Curriculum design: The role of senior leaders

The role of senior leaders in curriculum design

[This is an edited version of Chapter 5 of School & College Curriculum Design 1: Intent, which is now available in paperback]

In truth, the process of curriculum design is largely within the purview of middle leaders and teachers because it’s the job of subject specialists to design a curriculum that befits their discipline.

An English curriculum is distinct from a Maths curriculum, which is distinct from a Science curriculum and so on. The key concepts are different and will likely take different forms; the ways in which experts in each field think differ, too – for example, if you apply a scientific way of thinking to the study of Theology, it will likely fail, and vice versa.

Language and its meanings also differ between subjects – for example, to ‘analyse’ something in English is not quite the same as to ‘analyse’ something in History, Maths or Science.

The shape of the curriculum in each subject discipline is different, too – some are linear, some helical or spiral in nature – and so the time it takes pupils to progress through a curriculum and the path they must take is, by definition, different.

In some subjects, we may see a neat line of progress as pupils incrementally increase their knowledge and skills and build upon their prior learning. In other subjects, pupils will likely go backwards as well as forwards, or will succeed in one topic but will then be required to learn a different, unconnected set of skills and knowledge, which will mean any attempt to extrapolate progress between the two points is largely meaningless. For example, a pupil may excel in football in term one, but might not be as adept at tennis in term two, and so their progress, if a line is drawn between the two terms, may look negative when in fact we are comparing apples and oranges.

In short, each subject is a subject discipline in its own right precisely because of the differences between it and other disciplines, and so subject specialists must be allowed to design a curriculum that works in their discipline.

As a secondary English specialist, I can design an English curriculum for key stages 3, 4 and 5, but I could not do so – at least not very well – for Science or indeed for my own subject at EYFS and key stages 1 and 2 without first deepening by knowledge of how children learn the knowledge and skills required at this level.

Only subject specialists are equipped with the depth of knowledge and understanding to make decisions about curriculum design.

Michael Young argues that powerful knowledge is systematic in that it is based on concepts that are related to each other in groups we call disciplines rather than rooted in real-life experience; and it is specialised in the sense that it is developed by experts in clearly defined subject groups who work in fields of enquiry with socially and historically fixed boundaries.

It would be easy, therefore, for senior leaders to feel somewhat impotent, disenfranchised and divorced from the process of curriculum design…

However, I think senior leaders are integral to the curriculum design process.  In particular, I would argue that SLT have five key roles to play:

1. Vision and scope

Firstly, it is the responsibility of senior leaders to agree the vision for their whole school or college curriculum. This involves defining what is meant by the term ‘curriculum’ within their unique institutional context, and making decisions about what comprises the national, basic, local and hidden curriculums.

2. Breadth and balance

Secondly, senior leaders – particularly the curriculum and timetable leads – are key to determining how broad and balanced the whole school or college curriculum will be and why.

They must make decisions about which subject disciplines and vocations matter most and which subjects are afforded the most time on the timetable.

For example, senior leaders must be attuned to their community and learner needs and if their school population predominantly has English as an additional language (EAL), they may decide to timetable more English lessons.

Their context may dictate other decisions such as whether to run a 2- or 3-year key stage 4 and what proportion of pupils should study the EBacc suite of subjects.  Although, in general terms, I favour a 2-year key stage 4 for the reasons I outlined in my book Making Key Stage 3 Count, this might not suit all schools and, rather than dictate a model, it is important that each school is allowed to make its own decisions based on what is in the best interests of its pupils.  So long as there is a clear and convincing rationale, and so long as decisions are taken for the sole benefit of pupils not schools’ performance tables, senior leaders should not be cow-towed by misinformed ‘what Ofsted wants’ fear-mongering.

3. Purpose and content

Thirdly, senior leaders articulate the purpose of education in their school or college – and therefore guide middle leaders in determining the broad ‘end-points’ (schools) or ‘body of knowledge’ (FE) to be taught.

For example, senior leaders must have an overview of what qualification types and levels are offered in their school or college, and must ensure that, where applicable, their offer meets local needs (including learner needs, employer needs, community needs, etc) and that, where applicable, each entry-point to their curriculum leads to a higher level of study and/or into meaningful employment rather than to a series of dead-ends. Only senior leaders have the necessary oversight of the whole school or college curriculum to be able to make these decisions.  That is not to say that the school and college curriculum should not also exist to teach knowledge and skills for their own sake, however.  Knowing stuff and being able to do stuff is an end in itself.

Senior leaders can also help their middle leaders and subject specialists to determine the ‘end-points’ or ‘body of knowledge’ they plan to teach within their subjects by asking some broad questions about their curriculums such as those which follow:


  • Why teach this subject? Why does it matter? In what way is it or will it be useful?
  • Why teach this qualification? Why this level of study?
  • Why (for examined courses) use this awarding body and this specification?
  • Why teach this module/topic? Why is this knowledge more important than this?
  • How does this subject relate to other subjects? How will you make the links explicit?


  • What do you expect pupils/learners to know and be able to do at the end of the topic/scheme/term/year/course/school or college?
  • Why is this knowledge important? Who decides and why?
  • What knowledge and skills will be most useful to pupils in the future? Says who? Is this likely to change?
  • What knowledge gaps (inc. vocabulary) might some pupils need to have filled before they can access the curriculum? How will you identify the gaps and the pupils? How and when will the gaps be filled?


  • When do you expect pupils/learners to have acquired this knowledge/skills?
  • Why then?
  • What must be taught before and after this knowledge/skills? Why?
  • How will the learning be sequenced? Is this a logical order?
  • How will the curriculum build increasing complexity over time?
  • Does each entry-point to the curriculum lead to a higher level of study and/or into meaningful employment? (If you offer a Level 1 course, do you also offer a suitable Level 2 course, and so on?)


  • How will this knowledge/skills be taught to ensure long-term learning? Will all teachers teach in this manner? How will you know?
  • How will prior knowledge be activated? How will pupils be helped to transfer knowledge/skills from one context to another, and from the classroom to life/work?
  • How will retrieval practice be built into the curriculum to ensure prior learning is kept active?
  • How will the curriculum be spaced and interleaved to aide long-term retention?

4. Culture 

Fourthly, senior leaders create the culture in which a curriculum flourishes. This, I think, has three layers:

1. The staff culture;

2. The pupil and student culture; and

3. The learning culture.

5. CPD and workload

Finally, and perhaps most critically of all, senior leaders are the gatekeepers and protectors of their staff‘s skills and time.

They have a duty to provide appropriate training to staff to ensure they are skilled at curriculum thinking, and they have a duty to provide protected time for staff to engage in the time-consuming task of designing, delivering and reviewing the curriculum in their subjects.

With a just focus on teacher workload at the moment, senior leaders must do all they can to prevent this renewed focus on curriculum design (and meeting the requirements of the new Ofsted framework) adding to subject leaders’ and teachers’ workloads and must decide what they can stop doing in order to carve out the time required to focus their energies on ‘the real substance of education’.  They must also ensure they do not misinterpret Ofsted’s framework and dictate tasks because ‘that’s what Ofsted wants’.  Indeed, no school should do anything specifically for the purposes of inspection.  We do not do what we do for Ofsted; we do it for our pupils and students.  If we continue to do what is in the best interests of those pupils, we have nothing to fear from outside agents.

The 6-step process of curriculum design…

Our approach to curriculum design – as outlined in the book School & College Curriculum Design: Intent – follows a six-step process as follows…

Read more about it here

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