What are curriculum principles and why are they important?


17th May 2021

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.

What are curriculum principles and why are they important?

Updated guidance from Ofsted on the quality of education, has led to a wide debate about the complexity of curriculum design recently. In this blog, Curriculum Director, Melanie Moore, looks at the strategic yet underestimated stage of defining your curriculum principles.  

Before you can begin to design the substance of your curriculum, it’s important that your principles and the purpose of those principles are agreed upon and can be articulated by all stakeholders. There is no one size fits all approach to curriculum development, but you should be clear on the values that are behind your chosen design. Without these principles, the curriculum is set to fall short of providing everything that your 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 informed, well-rounded, happy individuals who are prepared for the next steps of their lives.

What is curriculum purpose?

In line with 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 you have agreed on your principles, you must be able to explain why they are important. So, for example, a school may decide upon the following principle:

‘Our curriculum will be ambitious for all children.’

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

An ambitious 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.

You will need to decide which of these factors are important to your school and how to balance them. Amanda Spielman’s initial commentary on curriculum 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 do you start?

A great place to start is by reviewing what currently works well and what needs improving. It’s vital that you set aside time to discuss these points properly, and to look at evidence of both. You 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?
  • How do we think the curriculum should be taught? 
  • What pedagogical approaches and evidence-based research should we follow? 
  • 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 concepts and values do we want our children to learn? 
  • What do others think our school curriculum should include?

Download our six steps of curriculum design

What next?

Once you have decided upon your principles, and are clear on their purpose, only then can you begin to think about the design of your curriculum. It’s also essential for a school not to have too many principles, as this may lead to overload and confusion. Aim to be succinct and articulate on what’s important for your school’s curriculum and why. After that, the rewarding task of curriculum design can begin.

This blog was updated in May 2021. First published in November 2017.

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