December 2018

The know zone

  • A shared approach
    Ofsted's promise of a new inspection framework for September 2019 seems to have got everyone talking about the curriculum. Here, ASCL specialists Stephen Rollett and Suzanne O'Farrell share their tips on how leaders can embed curriculum thinking throughout their schools. More
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    Teachers teaching the same subjects to sixth formers in schools and colleges get paid different salaries. Kevin Gilmartin examines why and asks, "Is this really fair?" More
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    Managing Director of Lighthouse Financial Advice Ltd Lee Barnard says that there are steps you can take now to avoid getting caught in paying a hefty inheritance tax bill. More
  • Close encounters of the student kind
    Where's the most surprising place that you've bumped into a former student? Here, ASCL members share their stories... More
  • Leaders' surgery
    Hotline advice expressed here, and in calls to us, is made in good faith to our members. Schools and colleges should always take formal HR or legal advice from their indemnified provider before acting. More
  • Let it snow!
    As you spend time over-indulging with your loved ones, spare a thought at this festive time of year for those still hard at work... like the finance and maintenance teams keeping our schools ticking over during the holiday period. More
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Ofsted’s promise of a new inspection framework for September 2019 seems to have got everyone talking about the curriculum. Here, ASCL specialists Stephen Rollett and Suzanne O’Farrell share their tips on how leaders can embed curriculum thinking throughout their schools.

A shared approach

The vanguard of curriculum thinking 

Given England’s high-stakes accountability system, it is not surprising that the flurry of curriculum dialogue across the system appears to have its roots in Ofsted. HMCI Amanda Spielman outlined the inspectorate’s interest in the curriculum as far back as ASCL’s Annual Conference in March 2017. 

However, while Ofsted has increased attention on the curriculum, it is not the vanguard of curriculum thinking. Many schools and policy influencers, including ASCL, have been talking about the curriculum for many years, highlighting the sacrifices that are too often having to be made as a result of accountability pressures, and supporting schools in their curriculum thinking. So, to a large extent, Ofsted is moving to reflect the landscape as much as it is shaping it. 

The problem is that schools are habitually attuned to listen out for ‘what Ofsted wants’. So, when Ofsted talks about focusing on the curriculum and then goes on to highlight the risks of a shortened Key Stage 3, it’s not surprising that leaders’ attention turns to curriculum structures. But such thinking risks being one-dimensional and may not get at the underlying reasons why the curriculum matters so much. So, how do we do this? 

The curriculum thinking cube 

The key is to ensure that curriculum thinking in the school is broad, distributed and deep. So, before schools rush out to codify their curriculum ‘intent’, in response to Ofsted’s working definition of curriculum (‘intent, implementation and impact’), leaders should probe and question the foundations upon which their curriculum intent is built. The curriculum thinking cube is my attempt to help leaders conceptualise curriculum thinking as a multi-dimensional exercise and ask questions about curriculum thinking in their school. 

The cube works across three planes and should prompt you to pose questions that probe curriculum thinking from different angles. 

Breadth is about questioning the extent of the curriculum that you reflect upon. For example, have you considered the wider curriculum as well as the academic curriculum? Have you diminished or prioritised particular subjects or key stages? Have you considered more than just ‘the offer’ (which subjects and topics you teach) and thought about how teachers and subjects sequence learning over time? For more on this, see Director of Education at Inspiration Trust Christine Counsell’s blog: 

Depth is about questioning the curriculum knowledge and understanding that underlies and informs your curriculum thinking. For example, what are the values that inform your curriculum thinking? Are these values and approaches shaped by relevant research, or merely through intuition or habit? 

Reach is about questioning the distribution of curriculum thinking through the school, from senior leadership team (SLT) to middle leaders, teachers, newly qualified teachers (NQTs), governors and beyond. Is thinking in some subjects more developed than others? Is the development of curriculum thinking dependent on a few senior or middle leaders, or does it permeate school life? Are governors involved in strategic conversations about curriculum intent? 

Bringing it all together 

Curriculum thinking that only operates in one dimension is likely to be less than the sum of its parts. For example, breadth of curriculum thinking might lead you to question whether a shortened Key Stage 3 is appropriate, but it’s difficult to find a meaningful answer (beyond ‘what Ofsted wants’) without having sufficient depth of curriculum thinking. And the alignment and application of this understanding will be enhanced if it reaches across the school, rather than being the responsibility of one individual. 

Ensuring that thinking is multi-dimensional is a prerequisite for schools as they turn their attention to the curriculum. Without doing so, the risk is that our curriculum decisions lack coherence and a clear sense of ‘why’. It’s also how we get past ‘what Ofsted wants’. 

This, I think, is the most promising element of the current curriculum buzz. It’s an opportunity to engage the whole school community in deep thinking about what they teach and how they teach it. In my experience, that’s something teachers get excited about.

Stephen Rollett
ASCL Inspections and Accountability Specialist

There is growing recognition that all members of the senior leadership team (SLT) should have a role in leading the curriculum – which, after all, is not just about the National Curriculum but embraces all learning and all aspects of a pupil’s development. 

It means senior leaders taking on the task of distributing curriculum leadership to subject experts in school and supporting a depth of curriculum thinking among middle leaders and teachers, which is underpinned by a school’s values and curriculum principles. 

What could this curriculum thinking look like at each level? 

Senior leaders 

All members of the senior leadership team need to understand the subjects taught and recognise the nuances of particular subject disciplines. Discuss with middle leaders the rationale behind the content of their curriculum at Key Stage 3: are pupils being significantly challenged and does the curriculum build sufficient background knowledge to allow all of them to deal with the challenge? Are middle leaders clear on their curriculum vision for the subject and how have they selected the key knowledge and understanding they expect pupils to learn? Senior leaders can support middle leaders in their curriculum thinking by: 

  • ensuring that they have access to research on effective learning, so they are able to plan the curriculum to optimise long-term retention – then discussing with middle leaders what the techniques of spacing, interleaving and so on look like in each subject 
  • recognising the uniqueness of subjects and understanding that they need to be taught in particular ways 
  • supporting departments to be involved in subject-specific communities where they have the opportunity to discuss their subject 
  • providing opportunities for middle leaders and teachers to engage in subject-specific professional learning 
  • discussing with middle leaders, as experts in their subjects, what progress looks like in different subjects, recognising that progress is knowing more and remembering more 
  • creating a climate that values curriculum design and curriculum thinking, and creating capacity so that collaborative curriculum planning becomes a department’s main focus 

Middle leaders 

Christine Counsell refers to the curriculum as “content structured as narrative over time” ( It encapsulates the idea of a narrative that has multiple strands that are revisited; it is easier to remember new things if we know something about the topic. The main priority for middle leaders is to develop the narrative they want to tell about their subject, establishing a detailed curriculum map or progression model. 

A strong progression model will build in the underlying knowledge that pupils need to access in later years, prioritising depth of understanding over breadth of the subject. Research into effective learning shows that our memories are inherently fallible, so the curriculum map needs to be underpinned by knowing how we build memory. 

Curriculum design should aim to ensure the right things are embedded in long-term memory to enable subsequent performance on more complex tasks. 

The progression model needs to be sufficiently well defined for it to be assessed, identifying the important ideas along with a set of tasks to demonstrate how well pupils have mastered them.


Teachers are the true curriculum designers and a key focus is ensuring that lessons are part of a long-term sequence of lesson planning and not delivered in isolation. 

They need to understand why they are teaching what they are teaching and how this fits into the curriculum map, and they should be able to articulate how what they are teaching links with what they have taught before. Are teachers aware of what knowledge should be explicitly taught and disaggregated into smaller parts so they can check the understanding and fix the gaps? 

A priority for middle leaders will be ensuring that teachers prioritise planning for learning, understanding how pupils retain and transfer learning. 

No quick fix 

Effective curriculum design is not a quick fix; it involves constantly reviewing and evaluating. The curriculum is never done, and a school’s curriculum needs to be dynamic in order to meet the learners’ needs. 

The most important thing is to know why curriculum leaders at all levels are making the decisions that they have and how this fits into the school’s curriculum vision.

More information

See our resources on: Curriculum and Assessment: 101 ideas to support planning:

Refocusing Assessment:

Suzanne O’Farrell
ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist