The curriculum is back

Or Auditing and developing the curriculum

Ofsted has recently announced that its proposed new inspection framework will place much greater emphasis on the curriculum, its intent, implementation and impact. This is in line with a renewed interest in the curriculum and parallel concerns that the curriculum is becoming too narrow: two recent surveys commissioned by GL Assessment highlighted this very clearly.

Over three-quarters of teachers (76%) and three-fifths of parents (60%) surveyed believed that schools have offered a more restricted curriculum from an earlier age over the past three years than they did previously, with large majorities (92% of teachers and 76% of parents) saying the pressure placed on schools to deliver good exam results is to blame.

Clear and coherent thinking about the curriculum and the three aspects of development outlined by Ofsted is challenging. But so it should be. Thinking about the curriculum requires a deep look at student need and at school ethos and aims.

Affinity absolutely supports the change in focus suggested by Ofsted and thinks the new emphasis can only improve the way schools support children and young people to develop.

The Ofsted Framework

The three Ofsted framed areas to consider are:

  • Intent: What are we intending to achieve through the curriculum and why?

  • Implementation: How are we intending to achieve our curriculum aims in the most efficient and effective way?

  • Impact: How will we know if we have achieved our curriculum aims?

At Affinity, we see the key process to do this as follows:

Thinking more about the curriculum

The Scottish National Government has a really helpful definition of the curriculum on its website. It describes the curriculum as ‘the totality of experiences which are planned for children and young people through their education, wherever they are being educated. It includes the ethos and life of the school as a community; curriculum areas and subjects; interdisciplinary learning; and opportunities for personal achievement.’ This is a call to ensure a proper breadth and depth of curriculum planning.

This call is in accord with the traditional taxonomy of:

  • Core and optional subject curriculum – captured in the daily timetable

  • Extra curriculum – offered outside the compulsory school day: evenings, weekends, holidays

  • Hidden curriculum – the learning gained from the school ethos, both planned and unplanned

All need to be considered.

Curriculum Intent

It should become quickly apparent that any discussion of curriculum intent begins with the school mission. In fact, we would argue, it begins one stage further back, with the identification of community need and characteristics. These should always influence the school mission profoundly, along with the ethos derived from school heritage, values and experience. As need and ethos determine mission, the aims of the curriculum flow from mission.

In practice, intent will need to be tempered by practical and legal considerations. It will also be informed by curriculum principles as well as aims. Whereas aims are an outline of the desired impact of the curriculum, principles are an outline of the framework for the curriculum that will make the aims most likely to be achieved. Much has helpfully been written about aims and principles. We recommend using this as a starting point for shaping the conclusions about intent that arise from identifying need and defining ethos.

Identifying Need

Student needs are most obviously educational, but also include their social, spiritual, physical and psychological needs. These will be known by looking at:

  • Educational performance, both input and output

  • Community characteristics, including student home challenges, both economic and educational

  • Health information

  • Student demographics, including SEND need

Ethos and mission

A school must be clear about its mission for the young people in its care. To care for a child for a significant part of five to seven years is a great responsibility and must not be entered into lightly. It is also an amazing opportunity. How will it be used? What is the aim for young people after their time is finished with the school? How will they be equipped for what comes next? A collective agreement and understanding about mission will produce a more unified and focused school.

School ethos captures the values, beliefs and morals that underpin the school’s mission. A Church school may, for example, wish to place faith as a core value within its ethos and explicitly interpret and reference the teachings of the New Testament within its moral code. Other starting points might be a shared understanding of the value of each child as equally important and/or the importance of learning for its own sake. Just as a faith school may start with scripture, so there is great sense in other schools looking at what others have concluded.

Curriculum Aims

Rightly, the new expectation appears to be that different schools will arrive at different conclusions about aims. We have already seen why that might be. Nevertheless, there are some excellent suggestions for general starting points.

Dylan William suggests the aims of schooling, and thus the curriculum, to be:

  • cultural transmission

  • preparation for citizenship

  • preparation for work

  • personal empowerment

to which we would wish to add:

  • promotion of good mental and physical health

A more recent suggestion has been made by Margaret White’s book, A Good Education. White’s experience has been in the independent sector, where there has been more curriculum freedom over the last few decades, but which is not immune to the tendency to prioritise a particular understanding of academic success. Her book starts from a recognition of the importance of each individual within a community. Her aims of education and thus of the curriculum are based on four values. Each pupil is:

  • inherently precious

  • uniquely gifted

  • mutually dependent

  • continually learning

This produces four corresponding outcomes that the curriculum should be designed to achieve:

  • experience of success – excellence

  • variety of achievement – breadth

  • good study habits – depth

  • love of learning – length

The proposed new Welsh curriculum states its aims as to produce:

  • ambitious, capable learners, ready to learn throughout their lives

  • enterprising, creative contributors, ready to play a full part in life and work

  • ethical, informed citizens of Wales and the world

  • healthy, confident individuals, ready to lead fulfilling lives as valued members of society.

More simply, the English National Curriculum identifies the two broad aims already outlined above:

  • to promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society

  • to prepare pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life

Whatever the starting point and finishing points, the need to decide curriculum aims is an important opportunity to have a practical discussion which, nevertheless, gets to the heart of why we all do the job.

Curriculum Framework

We have already categorised the curriculum into three, with the framework of each aspect requiring consideration. The framework for the core curriculum tends to be dictated externally, with most schools making decisions of detail only. For a secondary school, this may amount to no more than what to teach within PSHCE/tutor time and which options will likely deliver success within the third EBACC bucket. For a primary school it may be how much time to devote to the national curriculum subjects and what topics will be most engaging as vehicles for the non-core teaching.

There may be an opportunity now to revisit the bigger question of the overarching framework adopted to deliver the chosen aims. As mentioned, the Welsh government is currently consulting on a new curriculum which emphasises the need for breadth and adopts a framework based on domains or Areas of Learning and Experience:

  • Expressive arts.

  • Health and well-being.

  • Humanities (including RE which should remain compulsory to age 16).

  • Languages, literacy and communication (including Welsh, which should remain compulsory to age 16, and modern foreign languages).

  • Mathematics and numeracy.

  • Science and technology.

It will also include three cross-curricular responsibilities: literacy, numeracy and digital competence.

Another way of thinking about frameworks is to have a checklist of desirable curriculum features, preceded, one would hope, by a vigorous debate about which are most important. To quote Dylan Wiliam again, he describes these criteria as principles and suggests six for discussion: balance; rigour; coherence; vertical integration; appropriateness; focus. It can be seen straightaway how these would encompass much of what we have outlined above. For example, a balanced curriculum will expose pupils to different subject domains; a curriculum that flows clearly out of the school’s mission will be focused and appropriate.


The renewed emphasis on the curriculum is refreshing and will allow a wider range of knowledge and achievement to be encouraged and recognised. It is an opportunity for schools to have a valuable debate on what this range should be. The planning for this needs to begin as soon as possible. External facilitation is one option that some schools may find very useful. If this is your school, Affinity can help.

References and sources

Principled Curriculum Design, Dylan Wiliam, SSAT 2013

A Good Education, Margaret White, Routledge, 2018

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