A Creative Primary Curriculum for All: The Changes We Can, and Should, Make to Improve our Education System, with Author Emma Palastanga: Podcast Transcript

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Ludo Millar
Hello, and welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast, the podcast that brings you the latest in the world of tutoring, EdTech and education and hopefully inspires in us a big change that each and every one of us is capable of.

Qualified Tutor is an industry-leading tutor training organisation and an online tutoring community for 1000s of tutors around the world. This podcast is the voice of this community, where we aim to hear from tutors, teachers, entrepreneurs, coaches, business experts, students, tutor printers, and more from the world of tutoring about what inspires them every day, how they can help tutors like you and what they’ve learned about tutoring along the way.

The question is, what will you learn today?


Ludo Millar  1:13 
Hello and welcome to the 149th episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. I can’t quite believe that we’ve got to this point. This is the penultimate podcast that, perhaps I should say, that I will be hosting as part of this podcast. So I’m very lucky here to be joined by Emma Palastanga, who is going to be taking us through a little bit about her book that was published in November of 2021, which is currently selling like wildfire. Apparently it’s now sold on four different continents, Emma was just telling me which is awesome news. And yes, next week will be my final episode, [it] will be the 150th episode where I’ll be speaking with Julia Silver, the Founder of Qualified Tutor, who will be turning the tables and interviewing me.

But this episode has been a long time in the making, Julia and I’ve been following Emma’s journey on LinkedIn and the release of the book and all the promotion around that, and we’ve brought Emma on here because we think that the content and the focus of the book is incredibly important to our Community, you guys, our listeners. And that will all become a little bit clearer over the next half an hour or so. But welcome to the Qualified Tutor Podcast.

Emma Palastanga  3:21 
Thank you very much. And thank you for having me on. It’s a real privilege. Really, my journey began in, I think it was 2006, when I started my Master’s, and my dissertation was ‘An Evaluative Study of Higher Order Thinking Skills, and Their Place within a 21st Century Curriculum’. A nice short, snappy title there [LAUGHS]. So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to just sort of share a couple of pieces from that that I feel is what my motivation is, I guess, my continued motivation, and what really led me to writing the book. So really, I studied for a module in my Master’s degree and it was called Curriculum Development. And it was the first time in my teaching career, fairly early teaching career, that I’d stopped to really reflect on the purpose of what it was that I was teaching. Prior to that I was a bit of an automaton really, just here’s the National Curriculum, deliver it, job done, and I really want everybody to reflect on what is the purpose of what we’re teaching.

And I feel that’s kind of the focus really from my Ofsted work as well, that they are saying, ‘Okay, what are you doing? Why are you doing it? Why in this order? What’s the purpose?’ and I don’t talk about what Ofsted want in my book and I don’t want to talk about it in this podcast. It’s very much what’s right for your school, what’s right for your children, and if you’re doing that, Ofsted will be pleased as well, it’s kind of a byproduct.

But going back to that purpose, so when I looked at Curriculum Development, we talked about the influences of a changing society in terms of history, tradition, culture, and religion, economic competition between nations, employability of citizens, advances in technology, and government input on curriculum design. So all of those influences play their part on curriculum design. And as I say, it just kind of really made me think: so why are we doing what we’re doing, and thinking about moving away from this factory schooling of feeding these sponges, these children are sponging information, to hold onto and spit out in exams, and in later life, that’s really significantly changed, particularly with the advent of the Internet. And the way that we access information is really, really different to what it was years and years ago. And so for me, and I’m sure for many other of your listeners, it’s more about applying that knowledge, and the creativity, the innovation, of what you do with that knowledge. So I’m really passionate about making connections between subjects, across subjects, thinking in different ways, and giving children that opportunity to think.

So creativity is not just about Big ‘C’ Creativity. I’m using terms here from Anna Craft, she’s a real heroine of mine. And she talks about Big ‘C’ Creativity in terms of outputs, little ‘c’ creativity, which is my real passion is thinking and day-to-day problem solving and applying that knowledge in different contexts.

Ludo Millar  7:02 
So I mean, you hold an undergraduate, as well as a Master’s degree, in education and also in further leadership qualifications, including, you have a National Professional Qualification for Headship with a specialism in curriculum development. So there are years and years of thinking there. And you were a classroom teacher, of course, before and have been a tutor, [a] nursery headteacher, primary deputy head and a qualified assessor and peer reviewer of books. You know, there’s so much thinking in that, Emma, where did the idea for this book, A Creative Primary Curriculum for All – I just realised that in the 5 minutes we’ve been talking here, we haven’t actually said the title of the book yet –  it’s A Creative Primary Curriculum for All, the link will, of course, be in the show notes where you can purchase that, but where did the – you’ve talked about the purpose – but where did the inspiration for this book come from? Why did you write this book and why now?

Emma Palastanga  8:10 
I guess it all began when I went into my role as deputy head at the school, which was well over 10 years ago, that was where the creative primary curriculum came in. There was a change in the National Curriculum, there were different ways of presenting and coming across, and many frustrated teachers will be with me in remembering the time where they went, ‘No, sorry, we’re changing government, ditching that in the bin’. And that was hugely frustrating because there was so many incredible gems in there. And we were kind of preparing for that big curriculum change that never happened.

However, we really valued those changes and the new way of thinking, and we had worked on developing them, how might it look for us, and we didn’t want to lose that. And actually, there was so much important learning from that, that we continued with it. And then the book really came about. So I did a lot of work as deputy head leading curriculum, visiting other schools, interviewing people, reading up on gender, we actually have so many freedoms. People feel that the National Curriculum, and you read about it in the media, ‘Oh the National Curriculum is a straight jacket’, there was a Twitter feed the other day, ‘What would you teach if you didn’t have to teach the National Curriculum?’ or ‘The National Curriculum is the bad guy’. And actually, it’s about how we interpret the National Curriculum. How do we look at that? The core content, the best of what’s been said and done, theoretically, what is it then that we take from them? How do we present that to our children? And what is it that we want them to get from that?

So I kind of want to just dispel certain myths in writing the book. Now, the National Curriculum isn’t the be-all and end-all, you can teach beyond that, you can make links so that where you feel pressured for time, and goodness, do teachers feel pressured for time. And it becomes a tick box, have you covered this? Have we covered that? Oh, my goodness, we haven’t done any DT this term. Well, in my book, I talk about leaving subjects fallow, you don’t have to teach every subject every week, you know, have a block of DT, have a day, do a day’s DT, let it build up and have a day of DT, for example. Be creative in your thinking as a teacher.

And the National Curriculum is just a part- I see it as a coat hanger on which everything else hangs off, and the links [between subjects] can be made. And I just really have a passion tha t: teaching is a craft, it’s not a science. And I want teachers to feel empowered, and enjoy what we’re doing. I want children to be encouraged to think, again, going back to my dissertation, I found a piece here, if I can find it. Again, we should not present our children with a predetermined map, which for teachers is the safer option, you know, you’re ticking all the boxes and covering the National Curriculum. But for learners, it’s the least exciting and engaging. And excellent schools, as the DfE [Department for Education] said, are themselves learning places. Now, that’s really kind of my, again, my passion.

We’re all learning places, we’re learning all the time, and don’t give children the answers, help them to develop. So I wanted to really empower teachers, and educators, I’ll say that in a more broad sense. It’s not just about classroom teachers, it’s about tutors. It’s about home educators, parents, as well. But I wanted people to have that understanding [that] the National Curriculum is one part, and creative thinking, open-ended questions, problem solving all of those skills, are skills for life.

Ludo Millar  12:12 
Emma, it’s really powerful, I’ll say …

Emma Palastanga  12:17 
I think I’ve got a little bit passionate there as well [LAUGHS]. It really is a passion, that’s where the book came from was my passion for wanting to make a change and giving people permission to do what everybody knows is right, and not feel[ing] shackled to one particular thing.

Ludo Millar  12:38 
And you’re able to hold that position, because you have been there in the classroom, trying to get through quickly and you’ve been there as a deputy head teacher, you’ve been there as a nursery teacher trying to make work, trying to fit in all the moving parts of school and the curriculum together.

Ludo Millar  19:00
With thanks to our sponsors this week, Newman Tuition and their founder, Zac Newman.

Zac Newman  19:06
Hi, this is Zac from Newman Tuition. Educating young people and helping them to fulfil their potential is one of life’s great joys. If you are a high calibre individual who shares our passion for teaching, then we would like to hear from you. We are committed to gathering together tutors who have strong academic records and enthusiasm for teaching an excellent interpersonal skills. This is why we seek only the best tutors to join our network and why we are recommended by the Good Schools Guide. To join our team or to find out more please visit newmantuition.co.uk.


Ludo Millar  13:51 
So this book was published in – it was November 2021, right?

Emma Palastanga  13:59

Ludo Millar  14:01
So that was obviously, sort of a year and a half after we’d first been hit with COVID. And so there was a lot of- the book talks about that in a, not a kind of constricting way, but in a way that understands the past and looks to the future. What do you think the lockdown taught us about our approach to curriculum?

Emma Palastanga  14:19 
It was really interesting. I remember vividly being in a school at the time. I was actually covering long-term for a teacher. And it was sort of the two days before we were sending children home with books. And we were also trying to set up a learning platform online. And teachers were thrown into, okay, you’ve never really taught online before, but here you go. Here’s your opportunity. And so I think it taught us adaptability. We had to adapt. Some children didn’t have internet access at home, so we had to think about how we can provide that same learning with paper and pencil or how we could use it, for example, there’s going to be, you know, learning platforms, online videos, where we’re going to use a video or we’re going to find a video and upload that. So multimedia links were included as well, how are we going to keep track of those children? How do we know if they’ve learned? So I think there was a lot there that required adaptability. And again, problem solving and creative thinking come into that.

I think even beyond the classroom, there were companies, for example, I remember think it was a gin company, they couldn’t sell to all the pubs and bars because they were closed. So they started making hand sanitiser, because it’s what we needed. And I think we are bringing up a generation to think in that way. Okay, here’s a problem, how can I solve it, that just stands them in good stead for things that we cannot predict, such as the pandemic. So I think adaptability to the present situation showed us resilience. And also, yeah, what can we do differently? How can we solve this problem?

But I think what it’s also shown, post-pandemic if you like, is that mental health is so important, and must not be underestimated. I talk about it in the book that that should be one of the key things moving forwards, that we make sure that we address mental health issues in the classroom. And I’m not saying that we don’t, because I have seen some really good programmes out, and I’ve used really good programmes that teach children that calming breathing techniques, they explore challenging situations. So there’s really good stuff out there. But we must make sure that that is consistent across all schools.

Ludo Millar  16:53 
Yeah. I feel like the next question was a little programmed. I wanted you, Emma, to give some insights into what the huge impact, obviously, of the lockdown, what that meant for our understanding of curriculum. And, you know, I feel like the answer to this question, in many ways, is the essence of your book. But where then do you see the curriculum going from here? What is it that you’d like to see in the development of the curriculum post-pandemic and into the 20s?

Emma Palastanga  17:34 
Sure, I think going back to what we just said about mental health being at the core, is really, really important. And also something that Early Years often don’t get talked about – so I’m sure any Early Years listeners will be cheering now, ‘Oh my goodness, she’s talking about us!’ – but it’s true, Early Years do things so, so well that we could learn so much from them. And one of those things is characteristics of effective learning. So encouraging that creativity and children encouraging that ‘have a go, test it out, try it’. I think we could make a lot more of that throughout primary education, particularly and probably into secondary – obviously, it would be age-appropriate. But those headings would be valid throughout. So looking at sort of the behaviours behind learning, how we nurture learning, rather than just the knowledge itself. I think that’s really crucial.

And just yeah, wellbeing, educating children how to look after themselves is really crucial, as well as making those links across the curriculum. How do we connect our ideas and our thoughts? Not thinking of things in individual boxes, and also maybe trying to take the pressure off a little bit with making those connections. You can cover lots of objectives through one really exciting creative project. So it looks after the teacher’s wellbeing, and the children get really inspired and excited as well.

Ludo Millar  19:15 
I’d love to see that. And I’d love to be part of that school as a student or a teacher. So I mean, have you seen more of a creative primary curriculum done well, in certain schools? Have you seen it – something akin to what you’re suggesting in your book – have you seen that done well in schools already? Or is this something that you haven’t seen yet?

Emma Palastanga  19:39 
I think there are definitely elements in lots of schools. And within my book, I have had some contributo rs who have suggested lessons that they’ve done really well or, rather than individual lessons, yeah, kind of a series of lessons. There are some of my own examples in there as well. One I found particularly exciting was when we used car parts to create an orchestra. And we were very kindly donated these from BMW in Oxford, and it resulted in us as the children, they played gamelan music with educators from Oxford University, professors came to the school to teach the children about gamelan. So we were learning the music curriculum, but we were using car parts because our topic at the time was vehicles. And then at the end of this, we created, we actually performed at BMW Oxford, it was their, I think it was their centenary celebrations. And we attended that. And that was just really out there really crazy and creative.

But there have been other ideas as well, just for like an archery lesson, which was very much talk-led, and ideas and children were contributing and sharing and bouncing ideas. I think things like Philosophy for Children is really exciting, because it teaches children listening skills, debating skills and [that] it’s okay to disagree as long as you do that in a constructive way. So I think there are a number of incredible elements in so many schools. And it’s about just bringing that together and celebrating that and saying, ‘Let’s do more of this. Let’s be creative. It’s okay to do this. Look what fun we have doing it and look at the learning that goes on’.

So yeah, I think lots of schools are doing lots of it. But I think we could do more of it. And I think those who are currently scared to shift from, ‘We’ve got to tick the boxes in the National Curriculum’ need to just relax their shoulders a little bit and think, ‘You know what, this isn’t working well for our children and our school’. And we are buzzing with ideas as teachers, let the shackles go and let’s enjoy teaching. Let’s let the children enjoy the learning. And we will still progress, we will still get the coverage of those core elements. But we’ll have fun doing it too. And we’ll learn a lot more besides.

Ludo Millar  22:12 
I love that, the interplay between fun and creative, you didn’t call the book, ‘A Fun Primary Curriculum for All’, that would have been perhaps a little too intentional. But that link between fun and creativity is exactly the kind of inspirational element I think that will take teachers and policymakers and parents and students along with this, the intent of this book. So yeah, I think that’s a really key thing to play on. Of course, you know, making learning fun also ties in with what you were talking about earlier about improving mental health in our education, because you know, the more fun children can have in their learning, the more they’ll they’ll enjoy it.

Now in in Chapter 2, you talk about the speech by Labour MP James Callaghan in the 1970s that sort of discussed the goal of school and this is in a part of the book where you’re talking about where we have come to why we are, where we are now with the curriculum and what has come before that that’s led us to this point. In 2023, what do you see as the goal of our education system?

Emma Palastanga  23:30 
It goes back to something I’ve read and I’ve held onto this for a long time: to prepare our young children for a future which is uncertain. We can’t predict that future, so we can’t sort of prepare them for, ‘Oh, this will happen’ or ‘that will happen’. So to give children those tools to adapt to whatever the future holds for them, to be able to access knowledge. And yes, also to have a base of knowledge, but to know where to go to find more information. You don’t have to have it all stored in your head to be able to adapt, to be able to solve problems, to be able to work with others, to be able to look after yourself safely online, and your mental wellbeing and your physical wellbeing. All of those things pull[ing] together really making those links, and being a well-rounded citizen, looking after yourself and looking after others and working as a team, I guess, would be what it boils down to really.

Ludo Millar  24:42 
And so do you think that’s possible in the framework that we currently have for school in the physical timetable we have, the amount of time children spend at school, that kind of thing? Is that possible? Or does there need to be a complete rehaul of some of those more practical elements of the classroom?

Emma Palastanga  25:02 
When you say ‘of the classroom’, are you talking about the physical space and their classroom, or … ?

Ludo Millar  25:09 
Both the physical space and the more meta elements of it, you know, the amount of time we give to it, the number of children in the class, the way the class is structured …

Emma Palastanga  25:20 
Okay yeah, I think in terms of time, we do need to put more time into wellbeing. If you don’t have wellbeing and stability there in your emotions, again, this kind of harks back to Daniel Goleman, emotional intelligence. I think you need to have that basis, that calm, that focus. So I think if we don’t put a high importance on that, then children will struggle to learn. And I don’t think that’s anything new, I think teachers know that. But we’ve felt very much pressured to, yeah, PSHE, tick that box. Again, it’s the tick the box culture.

So I think as long as we have that at the core of everything we do, then I don’t think other things massively need to change. I mean, one of the things- I went to Finland actually on a school visit, as an educator, and one of the things I brought back with me was kind of seating arrangements, not entirely, not in its entirety. In Finland, they have desks that can raise up and lower down. So if you want to stand for your lesson, you can. If you want to sit, use it. But the desk raises up and down, and to your comfort. One of the things I bought back, I had three or four Pilates balls actually where the children would sit on those, because they found it really hard to sit down still on the floor. So again, I think that’s about my creative thinking, and adaptability, that not everybody suits sitting on a chair in front of a desk, I had an elastic band kind of thing, a thick band around a chair, so a child could pin that with their feet, because they were a fidgeter and needed to do that in order to think. So in terms of your classroom layout, it’s about meeting the needs of all learners. And again, the title of my book is ‘A Creative Primary Curriculum for All‘, so it’s about meeting the needs of different learning styles, of different individual needs, physical, mental, emotional needs of the children in the classroom. It’s all about that, as well as it is about delivering the content.


Ludo Millar  27:47 
And now, a brief word from last week’s guest, Claire Riley, whose episode you can catch after this.

Claire Riley  27:58 
I really enjoyed being on the Qualified Tutor Podcast. It was just such fun to chat with Ludo, it’s a really nice experience. I learned, or should I say had confirmed, that when I’m talking about business, and not necessarily confined to the education space, that I can really share a lot of value. So hopefully you found that useful as well. And I would say to a future guest, just go with it really. As a podcast interviewer myself, it’s always their job to help you get the best interview ever. So it just helps to really listen to the questions and go over the questions and try and answer them as best you can really.


Ludo Millar  28:48 
Emma, thank you so much for taking us through really kind of 25, 30 years of thinking but boiled down into the book and into this conversation. Reading the book was incredibly eye-opening. I really didn’t know much about the curriculum, the history of it particularly and also some of the approaches that you mentioned in kind of Chapters 6 and 7, 7 and 8, you mentioned a little bit more about some approaches and how we can implement a creative private curriculum for all. So yeah, it’s really something I would encourage all listeners [to do] is to grab a copy of [the book], not just those who worked in the classroom or who currently do work in the classroom. I think as Emma said, it is very important for all educators, tutors, homeschoolers, parents to understand the curriculum because it is a guide for how children can learn, but there is so much scope around that. Emma, we have just one more question that we ask every guest, I think we’ve asked probably all 149 guests that we’ve had on the podcast so far in some guise. And that question is: what’s next for you? What’s next for Emma Palastanga?

Emma Palastanga  30:09 
I’m going to continue with my tutoring and building that business, and still in schools. I also want [to continue] where I’m working with early career teachers in my role as a visiting assessor. But I’m looking at the possibility of working with middle leaders now, following the QTS route. So we’re going to explore that and the possibility of writing another book, looking at supporting children who are bereaved. I’ve worked with several children in my time who’ve been through that challenging time and I would like to support the teachers to support the children through writing that books. Just a few ideas in the pot.

Ludo Millar  30:49 
Yes! I thought you were gonna say writing another book, I intuited that that might be a follow-on from this book. I look forward to one day to see[ing] what that shapes up to be. But Emma, thank you so, so much for coming on to this podcast, the Qualified Tutor Podcast, for being our penultimate guest, at least while I’m part of the podcast. I’m so glad that we got this conversation. And so if there is one place for listeners to go to contact you after this, what’s the best way for them to do that?

Emma Palastanga  31:30 
I have several social media platforms. Actually, I can send you the links to those and we can attach it to the podcast. I’m on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. So any of those would would work.

Ludo Millar  31:43 
Awesome. Well I will, of course, pop those in the show notes. Listeners, thank you for tuning in. This has been my penultimate podcast, and next week Julia will be interviewing me for the final episode of my tenure here. That’ll be the 150th episode, that’s worked out quite nicely. But I hope you learned something from today. And of course, my next step would be go and grab the book (use code AFL01 for 20% off until 30th June 2023). The link will be in the show notes. And do reach out to Emma if you’d like to. Emma, thank you so, so much. And we’ll speak again soon.

Emma Palastanga  32:15 
Thank you and good luck with your next steps then.

Ludo Millar  32:18 
Thank you, Emma. Cheerio. Bye.

Emma Palastanga  32:21

Ludo Millar
Thank you for listening to this episode of the Qualified Tutor Podcast. Your next step is to check out the Love Tutoring Community and in particular LTC Connect, a premium membership space which will serve all your subject-specific CPD needs alongside a friendly, professional community space that meets regularly. Visit qualifiedtutor.org/transformational-training to find out more about our CPD-Accredited, Level 2 Safeguarding and Ofqual-recognised courses: the first of their kind in the tutoring industry.

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