What are curriculum principles?

Melanie Moore

Melanie Moore

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Why do you have the curriculum you have? Why do you make the choices you do? How do your educational principles impact your curriculum? In this blog, Melanie Moore, Cornerstones’ Curriculum Director, looks at how to identify your curriculum principles and why knowing your principles well is crucial for an authentic curriculum.

What are principles?

There is little doubt that as a primary teacher or senior leader, you’ll be asked to make many critical daily decisions that can form a large part of the workload in any primary school. You are often expected to make your choices quickly.

Sometimes we make our choices based on a gut feeling, but when judgements are more substantial, we often need to dig deep within ourselves to find the answer. Although we may not always realise it, when we make a decision on any scale, it is our principles, or core values, that provide us with the internal compass by which we navigate.

Why curriculum principles are so important in your primary school

Just as we use our personal principles to help us make important decisions about how we act and what we do, having a clear set of curriculum principles can help you to build an authentic curriculum that meets the needs of your school and learners.

Trying to build your curriculum on goals that aren’t derived from your principles and core values is like building a house on sand. With clear and well-defined principles, you will have firm foundations on which to build.

Schools can often feel pressured to set curriculum goals that derive from educational trends or governmental pressures. While some ideas and initiatives can be helpful for curriculum improvement, many are not and simply crank up the pressure of ‘things to do’. The result of this can be schools losing confidence in doing what they believe to be right for them, despite knowing their children best.

Establishing your curriculum principles

In Principled curriculum design, Professor Dylan Wiliam sets out the principles he feels are most important in designing a curriculum. These are:

  • balanced
  • rigorous
  • coherent
  • vertically integrated
  • appropriate
  • focused
  • relevant

While some schools are happy to use Wiliam’s principles to guide the design of their curriculum, others prefer to do something a little more bespoke. I believe this is the right thing to do. The purpose of your curriculum principles is to provide a clear steer for the design of your curriculum, and you should be entirely convinced, comfortable and confident in them.

Where to begin

A great way to begin thinking about your curriculum principles is to have an open discussion with all stakeholders. Use this time to gather ideas as to what your school is about, what makes it unique and what are the most important aspects of the curriculum for your children. Think about how you want your children to be when they leave their primary education; from this, your principles should become clear.

If you already have curriculum principles in place, you should spend time reviewing them; considering whether they need to change with the times, remain the same or require something new to bring them more up to date. The questions below, although not exhaustive, should help you make a good start with these conversations.

  • If we were to describe what our curriculum should be, what words would we use?
  • What does our curriculum need to be to ensure our learners are successful citizens?
  • What would we want people to say about our curriculum?
  • What are the unique features of our community that need to be reflected in our curriculum?
  • Which principles are non-negotiable?
  • Which curriculum principles will make the quality of education better at our school?
  • Can any of the principles we have discussed be combined? How many principles do we think are appropriate to guide our curriculum’s design?

Download our six steps of curriculum design

Sharing your principles

As with children’s learning, the more visible your principles are, the better they are lived out in the classroom. By writing down your principles for both the children and their parents, you proudly say, ‘this is who we are and what we believe in’.

You can make your curriculum principles visible by publishing them on your school website and sharing them via your school prospectus and so on. Aim to be succinct and articulate on what’s important for your school’s curriculum and why.

You should also use display space to reinforce key messages about your curriculum and spend time talking about them, especially when you are faced with making any decisions about it.

It’s a good idea to do your research here too. Look at other school websites to gather ideas about how to present them effectively to the world. This is a great starting point for external visitors to get a first impression of your curriculum.

Living your principles

Whether you are planning lessons, choosing between conflicting priorities, or setting new goals for your area of the curriculum, it is always a good idea to refer to your curriculum principles. Live them every day in any way you can so that they become truly embedded in your daily practice. It is no good having invisible principles; they must be lived out in the children’s experiences, and we must see that they positively impact their learning.

By referring to your principles, you can get a good steer on your choices and be comfortable knowing that your decisions have been made within the parameters of an agreed set of values.


While the process I have set out may seem simple, it is merely a guide to finding your way to begin thinking about the principles which will underpin your curriculum. Over time, your thinking may change, and factors like cognitive research may reveal some things we cannot afford to ignore.

You can build and adjust your curriculum goals according to your principles, or you can use them to help you realise when your current goals need to be more consistent or in sync with your principles. In this case, make any necessary adjustments and carry on.

The pressures to follow the latest educational trends, research and government initiatives have always been a significant part of teacher workload, yet, when you know why you do what you do, you can make choices that are right for your school and your children. This is incredibly important, especially in tough times or in periods of stressful change, as it can ensure your staff are pulling together for a common and shared purpose.

For the Maestro user

Curriculum Maestro provides a broad and balanced curriculum that is rigorous and coherent. The skills and knowledge progression framework provides the vertical and horizontal links you need to ensure that your curriculum is well-connected and that children can build a three-dimensional understanding of key concepts. Moreover, the progression framework guarantees that skills and knowledge are pitched perfectly to age-related expectations.

Using Maestro’s functionality, your school can adapt and edit aspects of the curriculum to make it even more relevant to your locality. Projects and lessons are entirely flexible, and you can build your own to create an even more bespoke curriculum. If you want to discuss any aspect of this or chat with one of our expert curriculum advisers, you can contact us on Live Chat 8-5pm.

This blog was updated in December 2022. First published in November 2017.