75: What is curriculum sequencing and why is it important?


20th August 2021

75: What is curriculum sequencing and why is it important?

Curriculum sequencing is now essential in the current educational climate. So, what is Ofsted looking for, what does sequencing mean in practice, and how do you achieve it at primary school? Caroline is joined by Curriculum Director, Melanie Moore, to take a deep dive into this important topic. A transcript of the conversation is also available.


75: What is curriculum sequencing and why is it important?


Caroline: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of the curriculum podcast. I’m your host, Caroline Pudner. Now, curriculum sequencing; that’s what we’re going to talk about today. And why we’re talking about it is because it’s becoming a bigger and bigger topic of discussion in education circles. And that is because Ofsted is already starting to ask schools how the curriculum has been sequenced, connected, designed and constructed.

So, what is curriculum sequencing? That’s what we’re going to be looking into today. Why is it important, and how do primary schools achieve it with their curriculum? Today, I’m joined by Melanie Moore, who’s our Curriculum Director here at Cornerstones and a founder of the company. Mel and her team have been developing a fully sequenced and interconnected curriculum, Curriculum 2022, which you can find out about on our website. But I thought she’s the perfect person to come in and talk to us about curriculum sequencing. So, hi, Mel, thanks for joining me today.

Mel: Hi, Caroline, you’re very welcome. It’s a very strange feeling doing this over Zoom rather than doing it together in a room!

Caroline: I know! It is really good to see you. I think it’s even more poignant doing it like this with people that you are so used to working alongside in an office. So, yeah, hopefully, one day we’ll get back into our studio and be able to talk a lot more about these kinds of issues because actually this and other aspects of curriculum design and curriculum quality are just going to, I think, ramp up, don’t you, over the next academic year. And it’s not being talked about a lot more.

Mel: I mean, we’re now talking during the school holidays but certainly, in September, when Ofsted inspections start again in earnest, there’s going to be a lot of talk around curriculum and curriculum sequencing in particular. And schools are going to need to be ready armed with the information they need to be able to answer the questions that are going to be asked during that inspection process. So, yes, it’s coming and it’s very relevant.

Caroline: Yeah, definitely. So, let’s dive in with the first question I’ve got; what do we mean by curriculum sequencing?

Mel: Ok. The process of curriculum sequencing is about mapping out the skills (procedural knowledge) and knowledge (declarative knowledge) and content across your school curriculum, so that what children learn builds on what they’ve learned before. The practicalities of that are very complex. For a start, schools have to identify what the key or larger concepts are that they want to teach within each curriculum subject. They then need to break those down into smaller component parts so that the learning is manageable for children. And then, they need to sequence them correctly so that children can gradually build their knowledge and understanding over time of those larger concepts. So that’s what sequencing is in a nutshell, although I’m sure we’re going to dive more deeply into the complexities of that as we talk. But that’s how I would describe the process.

Caroline: Ok, that’s really helpful. So could you give us an example, Mel, of a concept in the primary curriculum and how it could be sequenced across the year groups?

Mel: Well, I’ll try to do it very simply. Let’s take the concept of colour in art, which is obviously one of the huge overarching concepts in art and one of the visual elements which build children’s complete understanding of art. If we take colour and we break that down into its smaller component parts, we would probably start with primary colours, so naming, recognising and mixing primary colours. That will be one small component part. Once children have learned about the primary colours, they would then move on to the secondary colours. And they can’t obviously just go straight into the secondary colours because they need to understand that the primary colours are the colours that make all those colours. That will take them to knowing that mixing of those primary colours will make secondary colours, and there’s a whole lot of exploration to do around that. Then, children would move on to families of colour, so we would look at hot and cool colours, analogous colours, complementary and contrasting colours. This obviously builds on both primary and secondary colour theory, which then might move on to teaching children about tints, tones and shades of colour. And to be able to do that, they need to understand all about colour families, the colour wheel and everything that I’ve mentioned before. Then we might move on to the more complex application of colour theory by looking at things like perspective and painting using colour, the creation of mood and atmosphere using colour and the use of expression using colour. But I hope you can see just in that example how we really have to think very carefully about what the component parts are, when we teach them, why we teach them and how we’ll teach them. So that’s just one very small narrative of a larger concept of how we might break that down into small component parts. And that’s obviously not all done in one year; that process that I’ve just described would take us from the Early Years Foundation Stage right up to Year 6.

Caroline: Yeah, so it’s that overview, isn’t it, that schools need of every subject of these concepts within subjects like art? I mean, you’ve done it for all the subjects that we have in the curriculum. You need to understand the endpoints and tease them right back to the beginning. I can really see how that works. It’s that bigger picture, isn’t it, of the whole journey that a child’s going to make? It’s like the analogy of Jenga towers; all those components build a child’s understanding. And an example I’ve also heard is: how can a child paint a sunset landscape without that knowledge of warm and cool colours and how to colour mix?’

Mel: Well, they could. We could ask them to paint a landscape, but they wouldn’t have as much understanding of the use or application of colour and therefore, children will find it challenging because they don’t have the skills or the knowledge to be able to tackle that task properly. The work itself would be of a much lower quality because children have not been able to apply the right knowledge and understanding to get the best quality outcome.

Caroline: So, that leads me to my next question: Why is sequencing so important? You’ve just touched upon a really crucial aspect of it there, which is that it’s equipping children, enabling them and giving them the skills and the knowledge in the right order from Nursery to Year 6 within each subject. Why do you feel it’s important to get this right and get it into your curriculum design?

Mel: I think, probably in the past, we’ve thought about curriculum sequencing, but not in the same way. I do think that’s what schools have been good at doing, for example, for the history curriculum, sequencing their history projects so that children are understanding the basic chronology (so, teaching the Romans before they would teach the Tudors in British history). But I think the difference now is that we’re not talking about the context; we’re talking about sequencing. Actually, before we sequence, it’s identifying the larger concepts that you want in your curriculum for each subject and then thinking about how those break down into smaller component parts and how those might be sequenced. So, I do think we have thought about curriculum sequencing, but probably not in the amount of detail we are now tackling in the sequencing of curriculum concepts. It is quite a shift in thinking. And obviously, the starting point for schools is to think, for each subject, what are the key or the larger concepts that they want children to understand as an outcome of their geography curriculum, their history curriculum or their art curriculum? That’s where schools really need to start when they’re thinking about curriculum sequencing. And there are many pitfalls, really, if we don’t think about this – one of the things is that obviously we can’t teach these larger concepts in one go, and it’s all right to know that we are not responsible for teaching the whole concept in one go. That’s why obviously teamwork is really important here and looking at the bigger picture of the whole curriculum. Like we were saying before, you wouldn’t expect one teacher to be able to teach in one year group, the primary, the secondary colours and the colour families. It’s just way too much. It’s about knowing what I’m responsible for teaching in my classroom and having the confidence that my colleague, who has that group of children in the next year group, knows exactly what I’ve done with them, and they know exactly what they’re going to do to continue building this concept. So, one of the things is knowing that we can’t teach the larger concepts in one big piece. We need to break those down. If we don’t, we are overloading our children with huge chunks of knowledge, which they’re not able to process, and they don’t have any building blocks to build that understanding on. And then the other pitfall is, if we don’t have a correctly sequenced curriculum, then we’re in danger of either causing great gaps in children’s knowledge and understanding because we have completely missed one of the building blocks out of that sequence. And then when you come to teach children about condensation in science in Year 5 (just saying this off the top of my head), they have no understanding of the water cycle and condensation and changes to state that they’ve studied in previous year groups. And I suppose another of outcome would be misunderstandings and misconceptions that children would build up over time because they haven’t had the knowledge and information in the right sequence, so things don’t quite make sense to them, and therefore they sort of fill in the gaps for themselves and things become misconstrued and misunderstood. Then you’ve got to unpick and go back to what the gaps are that caused those misconceptions.

Caroline: Yeah, I mean, I certainly experienced that when I taught older children at primary, those huge gaps in understanding. You develop a schema in your brain about how you think something works, but if it hasn’t been taught in the right sequence and they’ve missed it, there is a lot of work on unpicking that and reteaching it. So it has huge implications, not sequencing the curriculum in that way. But, just picking up on what you said earlier, this is a new level of granular sequencing now that we’re talking about. This is like a new era in curriculum design where you’re really going down to these component parts. That is a lot of work, and we’ll get onto that in a bit. So, Mel, another term that’s used particularly with our curriculum is interconnected sequencing. And I just wanted to ask you what you mean by that when you were looking at designing this curriculum; what does ‘interconnected’ mean for you, and how did you do it?

Mel: Well, one of the things that I’m very conscious of is that children can learn facts and information in isolation, but actually, if we can make meaningful connections across the curriculum and with other subjects, then their understanding of a concept can be a much stronger one than if they didn’t have those meaningful connections. So, it was really important for me when we started writing our sequenced curriculum, which we are calling Curriculum 2022, that when we were identifying our larger concepts that we looked where a concept straddled one or more subjects. That’s also got to be in our mind when we’re sequencing because what children learn in science can also be revisited in much of the geography curriculum and vice versa. If we take an aspect of the art curriculum, such as textiles, then we know that fabrics and materials are also taught in design and technology and are also taught in science. So, we’re not only thinking about the properties of materials as a concept in one subject but as a multidisciplinary concept that will straddle different curriculum subjects. And that means working together with other curriculum leads and not developing your curriculum sequence in isolation so that you can have those conversations and you can make sure when you are mapping a concept that you are taking account of where things are introduced, revisited and taught in other subjects as well as your own subject.

Caroline: It gives more opportunity for children to revisit and to build those that schematic understanding. And if you’re listening and you’re interested in seeing one, we’ve actually mapped out climate, haven’t we, Mel, in a PDF, which we can put in the notes with the podcast. So, do go on to the notes section, and we’ll put a link to a PDF. And it’s a complex concept, understanding world climate. And it is obviously a geography one, but it features all the way across the curriculum. So we’ve got that as an example, and hopefully, you’ll find that helpful to see how you do the interconnections.

Mel: We did that to give one example of how we thought through the concepts of climate and how the smaller component parts are introduced and built over time so that by the end of Year 6, children will have a really good understanding of climate. It’s too complex for me to explain on the podcast. Probably, people need to download that and have a look at it themselves. But it was interesting because, as soon as we put that up, lots of schools were saying, that’s fantastic, can you do this for the whole curriculum? And the answer is simply, that we would have to create thousands of these concept maps to be able to show you all of the connections, all of the interconnections, all the sequencing. It can’t be put on one single piece of paper. And interestingly, what we’re doing at the moment is we are developing a piece of software that will be able to show the sequences and the interconnections across our whole curriculum. But it is on a huge database, and it will be a really complex piece of software, which schools can (lucky for them!) click a button and see those interconnections and be able to use that to understand what is happening in the curriculum. We started two years ago on this curriculum, and we’ve got one more year to go, which we’re focusing on science. It’s an incredibly complex, ongoing process.

Caroline: You know, it’s all very well, isn’t it, hearing Ofsted talking about it, and hearing people saying it needs to be this, it needs to be that. But actually, getting down and doing it is an extremely time-consuming and intricate task. I’ve just mentioned Ofsted, Mel. I mean, from what you’ve seen of what they’ve been talking about in terms of curriculum sequencing and some of the research that’s come out, what’s your take on all of that?

Mel: Well, I do happen to have a quote here; if you’d like me to read it? It says that curriculum designers need to understand the ‘what, where, why and how’. What is the core knowledge that the school has decided to teach? Where are they teaching it? Why have they chosen that sequence of teaching? And how are other types of knowledge and disciplinary knowledge interlinked, which is what we’ve just been talking about. But the challenge to schools of that type of questioning, and particularly to subject leaders or curriculum leaders, is this is a really high level of challenge. And I don’t know if listeners recently saw the music paper that came out, the research paper?

Caroline: Yes, Ofsted’s review.

Mel: Just reading through that, the level of subject knowledge that is required in a subject which, admittedly, is not my strongest subject, is immense, really. Just because you are leading a subject in school, it doesn’t mean to say you have a specific degree in that subject, but it’s a real high level of subject knowledge needed by the subject leads and other staff to understand what they’re teaching in these smaller component parts. It’s really a big challenge. And of course, we are hearing from some of the schools that we work with, some of the questions that Ofsted are asking. So, for example, one I heard last week was ‘show me how empire is taught throughout your curriculum’. And it’s for subject leaders or curriculum leaders to be able to have that knowledge at their fingertips, to be able to answer that question and to be really clear how that is taught across their curriculum. And is that even one of the larger concepts that they’ve decided to teach across their curriculum? They may not call it empire; they might call it power. So, it’s knowing your curriculum really, really well, which will help you to answer those questions.

Caroline: Yeah. And we’ve been looking at the reviews coming out, and I think you’re right. It’s a lot for primary practitioners, sequencing the curriculum to be able to pin down the component parts and to imagine a child’s journey through what they need to know first before the next thing, and before the next thing. It’s not just the subject knowledge; it’s the knowledge of teaching and curriculum design, isn’t it?

Mel: Yeah. So, for example, let’s take the art curriculum. If we look at the national curriculum, in KS1, there are three programmes of study, and in KS2, there’re four programmes of study. And they don’t really tell you the overarching concepts that you need to teach. That’s actually for you to decide. Things are a little better when we come to subjects like maths, English and science because, quite often, they are already sequenced to a certain degree because they are organised in the national curriculum by year group. But it is the subjects like music, art, PE and the humanities that are less explicit in the national curriculum and, therefore, probably require more thinking about in terms of what the larger concepts are that will help the school build the children’s understanding of geography, history, art, music and so on. And I think that is why Ofsted are bringing these subject reports out because they’re trying to put a little bit more meat on the bones for us. But even reading those, they are quite overwhelming. And, you know, looking at the music one, wow, that’s a lot to ensure you have going on in your curriculum and that everybody understands what their path is in teaching all those concepts!

Caroline: Actually, that’s a really important point, isn’t it? That it’s not just you as a subject leader, it’s that every teacher throughout the school has to have some sense of ownership and expertise in their place in that journey.

Mel: Because, if an Ofsted inspector goes in and says, ‘Where is empire taught in your curriculum?’ Well, does everybody know where empire is taught in your curriculum? Is everybody aware that empire is a concept in your curriculum? Is everyone aware that colour is a main concept in your curriculum? And does everybody know what that part is in that chain of learning relating to that concept?

Caroline: Knowledge is a big topic, and our projects in the curriculum are very knowledge-rich, but what about skills and sequencing of skills? What’s your take on that?

Mel: Ok, so we refer to our curriculum framework as a skills and knowledge framework. It’s pure semantics because if you want to call those skills ‘procedural knowledge’, that’s absolutely fine. And knowledge is what knowledge is; it’s declarative…facts and information. My partner, Simon, has done some work on looking at all the different reports, frameworks and research papers that are coming out from Ofsted, and I think so far, he’s identified twenty-seven different types of knowledge that have been mentioned across the board in those papers. Now, to me, that’s absolutely ridiculous. I think, for me, ‘skills and knowledge’ is a good way to refer to things as long as you have the understanding that skills are procedural knowledge and knowledge is declarative knowledge. That’s how we use that terminology, and it seems to work well for schools.

Caroline: So, it’s the framework, isn’t it, that offers that sequence of development at the granular level? And then all of that links to the higher-level concepts.

Mel: Yeah, it is. If you think of a hierarchy triangle, at the top, you’ve got your larger concepts, and we have ten what we call Big Ideas; huge, world concepts that pin all our curriculum together. They are broken down into subject-specific concepts, smaller aspects. And then, at the bottom of the pyramid, there are even smaller, granular component parts, which are the procedural knowledge and the declarative knowledge. And all of that is tied together in a framework. We couldn’t start on our curriculum until we had that framework, and we were really sure that that was as tight as it could be. And that took us a year to get all of that groundwork done before we could start writing the content that would deliver the skills and knowledge. So that work in itself took us a year to do, and then it’s taken us two years on top of that to start building all of the content. And now we’re on the final subject, which is science, and that’s what we’ll be working on this year. But yes, the groundwork is so important; it’s not something you can just dive into in a single subject. It’s about looking at the bigger picture, identifying those huge, global issues that you want to address through your curriculum and then breaking them down, down, down into the granular parts.

Caroline: That’s really clear. Thank you, Mel. In fact, I’d quite like us to do a diagram of the layers of sequencing. I think that could be helpful, quite simple, but it belies the complexity of the work that is involved. It’s really important. I’ve talked to lots of schools, and hardly any of us had at the time of our PGCE and our early teacher training any training in curriculum design. And it’s a lot for Ofsted to expect schools now to be curriculum designers and to have the time and the expertise to be able to do this kind of work. So we’re always here to help. We can offer guidance, there are things on our website and we’ll always be talking about this, particularly this coming year, and offering more guidance on sequencing.

Mel: I was just going to say, one of the things that we’ve done now to help schools that we’re working with to deliver a fully sequenced curriculum is, we have this Curriculum 2022, and that is available for schools to just adapt. And it has all the subject content, all the interdisciplinary links, all the key concepts, and small component parts sequenced correctly. We would recommend that schools really take a good look at that and really consider adapting that curriculum. That will really put you in a very good position in terms of having a fully sequenced and interconnected curriculum.

Caroline: Yeah, it’s that assurance, isn’t it? And you can still tailor it, can’t you?

Mel: I wouldn’t mess around with the sequence of it because that’s been very well thought through. But of course, schools can still make their own adaptions, such as for local history studies and according to the teachers’ expertise. They can adapt the lesson content and can use the resources in flexible ways, other than in the ways we’ve suggested. They can add lessons in if they wanted to. So, it’s fully editable and adaptable. But you are starting with the knowledge that you have this fully sequenced curriculum in place. And then, of course, in September, they’ll be able to demonstrate those links and aspects that we’ve talked about by using our new piece of software, which we’re calling CurriculumPRO. So, let’s say, for example, a history subject lead was asked that question: how do you teach the concept of empire across your curriculum? They’d be able to type in the word ’empire’ and CurriculumPRO would show every place that empire is taught or revisited across the whole curriculum. It’s a pretty amazing piece of software. It’s like a huge brain!

Caroline: Yeah, but it’s come because of talking to schools, hasn’t it, and thinking about what they need now? And luckily, at Cornerstones, we do have that amazing team. There’s Simon, but there’s also the teachers and the software developers who can actually put that into place. The schools’ advisers are really aware of what schools are asking for and the problems that they face in trying to do this themselves and trying to articulate these concepts. So, a piece of software like that, schools are already saying that they’re really pleased that that’s coming out.

Mel: I mean, not only that, but we’ve had a really positive reaction to our new Curriculum 2022 from schools who’ve just said, ‘thank you, thank you, this is fantastic!’ Some schools have the fear that they may be adopting something which is too didactic. But then, once they’ve had it explained that they can make all of those adaptions and edits that we’ve just talked about, they’re more than happy. Once they see the capability that they have to edit and adapt things using the Maestro platform, then those worries and concerns disappear. So, the initial feedback from schools has been very grateful and really, really positive.

Caroline: Oh, that’s lovely to hear. I mean, I know from working here for a while, the content is not just a ‘pub quiz, here we go, we’ll sequence all the component parts and deliver it’; it’s delivered through engaging topics and contexts. You’ve got your skills projects that focus on the art skills, key geography skills and knowledge. It’s a real mixture of project types to end up, really, with a rich curriculum that, as you say, Mel, a school can still adapt, and teachers can still edit to suit their children and the school context.

Mel: And I wouldn’t want people to think that it’s just a tick list of knowledge that children have to learn. You know, it’s really important to me that we always have at the heart of everything we do. What is a primary child, what are their needs and what excites them? What are they interested in, and how can we foster children’s love of learning? And that’s why everything we create, even with this new curriculum, which is more structured and more sequential than our previous curriculum, it’s always based on our pedagogy which reflects all those things that a primary child is and the learning environment that we want for primary children. So, we’ve still got the innovation, we’ve still got the Engage stage, we still want children to create, discuss, talk, and play. But underpinning all of that is a very clear, sequential framework. I would never lose that aspect because those are the things that are at the heart of every child. We wouldn’t want to see primary schools turning into factories where children just learn knowledge by rote. We still want to see children being children, but we want to be able to support their learning as best we can. And it’s about getting that mix of both things and not losing one for the sake of the other.

Caroline: Mel, that’s a fantastic way to end the podcast, I think, on that note, because it is, I agree totally. It’s understanding primary children, how they develop and how they learn. Thank you so much.

Mel: You’re very welcome. If I could just say that if schools are working with us, if they have a Maestro license and they’re not clear on Curriculum 2022, please give us a call, send us an email, and we will go through the new curriculum with you. That support is available for you, so please don’t sit back and worry about things changing. If you are not currently working with Cornerstones, but you’ve been interested in what we’ve been saying, then please just give us a call, book in a 10 to 15-minute tour and just see what we are talking about, see what we have got for you. And even if you don’t want it or like it, it will give you some food for thought for developing your own curriculum. It’s been really interesting; our live chat is busier than it’s ever been before, with people asking questions about exactly what we’ve been talking about. About sequencing, curriculum, inspection. And we love to have schools ask us questions and talk to us. So please feel free.

Caroline: Definitely. And like Mel just mentioned, live chat is on our website. But also, if you’re on Maestro, you’ve got live chat on Maestro. And there’s the Help Centre on Maestro that has videos that you can watch whenever you want outside of office time. So, we’ve got one on Curriculum 2022, and there’s sequencing on there as well.

Mel: Did you put the climate concept map on the website or our blog?

Caroline: It is. It’s in the blog. If you just go on to our website and look at the Curriculum 2022 blog. There’s also a sister blog to that, which is ‘how to be an early adopter’. We’re calling it early adopter, actually, because, yes, it starts in September, and you can implement it. But the science projects are placeholder projects at the moment. They’ve got the overarching sequence in there so you can see the sequence that they follow, but the content is being written term by term, isn’t it, throughout the year? There’s advice on what you can do with the science while those projects are developed. But there’s enough there for schools to start implementing it, and with Curriculum PRO as well, you’ll be able to start articulating those connections.

Mel: And we’ll launch CurriculumPRO in September. But I know the team are giving some schools sneak peeks of that just to put their minds at rest because they are expecting an inspection in the autumn term. You know, it’s just part of working with them to support them through the process.

Caroline: Yeah, definitely. I mean, they’ve had such a hard two years. You’ve got the children at the forefront of your mind, their wellbeing, the staff wellbeing. There’ve been so many challenges, then having curriculum design and this level of knowledge and expertise around curriculum on top of everything else. You know, if we can help in any way, then that’s what we’re more than happy to do. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast with me and explaining this whole issue of curriculum sequencing.

Mel: You’re welcome.

Caroline: If you’re listening and you want to find out more, Mel’s explained where to go, but also with the podcast, I’ll put a few notes and useful links for you on there, and also some links to what Ofsted are saying about sequencing. So, thank you very much for joining us today and tuning into this episode. And we wish you all the very best. So until next time, it’s goodbye from us here.

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