September 2016

The know zone

  • Leading curriculum change
    When we reflect on how quickly our world is evolving, it is no truism to say that what we design into our curriculum really matters says Suzanne O’Farrell. More
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    Julie McCulloch looks at the government’s latest initiative to introduce the South Asian ‘mastery’ approach to teaching maths in primary schools. More
  • Preventing hate
    Schools and colleges across Britain are seeing a rise in the levels of racism among pupils. Anna Cole looks at why and explains what leaders can do to combat hate. More
  • Exploring the evidence
    In the first of a regular research insights page, Matt Walker, from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), introduces how research evidence can help to improve schools and colleges, and influence policy. More
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  • Adding value
    Centralisation – the key to achieving financial health and efficiency? More
  • Prevent duty
    Since July 2015, all schools and colleges have been subject to the Prevent duty. How has your institution dealt with this requirement and have there been any challenges? Here ASCL members have their say. More
  • Leader's 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
  • Daily grind?
    Sam Ellis offers some tips for the out-of-town traveller in search of a bed for the night and decent food – although perhaps not an espresso. More
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When we reflect on how quickly our world is evolving, it is no truism to say that what we design into our curriculum really matters says Suzanne O’Farrell.

Leading curriculum change

The principles and aims of a curriculum have never been more important and school leaders should be guided by them to help them to ensure that their curriculum both challenges and meets the needs of all pupils, and prepares young people for a rapidly changing world.

What do we see as the key hallmarks of a successful school curriculum? Many of us strive for a curriculum that does not perpetuate inequalities or put a cap on the ambitions of our pupils. We want a curriculum that is broad and balanced, that focuses on knowledge, skills and personal development in a coherent and planned way and gives pupils the opportunity to develop a strong moral compass and achieve a set of qualifications that reflect their talents and abilities.

Key points

Furthermore, with the additional challenges of reformed qualifications, there has never been a more crucial moment to ensure that your curriculum planning is as sound and polished as it can be. Here are some key points to help you:

  • Exam specifications are not the curriculum so teachers need to start planning from first principles. A good starting point is to ask what attributes are required to become, for example, a historian, a linguist, a mathematician or a scientist. Additionally, planning should focus on teachers’ understanding of what the subject is, rather than just what students need for GCSE.
  • Encourage teachers to work together to define the threshold concepts in each subject and map these through Years 7 to 11 so that the organisation of key units of work build on one another conceptually and logically and have clearly measurable and rigorous objectives. By threshold concepts, I mean those key ideas in a subject that once you know mean that it is impossible not to look at the subject in a different way, such as metaphor in English or word order in German.
  • Ensure that curriculum planning focuses on the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’; do not neglect the pedagogy when planning how the key concepts will be delivered.
  • Subject expertise is essential when designing a high-quality curriculum and there needs to be a constant spine of subject knowledge running though the schemes of learning.
  • Facilitate as much collaborative planning as possible to develop a shared understanding of long-term scoping and sequencing, unit timing, pre-planned assessments and identification of common misconceptions and how these will be taught.
  • Design a curriculum that supports long-term retention rather than short-term performance – for example, one that builds in opportunities for testing of previously studied material throughout Key Stage 4 (with long gaps in-between) to prepare students for 100% assessment and strengthen students’ subject recall and retention of key knowledge.
  • Prioritise frequent low-stakes testing of material covered earlier in the programme of study as a key learning tool. Testing in this way is an important aspect of how pupils recall and remember learning.
  • Consider adopting a spiral approach to skills development with concepts revisited and engaged with, at deeper levels in different contexts, to reinforce prior learning and create new learning.
  • The key to assessment is understanding that you cannot do assessment that is divorced from your curriculum. Be selective about how and what you assess and build in opportunities to assess how pupils apply knowledge and skills to different situations and contexts, or how they have to explain their thinking or provide more extended responses and contexts.
  • Ensure there is sufficient capacity and lead-in time to support departments in developing high-quality curriculum provision.
  • Ensure that teachers’ professional learning considers subject knowledge, subject-specific pedagogy and assessment knowledge.
  • Ensure that planning in the early part of Key Stage 3 builds on what has been learned previously following the introduction of the new primary curriculum.
  • Curriculum planning should have explicit opportunities for learners to take responsibility for their own learning by developing self-awareness, self-motivation and supportive strategies.
  • Ensure your curriculum supports pupils to write and think at speed as they face so many content-heavy linear exams that will require them to develop stamina and resilience.

Michael Young in his book Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and social justice, said, “The curriculum defines the purpose of a school and the journey a school wants its pupils to take; the head’s role as curriculum leader is crucial.”

If teachers are to plan the best possible curriculum, this must be supported and driven by leaders who create capacity for curriculum planning and ensure that their curriculum is underpinned by aims, values and purpose and that it develops the whole person.

We are experiencing an unprecedented amount of change in the curriculum, qualification and assessment landscape but amidst all this change, we have to plan and deliver a curriculum that will serve our pupils well for the rest of their lives.


We have created a new Know Zone area on the ASCL website ( to keep you up to date with the latest curriculum and assessment news and information.ASCL PD is running a series of courses on curriculum and assessment – find out more in our Know Zone.

Suzanne O’Farrell is ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist