The new Ofsted framework considers:

Quality of education: Schools need to show they are offering a well thought-out, knowledge-led curriculum and one that also promotes mastery of skills, whilst allowing pupils opportunities. In this category are the three ‘I’s: Intent, Implementation, Impact.

Behaviour and attitudes: A focus on behaviour, conduct and attitudes to their education, attendance and relationships with peers and staff.

Personal development: where the focus is on the curriculum extending beyond the academic and vocational, developing character and preparing them for the wider world of work and modern life in Britain.

Leadership and management, leaders will be judged largely in the same way as they were under the previous framework. Leadership judgement continues to include safeguarding and governance and now also includes a focus on pupil movement.

This blog has been written by Professor Deborah Eyre. Her 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.
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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, as previously, on the result of that effort in terms of student outcomes.

Indeed, becoming an HPL school explicitly helps a school to have a coherent and consistent educational approach that is already focused on all four of the Ofsted categories. It sets out intent, creates an agenda for implementation and secures impact.

However, HPL is not simply responding to the Ofsted agenda. This sea change in how schools approach their work is also a response to the canon of literature that supports the idea of knowledge acquisition and personal attributes as being fundamental to educational and lifetime success. If curriculum is defined as being all the learning opportunities that pupils experience in school then defining the curriculum becomes a core responsibility for the school.

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?

At the same time, how do we use the curriculum to develop the behaviours, attitudes and values that are so crucial to personal development and confidence? A well-ordered classroom, engaged students and the development of values, attitudes and attributes are key to both cognitive success and personal development. They are not a separate agenda. They do not happen somewhere else. By focusing on a curriculum and culture that develops all of this at once the task is both more manageable and more effective.

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

WCV 14 times more significant than variation between schools!

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 or ‘intent’ 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).

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 is at the heart of any good school’s ‘Intent’. Of course, when posed in school it runs the risk of veering into generalised statements but done well it can act as a driver for all that is to come. HPL suggests that your school creates 3 statements of one sentence each and covers the following areas:

  • Academic achievement – what are our ambitions around knowledge and 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.

1These 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.

When planning in subjects occurs the intent statements can help to provide a cross check to ensure that these simple statements are indeed reflected in the design of units, in their sequencing and in any implied pedagogy. 

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.

2Great 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. Of course, whatever level of ambition you set at the whole school level this should be reflected in subject curriculum design and if, like all HPL schools, 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 ambition will be explicitly reflected in all subject content, sequencing and associated pedagogy. It is a non-negotiable.

In practice this means pitching lessons at a high level and helping everyone master the content and skills by making use of the ACPs and VAAs. This involves using minimal differentiation but rather increasing the level of support for some. Also using an intelligent approach to pupil grouping - only setting by performance where deemed necessary and scaffolding learning so lower performing groups are still aiming for the same high level outcomes. An ambitious curriculum that is only applied to a small percentage is not ambitious!

3. What is the curriculum?

At the subject design stage you should therefore see each subject actively setting a high level of demand, building subject knowledge and disciplinary skills and the HPL cognitive competencies.

3Subject knowledge

There is currently a deal of concern in English schools regarding what is meant by a knowledge rich curriculum. At the subject level Ofsted defines knowledge-rich’ approach as one in which curriculum leaders are clear on the “invaluable knowledge they want their pupils to know”. So it means deciding what facts and skills you want to teach in each topic or unit of work and using assessment to ascertain whether they have indeed been learned.

But of course these units do not stand alone, rather they are arranged in a sequence so that knowledge becomes gradually more sophisticated and key concepts and skills are returned to on a regular basis. This process is sometimes called ‘spiral curriculum’ planning. By returning to key ideas they become more embedded. This is particularly important in ensuring that those pupils who are slower to understand or who only learn enough to pass the test do actually have the opportunity to master the knowledge and retain the knowledge taught.

In short, a successful knowledge-rich curriculum should be designed to help pupils remember what they have been taught so that it is permanently lodged in their working memory.

Subject disciplinary skills

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, know what knowledge is useful and in which circumstances. 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.

HPL advanced cognitive competencies (ACPs and VAAs)

High Performance Learning provides an underpinning school-wide approach which provides a framework for building, within the subject, the competencies that ensure high attainment. This approach uses the advanced cognitive performance characteristics (ACPs) and values attitudes and attributes (VAAs) alongside subject knowledge and subject disciplinary skills. Together they create a robust offer. For pupils to achieve competence in the ACPs and VAAs they need frequent and regular opportunities to practice them. So they need to be pro-actively built into the curriculum design alongside knowledge and disciplinary skills.

The ACPs and VAAs provide a language for learning which can be shared across the school but interpreted within the subject. This is not about teaching generic skills, it is about recognising the power of cognition and teaching pupils how to think and behave as a learner in order to gain maximum impact. Some of these ACPs and VAAs are well known and used already and some less so. What is key is that they need to be developed systematically if all pupils are to attain highly.

4. Making effective use of the of assessment

The two main types of assessment, in which students demonstrate knowledge and understanding are, either in an informal and continuous way (formative) or show what has been learned at the end of a set period of time or unit of study (summative). Despite all the work of Dylan Williams (2011) and others stressing the importance of formative assessment (Assessment for Learning) 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.

HPL teachers use formative assessment to gauge current performance, progress and – crucially - the current gap between it and high performance. They then use it to plan next steps. They do not see assessment of individuals as a predictor of long term outcomes, but rather as a snapshot of the current position and an indicator of what needs to be put in place in terms of planning and interventions to close the gap for the group and for individuals.

So when reviewing curriculum design in any subject you would expect to see opportunities for base line assessment (assessing what pupils can do before a unit or topic begins) at the start of new topics and for ongoing formative assessment within the unit, punctuated by formal summative assessment at key points, maybe at the end of a term.

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 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 that narrow horizons and reduce the chances for social mobility.

Subjects should be encouraged to make full use of technical and disciplinary language and not dumb down because some pupils currently have limited literacy or numeracy skills. Equally, the language of cognition, the ACPs and VAAs, are necessary if you want to create precision in thinking and learning.

Final thoughts

Tom Sherrington has written extensively and usefully on the curriculum in his ‘Teacherhead’ blogs. He likens curriculum design to a map and breaks down the curriculum design into three areas:

  • Big picture scale, overarching principles and values – because these ideas inform or dictate the decisions that are taken. Which subjects to teach and with what weighting. What is mandatory and where the choices lie. How to link subjects together into a coherent whole – for what purpose. In the landscape of learning – where should we go? Where should we spend our time?
  • Within subjects, what the fundamental knowledge is – what must be taught and experienced in order to develop a secure representative exploration of the domain; how knowledge in different forms should be sequenced to maximise the depth and breadth of understanding; what knowledge should be taught in order to match the values and aims of the school – and, implicitly or explicitly, what has to be left out, even if it remains out in the hinterland, to be referenced or discovered later.
  • How the curriculum is enacted; the way knowledge is explained, explored and communicated interacts with the knowledge itself; journey and destination are connected.

Using the High Performance Learning framework and its tools and techniques helps senior leaders and classroom specialists undertake a curriculum refresh and redesign with confidence. 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 use these principles and make it a reality in their subject. Better still join us and we will help you become an accredited High Performance Learning school.

Professor Deborah Eyre, is Founder and Chair 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 USAEricsson, 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

Sherrington, T (2019) Mapping curriculum terrain: The beaten track and beyond. JANUARY 13, 2019

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 PressWilliams, 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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