Curriculum matters: Part 1 – design and delivery

This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2018.  You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.  

You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here


In June 2017, the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, gave a speech at the Festival of Education in which she advocated a broad and balanced school curriculum. All too often, she argued, schools lose sight of the real substance of education: “Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.”

She said that although education had to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market, “to reduce (it) down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched”. Education, she argued, “should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation”.

Intent, implementation and impact

As a response to Ms Spielman’s call to arms, the curriculum will feature more prominently in Ofsted’s next Common Inspection Framework (CIF), due for release in 2019. It is likely to be under a new judgement area called “the quality of education”.

In an Ofsted blog in October 2017 Sean Harford said: “Without (the curriculum), a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school. If pupils don’t get the benefit of a rich and deep curriculum then they will have learnt too little and made little progress.”

Mr Harford bemoaned the fact that, in recent years, “there has been a lack of reflection on the design, content and implementation of curriculums” and that, even today, there is “a lack of coherent debate and discussion about the curriculum”.

Perhaps this lack of debate about the curriculum is down to the fact that no-one knows what it is. “Too often,” Mr Harford says, “the school curriculum is seen as the same as the school timetable” and yet it is clearly much more than a schedule of subjects.

Ofsted has proffered a working definition to support its consultations on the new CIF. The curriculum, they said, is “a framework for setting out the aims of the programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage” – what the inspectorate calls “intent”. The curriculum is also a means of “translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an instructional context” – what Ofsted calls “implementation”. And the curriculum is also a means of “evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations” – what Ofsted calls “impact” (see Sean Harford’s presentation from June 2017).

Currently, the curriculum in maintained schools consists of three distinct elements:

  1. The national curriculum which is prescribed by statute and consists of core and foundation subjects.
  2. The basic curriculum which describes the statutory requirements for curricular provision beyond the national curriculum, comprising the requirements in current legislation for the teaching of RE, sex education, careers education, and opportunities for work-related learning. These are compulsory requirements, but schools are able to determine for themselves the specific nature of this provision.
  3. The local curriculum which is one that schools are free to adopt in order to complement the national and basic curriculums with other curricular elements that are determined at school or community level.

Oates et al (2011) argued that: “Education can be seen, at its simplest, as the product of (an) interaction between socially valued knowledge and individual development. It occurs through learner experience of both of these key elements. The school curriculum structures these processes.”

In 2000, the now defunct QCA, meanwhile, offered a broader definition which included “everything children do, see, hear or feel in their setting, both planned and unplanned”.

The unplanned parts of the curriculum are often referred to as the “hidden curriculum”, a term first used by Philip Jackson (Life In Classrooms, 1968). Jackson argued that what is taught in schools is more than just the formal curriculum and that schooling should be understood as a socialisation process whereby pupils receive messages through the experience of being in school, not just from what they are explicitly taught in lessons.

The hidden curriculum, therefore, includes learning from other pupils, and learning that arises from an accidental juxtaposition of the school’s stated values and its actual practice. When designing a curriculum, therefore, we need to think carefully about all the ways in which pupils learn, not solely in structured lessons but also in the space between lessons and in the behaviours and values of the adults working in the school. As Sir John Dunford (2012) puts it: “The school curriculum is not only the subjects on the timetable, it is the whole experience of education.”

The curriculum, therefore, can be found, not just in a policy statement, but in the subjects and qualifications on the timetable, in the pedagogy and behaviours teachers and other adults use, in the space between lessons when pupils interact with each other, in approaches to managing behaviour, uniform and attendance and punctuality, in assemblies and extra-curricular activities, and in the pastoral care and support offered to pupils – in short, in the holistic experience every child is afforded in school.

So, if the curriculum is the whole experience of education, what, then, makes it broad and balanced?

Broad and balanced

The 2002 Education Act requires schools to provide a “balanced and broadly-based curriculum” which: promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

Although only maintained schools are required to teach the national curriculum, all schools – including independent schools and academies – must meet the requirements of the Education Act. However, there are no legal requirements for any school about the methods of delivery of the curriculum or the amount of time allocated to each subject.

So, within this rather vague legal framework, how can schools ensure that their curriculum is broad and balanced and will, therefore, produce well-rounded young people who can succeed in life and work as well as stand up to the increased scrutiny of Ofsted post-2019?

The regulatory standards for independent schools provide a useful way of thinking about breadth. The standards require schools to provide a curriculum that gives pupils experience in the following areas: linguistic, mathematical, scientific, technological, human and social, physical, and aesthetic and creative, so that it promotes spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

A broad curriculum, therefore, might be regarded as one in which there are enough subjects on a pupil’s timetable to cover all these experiences. Narrowing the curriculum for less able pupils or stretching GCSE study into key stage 3 clearly runs counter to this definition of breadth. A broad curriculum offers all pupils a wide range of subjects for as long as possible.

A balanced curriculum, meanwhile, might be regarded as one in which each subject is not only taught to all pupils but is afforded sufficient space on the timetable to deliver its distinct contribution. The danger here is that some subjects, such as art, music and languages, are squeezed out of the timetable by English, maths and science. It is not uncommon for English to have five or more lessons on the timetable per week and art just one, or for the arts to operate on a carousel whereby design technology is only taught for one term of the year.

In his Ofsted blog, Mr Harford said that in 10 out of the 23 secondary schools inspectors visited as part of their consultation on the curriculum, school leaders admitted to “reducing key stage 3 to just two years”. While this might work for subjects where concepts are revisited at deeper levels (such as English and maths), “it doesn’t work for all subjects, especially those that pupils drop before GCSE”.

In her speech, Ms Spielman bemoaned this increasing “cannibalisation” of key stage 3 into key stage 4: “Preparing for GCSEs so early,” she said, “gives young people less time to study a range of subjects in depth and more time just practising the tests themselves.”

We have, she said, “a full and coherent national curriculum and (it is) a huge waste not to use it properly”.

All children should study a broad and rich curriculum, she said, and yet “curtailing key stage 3 means prematurely cutting this off for children who may never have an opportunity to study some of these subjects again”.

In short, Ms Spielman said that schools had “a tendency to mistake badges and stickers for learning itself… (and put their own interests) ahead of the interests of the children in them”.

“We should be ashamed,” she said, “that we have let such behaviour persist for so long.”

In light of such strong language, we can be confident that the CIF in 2019 will seek to put an end to this behaviour and encourage schools – with the carrot and stick of inspection – to develop broader, more balanced curriculums that better prepare pupils for the future.

As schools prepare for this change, they may find it helpful to refer to the current inspection framework for some useful insights into what Ofsted regards as an effective curriculum. Currently, the quality of the curriculum is inspected under leadership and management and there are three paragraphs worth considering here. Inspectors are told to evaluate:

  1. The design, implementation and evaluation of the curriculum, ensuring breadth and balance and its impact on pupils’ outcomes and their personal, development, behaviour and welfare.
  2. How well the school supports the formal curriculum with extra-curricular opportunities for pupils to extend their knowledge and understanding, and to improve their skills in a range of artistic, creative and sporting activities.
  3. How well the school prepares pupils positively for life in modern Britain and promotes the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect for, and tolerance of those with different faiths/beliefs and for those without faith.

When designing and delivering our curriculum, we might infer from this the following:

  • We should consider the curriculum in its widest sense – it takes place in and between lessons, in subjects and in extra-curricular activities, and it develops pupils’ skills in a range of areas including in the arts and sport, and – although important – it is not solely concerned with the pursuit of academic outcomes.
  • We should ensure our curriculum prepares pupils, not only for the next stage of their education and training, but also for their lives as active citizens and for success in the world of work, developing employability skills and work-ready behaviours, and educating pupils on their career options.
  • We should think carefully about how, once we have designed the curriculum, we will implement and evaluate it in order to ensure it delivers its stated aims and continues to be relevant.

In the remainder of this series I will explore the central tenets of an effective curriculum and I will share my advice on how to design such a curriculum and deliver it in the classroom.


Follow me on Twitter: @mj_bromley


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