectives to inform the design and implementation of the curriculum.  The aim of this approach is to create a more meaningful and engaging learning experience for all learners.

Reflecting on his experience, he explained, “Once in an RE lesson, I posed what I assumed was a simple question that I expected my students to know the answer to. To my surprise, one student asked, ‘What’s a British Muslim?’ It was a humbling experience and made me realise how easily we, as teachers, can make assumptions about the prior knowledge which students are using to access the curriculum we teach.”

This experience prompted Sean to initiate a pilot project during school lunchtimes, where he engaged students by questioning them about their existing knowledge and their curiosity about different subjects they were about to study in the upcoming term.

Sean further explained, “When I joined the trust, I was able to implement my approach on a larger scale. It really empowered teachers to be able to plan more effectively, with a focus on the needs of children from low-income backgrounds.

“Our approach encourages a fresh way of thinking about the curriculum and provides a systematic framework for working with the children that has not been utilised before.

“By taking this approach, we can proactively identify potential challenges for students and provide them with the necessary support. We ask them about what they might struggle with, what questions they have, and how we can help them.

“This information is then used to inform our teacher planning sessions, ensuring that our lessons are designed to support children in their learning journey.

“We are not dialling down the curriculum, rather, we are ensuring that children can relate to it in some way and engage with the material on a deeper level.”

After securing funding and support from Let Teachers SHINE, Sean is brimming with ideas on how to allocate the £18,000. The primary focus is centred on working with two diverse primary schools and purchasing iPads for the students. These iPads will enable the children to be actively involved as ‘co-production’ researchers of their curriculum.

In addition, the funding will cover trips to universities, organising a conference for local schools and other trusts they work with, and inviting teachers and children to expand their way of thinking. The goal is to create a comprehensive toolkit that can be shared regionally and hopefully, even nationally.

Looking forward to the future, Sean aspires to develop an easy-to-digest toolkit with children’s voices at the centre, which could be shared with primary and secondary colleagues nationally through various outlets.

Sean said, “I hope to make a practical and actionable toolkit for teachers who are often pressed for time and cannot delve into lengthy research papers. I want to make a framework that teachers can use to discuss with students their existing knowledge on a subject.

“I feel us teachers are inherently creative, but sometimes our curriculum can be too rigorous and complex. It’s important to engage with students, discover what they already know, incorporate that knowledge into curriculum design, and hopefully challenge any orthodoxies.

“I recognise that disadvantage often contributes to gaps in knowledge, resulting in a curriculum that fails to achieve intended outcomes. While I acknowledge there is no silver-bullet solution, I do believe that addressing poverty and disadvantage requires more than just providing food banks and financial support to schools. This toolkit is a potential step towards tackling these issues.”

Reflecting on the funding received from Let Teachers SHINE, Sean expressed his elation saying, “We were overjoyed to find out we had won the funding, especially in today’s climate where receiving grants is highly competitive.

“However, for us, this goes beyond just financial support. We truly value what SHINE as an organisation represents, particularly regarding social justice and equity. Thus, their investment in our project is a clear indication that they stand behind us and believe in what we are doing.

“This grant is not only a boost to our confidence but is also an affirmation that our idea of amplifying the voices of low-income backgrounds children and promoting pedagogy and practice in schools is worthy of recognition.

“I am thrilled with this opportunity and firmly believe that it is an investment in the education of all children, not just those in our school.”

SHINE Interim CEO, Dr Helen Rafferty, says “We are delighted to be supporting Sean to develop a curriculum approach that teachers can use to better meet the needs of low-income students. His personal commitment to tackling poverty represents a strong fit with the values and mission of SHINE and we are very much looking forward to seeing where this can go.”