What are curriculum principles and why are they important?

Melanie Moore, author of the Cornerstones Curriculum, takes a look at curriculum principles and their importance.

Recent commentary on the importance of curriculum by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, has led to a renewed debate about the complexity of curriculum design.

Before a school can begin to design its curriculum, it’s important that its principles and the purpose of those principles are agreed and can be articulated by all stakeholders. There is no right or wrong approach to curriculum design, but schools should be clear on the values that are behind their chosen design. Without these principles, the curriculum is set to fall short of providing everything a school needs.

So, what are curriculum principles?

Curriculum principles are the values a school believes will give both their pupils and community the best chance of succeeding, and what they know to be right, given its context. You can think of curriculum principles as being like those by which you live your life and base important decisions on. Except, when deciding on curriculum principles, a school needs to consider what will give all its children the best possible chance of becoming well-rounded, happy individuals who are prepared for the next steps of their lives.

What is curriculum purpose?

In line with recent documentation from Ofsted, schools should know the intent or purpose of their curriculum and be able to articulate it. But what does this mean? Well, once a school has agreed on its principles, it must be able to explain why they are important. So, for example, a school may decide upon the following principle:

‘Our curriculum will be broad and balanced.'

To explain the purpose of that principle, a school may say:

‘A broad and balanced curriculum will provide our children with the skills, knowledge, and understanding they need to develop into well-rounded, informed individuals.'

Another example of a school’s principle might be as follows:

‘Our curriculum will be literacy rich.'

To explain the purpose of that principle, a school may say:

‘A literacy-rich curriculum will provide our children with the opportunities to read and write in a range of contexts for different purposes and in response to a variety of exciting, first-hand experiences.'

What factors might guide the development of your curriculum principles?

Having clear curriculum principles gives the staff of any school a unity of purpose. But what factors might help a school to decide upon them? Influencing factors might include all or some of the following: personal values, religious beliefs, social context, geographical location, pedagogy, national policy, and resources.

A school will need to decide which of these factors are important to them and how to balance them. Spielman’s recent commentary states that, for some schools, external pressures such as school inspection or KS2 tests have led to a ‘focus on performance’ trumping the urgency to establish and stick to a set of fundamental principles, although, she says, not intentionally.

So, where does a school start?

A great place to start is by reviewing what currently works well and what needs improving. It’s vital that a school sets aside time to discuss these points properly, and to look at evidence of both. Schools should also seek to involve parents, carers, and the children themselves in developing ideas about what their curriculum should be. This can be done through questionnaires or by holding workshop-style sessions.

Questions could include:

  • What should our curriculum be?
  • How do our children like to learn?
  • What do we consider necessary for children to learn?
  • What should our curriculum not be?
  • What can we do to help prepare our children for their future lives?
  • What aspects of the local environment should children learn about as part of their curriculum?
  • What do others think our school curriculum should include?

Download a PDF version of our six steps of curriculum design.

What next?

Once a school has decided upon its principles, and is clear on their purpose, only then can they begin to think about the design of their curriculum. It’s also essential for a school not to have too many principles, as this may lead to overload and confusion. Schools should be succinct and articulate on what’s important for their curriculum and why. After that, the fun of curriculum design can begin.

Cornerstones - Six steps of Curriculum design.

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Melanie Moore

Mel is Director and EYFS specialist at Cornerstones. She writes most of our curriculum materials and leads our creative team. She has 20 years teaching experience, including as a deputy head teacher. She has also been a teacher adviser, a local authority strategy advisor and has worked for the QCA on national curriculum schemes of work.

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