Most English schools are now starting to focus more on the curriculum. One reason for this is Ofsted’s increased interest in exploring what the school is trying to do and how it implements that vision, as well as focusing on the overall outcome. But the sea change is not just driven by Ofsted. It is also a response to the canon of literature that supports the idea of knowledge acquisition as being fundamental to educational success. You need have knowledge in order to use it (Young, 2014). 

So what knowledge should we set out in the curriculum as being that which should be secured and how best do we ensure that pupils learn that knowledge in a way that means they remember it and can use it? These are the fundamental questions and they need to guide the process of curriculum design and delivery.

Agreeing the non-negotiables for the entire school
It is tempting to approach curriculum design entirely from a subject perspective and indeed subjects are very important (Counsell, 2018) and the main engine for change, but preceding the detailed work in subject departments should be a discussion around the vision for the entire school. If you do not have this then in school inconsistency will occur. In a great article for Secondary Ed, (2016), Gerald Haigh reminds us of the work of David Reynolds at NCSL on within school variation (WSV). WSV was 14 times more significant than variation between schools!

So senior leaders need to take the initiative and instigate discussion and debate around the non-negotiables underpinning curriculum design across the school alongside subject and department work. That way you gain some cross school consensus and also have a mechanism for monitoring implementation.

1. What kind of student are we attempting to produce?

This question when posed in school runs the risk of veering into generalised statements but done well it can act as a driver for all that is to come. I suggest that you create 3 statements of one sentence each and cover the following areas:

  • Academic achievement – what are our ambitions around expectations?
  • Global citizenship – what do we want in terms of pupil overlook and behaviours?
  • Enterprise and confidence – what dispositions do we want our pupils to have? We want them to have knowledge but also be able to use it confidently. They need to think for themselves.

These statements help at the subject curriculum design level because they can steer subject thinking and also enable some consistency of approach across the school. Key ideas such as social justice can be captured here as well as entitlement and tolerance.

2. Agreeing the level of expectation we will set

We have come a long way in our understanding of what pupils can achieve. First we thought it was all in the genes (Terman, 1925), then along came the idea of the zone of proximal development (Vigotsky, 1978) so whatever we had in genes could be developed. Then fixed versus flexible mindset (Dweck, 2007) and now Ericsson (2007) indicating that all of us have it in us to be high attainers.

Great schools, whatever the backgrounds of their intake, are always ambitious on behalf of their pupils. But now they are rejecting entirely the notion of the Bell curve where high attainment is seen as a target outcome for only a minority and instead expect it of all pupils regardless of starting point. Whatever level of ambition you set at the whole school level should be reflected in subject curriculum design and if you want a significant uplift in the percentage of pupils attaining highly then you would expect to see a move from some pupils learning at high levels to all pupils learning at high levels with support where needed. This will be explicitly reflected in subject content, sequencing and associated pedagogy.

3. The role of assessment

Despite all the work of Dylan Williams (2011) and others stressing the importance of formative assessment in generating confidence and competence in the subject discipline, many schools are overly test led. This has narrowed horizons and led to a preoccupation with the short term as opposed to viewing curriculum as having dual functions - learning new material and simultaneously building the foundation for the more advanced learning that will come later. You might call this second aspect ‘developing subject expertise’. It is the ability to operate within the rules of the subject.

If you restrict teaching to being primarily focused on what might come in the next test and don’t engage with the wider ideas around the subject then not only will you inhibit growth in the subject discipline, you also disadvantage the test takers. If the question comes up in a slightly unexpected form your pupils will be unable to respond because they have not really mastered the content to a level where they are confident to use it. So a school wide discussion around the role of summative assessments and tests is required. Then agreement as to their position - as a checking mechanism rather than the syllabus.

4. Establishing knowledge in the working memory

Learning knowledge does not in itself lead to expertise in a subject. Pupils also need to learn the rules and conventions of the subject and its technical language. They need to think like a Mathematician or a Historian. It is this repertoire that enables learners to approach new knowledge with confidence and sense where it links with existing knowledge. The earlier this process starts in children’s education, the greater the number of pupils who will achieve mastery of the knowledge.

So, if we want our pupils to not only have knowledge but be able to select when and where to use it then we need to systematically build the techniques that enable this to occur. Again this is an area where you could leave it to individual departments but inconsistency is the likely result.

A better way forward is to adopt an underpinning school-wide approach such as High Performance Learning (Eyre, 2015) which provides a framework for building, within the subject, the competencies that ensure high attainment.

At the subject design stage you should then see each subject actively setting a high level of building subject knowledge and disciplinary skills or ‘tools’.

5. Making sure we secure the basics

Finally, the basics of language and Maths underpin all other educational achievement. It opens the door to new ideas and thinking so it must be the responsibility of all departments to contribute to ensuring everyone has fluency in these areas.

But in curriculum design a focus on securing the basics does not necessarily mean reducing curriculum demand in those areas. It is important to structure your curriculum in the expectation that rapid progress can be made by those who start out with reduced levels of literacy and numeracy. It is not the case that ‘behind now’ means ‘behind always’ – or at least not unless you make it so. Even in the secondary school this should be the maxim.

Again this is a school wide issue but the solution lies within each department. It is not merely a problem for Maths and English. Debate on curriculum design should include how to accelerate the progress of those not yet at ease with the basics without resorting to endless dull catch up sessions which narrow horizons and reduces the chances for social mobility.

Final thoughts

So, senior leaders, as you get into curriculum refresh and redesign don’t just hand over to departments. Start with agreeing the non-negotiable principles that underpin how we approach curriculum design in our school and then hand over to the subject teams to make it a reality in their subject.

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Professor Deborah Eyre, is CEO of High Performance Learning. My thoughts reflect 40 years research into how the most successful learners think and learn and how to structure curricula design to develop those same competencies in all pupils.



Baddeley & Hitch (1974). WORKING MEMORY. Psychology of Learning and Motivation 8, 47-89.

Counsell, C (2018) ‘Taking Curriculum Seriously’ Chartered College of Teaching. September 2018 available at

Dweck, C. S. (2007) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, New York: Random House USA

Ericsson, A. K., Roring, R.W., Nandagopal, K., (2007). ‘Giftedness and evidence for reproducibly superior performance: an account based on the expert performance framework’ in High Ability Studies, 18(1), 5-56.

Eyre, D. (2015) High Performance Learning: How To Become A World Class School. London: Routledge

Haigh, G. (2016) ‘Whatever happened to within school variation?’ SecEd. 03 February 2016. Available at

Terman, L.M., (1925) ‘Genetic studies of genius’. Stanford, C.A : Stanford University Press

Vigotsky, L.S. (1978) ‘Mind and Society,’ Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press

Williams, D. (2011) ‘Embedded Formative Assessment.’ Bloomingto IN: Solution Tree Press:

Young, M., Lambert, D., Roberts, C., Roberts.M (2014) ‘Knowledge and the Future School: Curriculum and Social Justice.’ London: Bloomsbury


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