Melanie Moore, author of the Cornerstones Curriculum, looks at the process of curriculum design.
You may learn many things in teacher training, but how to design a curriculum is usually not one of them. Designing a whole school curriculum is a complex task, and the ability to do it comes with years of experience and practise.
In a recent commentary, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, states:
‘Primary school leaders reported that recruiting staff who could design a curriculum was becoming increasingly difficult. Some headteachers thought that too much of what trainee teachers currently learn focuses on teaching to the English and mathematics tests. Little attention is given to developing more rounded curriculum knowledge. Indeed, a couple of headteachers indicated that they could divide their staff into those who were strong in curriculum planning – those who trained a fair time ago − and those who were not.'
With my 20-plus years’ experience in curriculum design, I would say that this does have an element of truth. However, even for those like me who trained a while ago, many other factors make designing a school curriculum a challenge. One of the most difficult parts is not having enough time to stand back, reflect on what your school needs, and develop exciting content. Also, internal factors such as teachers’ subject expertise and external pressures such as testing can affect a school’s capacity to design its curriculum.
So, how can a school design its curriculum?
Over the years, I’ve developed an approach to curriculum design that is both practical and easy to follow. By following the steps, any school can design a curriculum that is unique to them and meets their needs. These steps are useful for any school, including those wanting to design their curriculum from scratch, and those wishing to review the effectiveness of their existing curriculum.
Step 1: Principles and purpose
Knowing what you want to achieve and why you want to achieve it.
You should begin the design process by establishing your curriculum principles. Your principles should reflect your values, the school’s social and geographical context, pedagogy, and children’s needs. Be sure that you can explain the purpose or intent of your principles, and don’t include anything you can’t justify.
‘We believe in a broad and balanced curriculum where all subjects are valued. A broad and balanced curriculum will equip our children with a breadth of knowledge and skills in all areas of the curriculum.'
Tip: Find out what parents and children think is relevant and interesting to include in your school curriculum, by using questionnaires. For more information on developing principles and purpose, read my ‘Developing curriculum principles’ blog.
Step 2: Entitlement and enrichment
Deciding what you consider to be non-negotiables for your children.
After clarifying your principles and purpose, set out what you believe should be included in a core offer for all children. Your core offer should outline a set of non-negotiables to which all children are entitled. It should be informed by your curriculum principles and might include things like a specific number of educational visits, access to a range of extra-curricular activities, or a learning entitlement such as learning how to play an instrument or reading a certain number of children’s novels by the end of Key Stage 2.
- ‘All children in our school are entitled to two educational visits a year.'
- ‘All children will read or be read at least five children’s novels by the end of Key Stage 2.'
- ‘All children will study one community-based project a year.'
Tip: Provide experiences that will broaden children’s life experiences. For example, if you are in an inner-city school, ensure that at least one educational visit is to a coastal or rural location.
Step 3: Breadth and balance
Making choices about what to teach, in how much depth, and how to structure it.
This step is perhaps the most difficult. As well as the above, it also requires you to make sure children can build on their understanding, as each new concept, skill, or fact is taught. You can arrange content into a range of exciting themes and projects taking into account the essential requirements of the national curriculum and your curriculum principles and entitlement. Writing projects, themes, or topics takes time, and teachers need plenty to develop content that ensures their curriculum meets all the necessary requirements. It is at this stage that some schools decide to look externally at curriculum materials for help.
Tip: Don’t be afraid to make bold choices and use your imagination in the pursuit of a curriculum that meets the interests of all learners. Why not involve the children in choosing an exciting range of topics and themes? The more involved they are in shaping their curriculum, the more likely they are to engage in its content.
Step 4: Check and review
Reflecting on your choices and checking your coverage.
After deciding how to organise your curriculum content, you will need to check that your plans cover your principles and core offer, and the statutory aspects of the national curriculum. Where there are gaps in your coverage, you will need to make strategic choices about ways to manage them, by either purchasing specific schemes to enhance areas of the curriculum such as science or RE, revisiting elements of your content or going back to your principles and entitlements to make some changes.
- ‘Can we show how we cover all aspects of science?'
- ‘Does our content provide children with a broad and balanced curriculum?'
Tip: Be sure to provide opportunities for children to revisit skills and knowledge as they progress through school.
Step 5: Teaching narrative
Develop a series of lessons that deliver your curriculum content.
Each project or topic now needs to be organised into a series of lessons that deliver your curriculum content. You should decide how each project or topic will begin. Will it be with an educational visit or an exciting first-hand experience? Content from areas of learning will need to be organised into lesson overviews that create a narrative of how each project will progress. Any specific outcomes should also be defined. This process will create your medium and short-term plans.
Tip: Think about your project or topic like a story with a beginning, middle and end. And be creative; this is the stage where all your planning and ideas can come to fruition in the most exciting of ways.
Step 6: Resources
Identifying the resources you will need to deliver a high-quality curriculum.
Finally, to deliver a high-quality curriculum, you need high-quality resources and it can’t be done without them. Resources include human resources, practical equipment, and teaching resources.
Tip: Make a list of all the practical resources you need for each project and share it with parents, carers, and local businesses. Make the most of any local resources, such as museums, library services, and council loan schemes.
Download the six steps
Of course, the six steps are a simplification of a more complicated process, but they are a good place to start. Several missing ingredients that have a significant impact on your curriculum design are missing here. For example, the unique combination of the staff at your school and their experiences, your children’s passions and interests, and the creativity you bring to the process.
Do you want help designing your school's curriculum?
The Cornerstones Curriculum has provided over 2000 schools with the tools, content, and expertise they needed to design their curriculum. If you want help developing your curriculum, then contact us to book a free online meeting with one of our experienced curriculum consultants.
Download your free sample projects