February 2018


  • Relish the change
    Geoff Barton reflects on his personal journey at ASCL over the last few months and how 2017 has led to a shift in thinking around wider education policy and context. More
  • Real world, real learning
    Businesses can support schools and colleges in preparing students for life and even help develop resilience, says Confederation of British Industry (CBI) President, Paul Drechsler, but they need to understand the challenges that educators face if they are to help young people gain the skills and knowledge the country needs. Here, he talks to Julie Nightingale. More
  • Getting ahead
    Deputy Headteacher Allana Gay explains the philosophy behind Black, Asian and minority ethnic educators (BAMEed), the network helping ethnic minority staff aspire to leadership roles. More
  • Shaping careers
    Senior Research Manager Claudia Sumner says the government's new careers strategy is a step in the right direction, but research shows that a combination of measures are required for a successful, long-term solution to careers guidance. More
  • Next steps
    Two essential questions to answer in the quest for a headship or principal post are: Is it what I want and, Am I what they want? Aiming to join a Senior Leadership Team (SLT) as its leader requires you to consider these in order, says former ASCL President Allan Foulds. More
  • Plan for all seasons
    A curriculum represents the entire daily experience of each pupil, so designing it and evaluating its impact requires deep and detailed thinking. ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist Suzanne O'Farrell sets out the key areas for consideration. More
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A curriculum represents the entire daily experience of each pupil, so designing it and evaluating its impact requires deep and detailed thinking. ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist Suzanne O’Farrell sets out the key areas for consideration.

Plan for all seasons

In light of Ofsted’s recent commentary (https://tinyurl. com/ybnnam8e), we may be questioning our curriculum and the impact it has on young people. What does a high-performing curriculum look like? Who should be the guardians of a broad and balanced curriculum for pupils? Are we concerned about the narrowness of our curriculum for key stages or any groups? Are we happy with our current curriculum?

Each school’s or college’s curriculum is unique with no one-size-fits-all model and each model will be made up of different, interdependent parts designed to serve the needs of young people in their particular context.

While we acknowledge that a curriculum should be carefully designed to provide a broad balance of subjects and cross-curricular knowledge and skills, a curriculum is much more than this: it is the entire daily experience of each individual pupil in your school or college.

Understand the aims

First, schools and colleges need to have a detailed understanding of the aims underpinning the organisation, content and delivery of the curriculum (or ‘curriculum intent’ as Ofsted put it). What kind of principles and practices underpin your approach to the curriculum? What does a broad and balanced curriculum look like in your context? What curriculum is appropriate for a pupil in the 21st century? What is distinctive about your curriculum? Does it tell your story? It may be a commitment to social justice, a focus on creativity, a commitment to a knowledge-based curriculum, a keen focus on fixing gaps early on, opportunities for personalised stretch and challenge or a strong commitment to the development of employability skills.

Involving key stakeholders such as parents, middle leaders and governors in the rich conversations to shape your curriculum intent should lead to a shared understanding of this within the school or college community. These principles will inevitably determine the day-to-day behaviour and activities of teachers and students in the classroom and will be easily articulated by staff, pupils, parents and all stakeholders in response to the question, “Why do you do things in this way?”

Curriculum organisation

There is a concern that we have lost the ability to think deeply about curriculum intent and design – partly due, no doubt, to the constant changes in the curriculum and assessment landscape.

The current focus on curriculum implementation asks the question: how can we organise the curriculum to realise our intent? What knowledge and skills, in what sequence, can young people be expected to acquire?

It means being clear about what you are teaching in each year and why, and the benefit and impact for pupils.

In terms of subjects, curriculum designers should be asking themselves: what are the key concepts or substantive knowledge that students need to acquire? It may not always be the easiest knowledge but the most fundamental and helpful in underpinning and extending new knowledge. What core skills will be used again and again? What fundamental concepts do we want all pupils to master? Are we clear about an end goal – mastery of a particular domain? Curriculum design must not aim solely at test success but at instilling an understanding of the valuable and important aspects of a subject in pupils.

Building a progression of knowledge

This also means that curriculum designers will need to build on prior knowledge to plan a curriculum progression model effectively. High-quality curriculum design must focus on how that content is best sequenced, revisited, how links are made and how it should be fitted together within the context of the whole learner experience. Revisiting key concepts takes time and a key element of curriculum planning is also deciding what not to teach.

As more teachers are teaching outside of their subject specialism, it is even more desirable to develop an explicit breakdown of the progression of knowledge. Once you have these building blocks or key constructs, it is easier to map your assessments to the curriculum and ensure you are assessing the extent to which pupils have mastered this essential knowledge.

In the words of Dylan Wiliam, the Assessment for Learning Specialist, “curriculum is pedagogy”: embracing a culture of curriculum design means not only thinking what to teach pupils but also how. A hallmark of an outstanding curriculum is when both are explicitly planned, highlighting what the likely misconceptions are in subjects, and how they can be taught in the most effective way.

Long-term retention

Now that we are in the linear world, curriculum planning must ensure that we think about long-term retention. As we learn more about the way that our brains work, this has definite implications for curriculum design. The design and sequence of learning activities relies on understanding how and when learning happens. Spacing and interleaving content and frequent low-stakes testing all support long-term retention and should form part of coherent curriculum planning.

There is a lot of debate about knowledge and skills in a curriculum and the false opposition of knowledge and skills is counterproductive. Effective curriculum planning must take account of both with consideration given to the provision of both desirable knowledge and desirable subjectspecific skills, such as analytical skills, decoding language or fieldwork skills. Knowledge is understanding, and skills are learned behaviours that can be developed and improved over time; they are not taught in a vacuum. Both are important and work together in a subject.

Think about language

As we look beyond the curriculum in the classroom at the wider learning opportunities and educational experiences for pupils, we need to think about the language we use to describe features of the curriculum. It means, for example, being explicit about the type of skills our wider curriculum is developing in young people, including transferable skills as well as subject-specific skills:

  • cross-curricular skills – how knowledge and understanding from other subjects is applied elsewhere (typically English and maths)
  • employability skills – such as team-working, communication, leadership, presentation, taking on challenges and responsibility
  • examination skills – techniques that help pupils pass exams
  • learning skills – such as resilience, working methods, taking on feedback, selecting the most appropriate resources, understanding how the working memory and long-term memory works
  • life skills – such as staying safe, healthy living, making and maintaining relationships, respecting and contributing to life in modern Britain

As custodians of this huge responsibility for determining the curriculum experience of pupils, school and college leaders need to review frequently whether it is high-performing and having an impact on pupils’ achievement, personal development and progression.

Looking at indicators such as outcomes from starting points, your disadvantaged and special educational needs and disability (SEND) record, sixth form study programme outcomes, valid destinations at 16 and 18, attendance and the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) will form part of a thorough evaluation. However, your curriculum should be designed to fit with pupils’ needs and aspirations regardless of performance measures.

A rich debate about the curriculum you offer should start from the premise of providing a firm foundation for all students, whatever their backgrounds, enabling them to succeed not just in modern Britain but in the modern world.

Each school’s or college’s curriculum is unique with no one-size-fits-all model. each model will be made up of different, interdependent parts designed to serve the needs of young people in their particular context.

Your cpd

You may be interested in attending the following courses being delivered by Suzanne:

Suzanne O’Farrell
ASCL Curriculum and Assessment Specialist