Curriculum Design – The Overlooked Cornerstone of Great Learning

January 30, 2019 Island Teacher

Too often schools set out their ‘teaching and learning stall’ before they have formulated a balanced and thoughtful curriculum offering.  Establishing what is to be taught,  allows a school to plan how it can be taught.  School can only decide on pedagogical approaches when teachers know what pedagogical content knowledge is to be taught.  Curriculum first, then teaching and learning.

Curriculum Design

  • Designing a school curriculum offering is not easy. It is a complicated process that needs to be carefully thought through and involves much strategic decision making. The process can be boiled down to six crucial steps of curriculum design. These steps can be used by any school, including those wanting to design their curriculum from scratch and others wishing to review their existing curriculum. Starting with ‘Principles and purpose’ will help to identify the drivers that frame your curriculum offering.  Your school curriculum is much more than just the national curriculum or the curriculum you may have purchased.  It is effectively the statutory curriculum and also what you deem to be important.

Step 1: Principles and purpose

  • Setting out the intent of your curriculum.
  • Schools should begin the design process by establishing their curriculum principles. The curriculum principles should reflect the school’s values, context, pedagogy and needs.  It will also reflect the context and location of your school.  Schools should be able to articulate the purpose or intent of their curriculum principles. For example ‘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.’  Articulating this statement allows you to decide what pedagogical approaches and subject-specific skills are deemed to be important.

    Step 2: Entitlement and enrichment

    Developing your pupil entitlement.

  • After clarifying its principles and purpose, a school should set out its pupil entitlement. Your pupil entitlement has to meet the statutory requirements, but should also out how your school intends to enrich its curriculum with educational visits, extra-curricular activities and specific entitlements. For example ‘All children in our school are entitled to two educational visits a year.’ Schools should consider how they can use their immediate locality.

    Step 3: Breadth and balance

    Developing the content of your curriculum.

  • Schools Could choose to arrange their curriculum content into a range of exciting themes and projects. These should enable the school to deliver on its curriculum principles and entitlement while ensuring coverage of the statutory requirements of the national curriculum. A school will need to make strategic decisions about what it covers, how it covers it and in how much depth to achieve both breadth and balance. These choices and decisions create a school’s curriculum structure or long-term plan.  There may seem a conflict between designing your own thematic curriculum and the use of commercial schemes of work.  Commercially purchased schemes that are from reputable organisations can offer very sound educational advantages.  These schemes are written by experts and offer well-sequenced lessons that have the potential to reduce workload and in school variation in progress.    With a little thought, these schemes can be integrated effectively.  The key to pupil engagement is to ensure that the themes and any schemes are interesting and cultivate a love of learning.

    Step 4: Teaching narrative

    Planning the delivery of your curriculum.

  • After organising their long-term plans, teachers need to plot the narrative of their projects. A teaching narrative should be vibrant and cohesive. It should detail the starting point for each project, showing how it will develop, and outline any significant outcomes. This process creates a medium-term plan that can be used as a starting point for shorter-term plans.  This is where it is essential to assign subject-specific skills that allow newly acquired subject knowledge to be used.  Staff in your school need to be clear what these skills are and their importance.  The term skills is often used, but schools must offer clarification about these skills are and why they believe they are important.
  • How will you assess what you teach?  What indicators will you measure and note?  These may be observed behaviours, use of subject-specific knowledge or evidence from learning outcomes.  Each year group must be clear on the body of knowledge to be taught and assessed.  What should a child leaving Y4 need to know in History?  What historical enquiry skills should they have mastered?  If carefully sequential learning has been planned, schools must be clear about the success of each cohort and confident that the learning is on track.

    Step 5: Resources

    Sourcing high-quality resources to deliver your curriculum.

  • Schools need to identify the resources they need to bring their curriculum to life and enhance its coherence. A good curriculum needs good quality resources. Resources include human resources, practical equipment, environments and teaching resources.  Too many teachers spend hours trawling the internet for random resources.  Using quality textbooks and other publications can ensure that spurious resources do not reduce the integrity of the school’s offering to its stakeholders.

    Step 6: Review and evaluate

    Deciding what is working well and where there is room for improvement.

  • After establishing its curriculum, a school will need to regularly review its impact on teaching and learning and make any or changes. It will help to consider the original curriculum principles and purposes when reviewing, and focus on particular areas for development in school. For example, how well is the curriculum helping children to progress in writing?  A good curriculum will have a balance between stability and innovation.  The curriculum cannot stand still, but teachers need to learn to teach it effectively and leverage knowledge to their learners in a highly effective and motivating way.
  • The desired curriculum must also be monitored to ensure it reflects the aspirations originally set out.  Too often there is a rhetoric-reality gap.   The actual curriculum taught may not be the intended curriculum so schools need to establish why this may be the case.  For instance, do the teachers have the necessary training needed?



These 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, spontaneous events and unforeseen events.  Some of these may be internal to the school or the result of a new national initiative.  The recent heightened interest in ocean plastics is one such example.  If children are passionate about sustainability issues or new edtech then it is wise to act on this.  Finally, as a research-based profession, it is important to consider evidentially based findings related to learning so that our curriculum reflects these as appropriate.

Cambridge International Assessment has produced an excellent guide to school curriculum planning.  While the guide is related to their highly successful curriculum, it does offer some excellent advice that is applicable across jurisdictions and different curriculums.

Building school capacity.
Structure and operation.
Designing a curriculum
What are the expected academic, personal and social outcomes?Which commercial schemes and text books will be included and how will these
complement other educational approaches offered by the school?
Which skills and competencies should learners acquire through the curriculum? Does the curriculum reflect the school’s vision and context?
How will the curriculum motivate, engage and challenge learners?How will learning within local or national contexts be developed in the curriculum?
Is the curriculum relevant to the needs of learners – now and in the future?How will the school support learners who do not have English as a first language?
What attributes are being modelled for learners across the school?What subject specific training implications are there?

Values and Competencies

The New Zealand Curriculum offers an insight into the values and competencies that they feel underpin their curriculum.  There use of the word competencies avoids confusion over the term skills.  This is important, because curriculum cannot exist in a vacuous state with no reference to values.  


The vision is for young people to be confident, connected, actively involved, lifelong learners.


Students are encouraged to value:

  • excellence, by aiming high and by persevering in the face of difficulties
  • innovation, inquiry, and curiosity, by thinking critically, creatively, and reflectively
  • diversity, as found in our different cultures, languages, and heritages
  • equity, through fairness and social justice
  • community and participation for the common good
  • ecological sustainability, which includes care for the environment
  • integrity, which involves being honest, responsible, and accountable and acting ethically, and
  • to respect themselves, others and human rights.

Key competencies

Competencies are abilities and capabilities that people use to live, learn, work and contribute as active members of their communities.

The New Zealand Curriculum identifies 5 key competencies that it has a focus on children developing throughout their time at school:

  • Thinking - is about using thinking processes to make sense of information, experiences and ideas
  • Using language, symbols, and texts - working with, being able to understand, and making sense of the codes (languages and symbols) in which knowledge is expressed
  • Managing self - having self-motivation, a "can-do" attitude, and seeing oneself as a capable learner
  • Relating to others - is about interacting effectively with a range of different people in a range of different situations, including things like being able to listen well, recognise different points of view, and share ideas
  • Participating and contributing - being involved in communities, such as family, whānau, school, and be able to contribute and make connections with other people.

( Source:

The hallmarks of an outstanding curriculum

An outstanding curriculum:

1. is underpinned by aims, values and purpose

2. develops the whole person - knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes

3. is broad, balanced and has clear progression in subject knowledge and skills (Be sure to define your skills.  For example working collaboratively or skills related to a curriculum area such as historical enquiry skills or skimming and scanning in reading.)

4. is filled with rich first-hand purposeful experiences

5. is flexible and responsive to individual needs and interests

6. embeds the principle of sustainability

7. has an eye on the future and the needs of future citizens

8. encourages the use of environments and expertise beyond the classroom

9.makes meaningful links between areas of knowledge across the curriculum and the major issues of our time

10. has a local, national and international dimension


What makes a great curriculum?

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 "There need be no conflict between teaching a broad, rich curriculum and achieving success in exams. A well-constructed, well-taught curriculum will lead to good results because those results will be a reflection of what pupils have learned"

Amanda Spielman Chief HMI (England)

19: An interview with Sean Harford, Ofsted's National Director of Education

Episode 19 of The Curriculum features an exclusive interview with Sean Harford, recorded at Westminster in May 2018. We took the opportunity to raise some important questions about Ofsted's curriculum work and to gain a sense of what might feature in the new inspection framework.


Curriculum and the new education inspection framework

Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, discusses findings from recent curriculum research, curriculum design and the new education inspection framework. The findings are summarised below.



  • Don’t neglect the non-examinable areas of the curriculum. Too many primary schools devote every morning to literacy and numeracy with all the other subjects jostling for a short slot in the afternoon.
  • No endless SATs practice. This gets a dishonourable mention for many a Year 6 as it’s at the expense of learning new things and experiencing that broad and balanced curriculum.


  • Don’t let maths and English dominate. As with primaries, Ofsted are warning against giving a disproportionate amount of time to maths and English and squeezing out the other subjects. Rather, schools should plan for these vital skills to be taught throughout the curriculum.
  • Do not use GCSE specifications to design Key Stage 3. This effectively means that schools that do this are delivering a five-year Key Stage 4.
  • Don’t start GCSEs in Year 9. Or if you do, be ready to justify why you have narrowed the curriculum a year early.

Ofsted Training Event.

In the Videos below, Heather Fearn, Inspector, Curriculum and Development Lead, shares her thinking on the curriculum: what is taught and why it matters.  There is also some interesting thoughts from Ofsted on Curriculum.  These are based on reflection from their own recent  research.  They are aimed at schools in England, however, some of the issues are relevant to every jurisdiction. 



Heather Fearn, Inspector, Curriculum and Development Lead, shares her thinking on the curriculum: what is taught and why it matters. See our slide packs for ...


Ofsted Curriculum Workshop - Part 1 of 7

Over the past 18 months, Ofsted carried out a curriculum review. We published our findings on GOV.UK -

Ofsted Curriculum Workshop - Part 2 of 7

Over the past 18 months, Ofsted carried out a curriculum review. We published our findings on GOV.UK -

Ofsted Curriculum Workshop - Part 3 of 7

Over the past 18 months, Ofsted carried out a curriculum review. We published our findings on GOV.UK -

Ofsted Curriculum Workshop - Part 5 of 7

Over the past 18 months, Ofsted carried out a curriculum review. We published our findings on GOV.UK -

Ofsted Curriculum Workshop - Part 6 of 7

Over the past 18 months, Ofsted carried out a curriculum review. We published our findings on We held a series of curriculum workshops in Autumn 2018...