By Mary Myatt

Curriculum design can be a daunting and intimidating task for even the most expert subject leader. In this article, Mary Myatt breaks down the fundamentals of curriculum design so Middle and Senior Leaders can approach it with confidence and clarity.

There’s a tendency to want to get things absolutely spot on, so here are some suggestions by way of reassurance:

One: there’s no need to have everything in place for us to get cracking. Sometimes, there’s a reluctance to make a start until all the plans are written up. As long as there’s an overview in place, there’s no need to have all our ducks in a row before we make a start. The likelihood is that we are going to adjust the plans in the light of experience. Beginning, as Churchill said, is half done.

Two: The plans are never more important than the pupils in front of us. There can be a temptation to plough on regardless, even if something isn’t working and if pupils haven’t truly grasped something. The plans are there to support teaching, not dictate it. If pupils are not learning what we intend, we need to adjust. Which leads to:

Three: We need to beware the ‘curse of content coverage’. It can feel as though there is an awful amount to be taught. But if our plans are not underpinned by concepts and big ideas, it is hard for our pupils to make connections. As Stephen Pinker says ‘disconnected facts are like unlinked pages on the web: they might as well not exist’. Ploughing through the content is not a sufficient guarantee that pupils have learnt that content unless they are able to make connections.

Four: Light touch assessments need to gauge whether what we have taught has been learnt. What we teach should be more important than mapping against multiple key performance indicators, which mostly don’t tell us anything and which can affect what we teach in order to turn our pupils ‘green’.

Five: The curriculum is a never-ending story. Lots of colleagues are saying that they are not as far ahead as they would like to be on their curriculum journey. That will always be the case: there will always be something that we want to refine, ditch, add depth to. We need to enjoy the fact that curriculum is never-ending. What we are offering right now is probably good enough and it will take time for it to get better. As Andrew Percival says ‘we need to create a curriculum culture in schools’ which means we relax into the idea that curriculum work is a living, breathing process. There’s more on the free curriculum primary webinar.

Here are some of the things John Tomsett and I found when we spoke to secondary subject leaders about the curriculum in their schools: it can be hard for senior leaders because the terminology to discuss the curriculum can be intimidating; they feel that they don’t know enough about curriculum design; they might not have a thorough knowledge of the subjects they line manage.

These are some of the things we have picked up from conversations with subject leaders: they often feel that they have to reinvent the whole curriculum; they do not always have the resources they need to shape the ideal curriculum they envisage; they are sometimes given unrealistic deadlines for completing curriculum development work by senior leaders who do not know their subjects.

So, we thought it would be a good idea to explore this space. And we did it by having conversations with terrific subject leaders. We argue that the onus is on the senior leaders to make the time and space to get to know the headlines of the subjects they line manage. And to do this, they need the support of subject leaders.

In the sessions we recorded, the subject leaders were asked by John what they expected a student to know, understand and do by the end of key stage 3 if they had experienced a really rich, interesting and demanding curriculum. John then asks them how they get pupils started in Year 7. These are John’s question prompts:

  • With a class of Year 9s in front of you, if you have taught them a rich, challenging curriculum, what does success look like in terms of what those students know, understand, and can do in your subject?
  • If that is your destination, where do you begin in Year 7 and how do you build up to that point?
  • What would you like your senior leader line manager to know about your subject?

And this is what we found:

One: That subject leaders are delighted to have the chance to talk about their subjects: a proper conversation about the ‘stuff’ they plan for their students.

Two: That individual subjects make a unique contribution to learning and all those we spoke to were clear that their subjects add value to lives beyond the formal curriculum.

Three: The subject leaders were clear that key stage 3 was much more than ‘mini key stage 4’ and there are real opportunities here for subjects to treat key stage 3 as the intellectual powerhouse of the secondary phase.

Four: We shouldn’t be intimidated by some of the tremendous teachers and speakers who make us feel this language and understanding is normalised. Only a minority of existing middle leaders have the language being used commonly about curriculum theory and so it needs a steady, pragmatic approach if we are to meet middle leaders where they are.

Five: As Claire Hill says ‘When you think about the vocabulary you use when discussing the curriculum with subject leaders, we need to be sensitive to the individual subject leader’s knowledge levels. It is all too easy to use curriculum-related vocabulary that intimidates colleagues. Across any school or trust there will be a significant variation in terms of where different departments are in understanding how to develop their curriculum. Whilst you might have some common language around core knowledge, hinterland knowledge and disciplinary knowledge etc., how you address that in different subjects varies depending on where that subject is in developing their curriculum.’

In summary:

  • Our subject takes students beyond qualifications – we are educating them for life
  • If the curriculum is so important, then we need time for collaborative curriculum development
  • Developing the curriculum is intellectually rewarding work
  • We are not developing the curriculum for the regulator – we are developing the curriculum for our students
  • The principles of each subject apply to primary and secondary
  • Curriculum development is a never-ending process.

And that’s why we have called our book ‘Huh’ named after the Egyptian god of everlasting things.

You can watch a recording of John and Mary’s webinar here via the free membership.


Mary Myatt is an education adviser, writer and speaker, who has written extensively about leadership, school improvement and the curriculum.

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