Curriculum design: Waiting for the Sunrise

Written by: Nicola Bray | Published:
Bright futures: The Sunrise Curriculum at St Mary’s has been created to meet Ofsted’s new ‘intent, implementation, impact’ criteria; the curriculum logo is pictured below

In light of the new Education Inspection Framework, St Mary’s CE School has created the Sunrise Curriculum. Headteacher Nicola Bray describes their journey of curriculum design and development

St Mary’s CE School is an average sized primary in the heart of Cornwall, rated outstanding by Ofsted in 2014. The school had high results and a strong curriculum, but with the introduction of the new Education Inspection Framework (EIF), we felt that it was time to be “bold and brave” – as chief inspector Amanda Spielman has urged (Headteacher Update, April 2018) – and decided that we wanted a curriculum that was matched to our children’s and families’ needs as well as our location and environment.

The decision to write our own curriculum was not taken lightly. The leadership team spent six months researching different curriculum design before anything was changed at school. We followed Ofsted’s three phases of curriculum research (Ofsted, 2019), visited other schools and attended national training events. The Education Endowment Foundation’s implementation guidance was also very useful and gave guidance on how to prepare, deliver and sustain change (see further information).

Our curriculum needed to have a Christian underpinning and be supportive of the Church of England’s vision for education as well as reflecting our motto “Active Children, Active Minds”. As a forward-thinking school, allowing children to steer the direction of their learning through interests and aspirations was key. Further to this, engaging staff, capitalising on their interests and skills, we aimed to strengthen pedagogy.

Once we had identified these attributes we began to discuss what we as leaders intended our pupils to learn (from the EIF’s intent, implementation and impact criteria).

Intent at St Mary’s

We viewed our intent as coming under four headings which incorporated some of the key judgement headings from the new EIF and core principles from the Church of England vision for education. They were Quality of Education, Behaviour and Attitudes, Hope and Aspirations, and Personal Development. This helped us to focus our thinking and to ensure that our curriculum was:

  • Ambitious for all pupils.
  • Providing opportunities to develop cultural capital.
  • Coherently planned and sequenced.
  • Successfully adapted, designed and developed for pupils with SEND.
  • Broad and balanced for all pupils.

A new dawn

Personalising our curriculum was a vital part of the redevelopment process, with all stakeholders invested in the vision. A great deal of debate came about when deciding a name for the curriculum. Following many weeks of indecision, a spectacular sunrise on an early morning train journey to London inspired leaders to name it “The Sunrise Curriculum”.

This felt like the perfect name to reflect the curriculum’s intent. Children suggested that a sunrise brought to mind “new beginnings, positivity, happiness, fresh starts, aspirations and hopes and dreams”.

The design of our logo (pictured above) also includes a biblical reference to psalm 113:3: “From the rising to the setting of the sun, the name of the Lord is to be praised.”

Implementation at St Mary’s

In the first instance, the new curriculum delivery was trialled in senior leaders’ classrooms. This enabled us to iron out any initial problems before the rest of the school embarked on their first curriculum unit. Staff wellbeing and workload were also considered and new initiatives were introduced:

  • INSET training was run for all staff by a consultant who focused on mental health and stress management.
  • A new mathematics scheme was introduced which reduced the amount of time teachers were spending creating maths resources.
  • “Blue-sky” planning days were also introduced giving staff the opportunity to plan off-site to investigate inspiring and exciting places for children to visit.

It was important to ensure our curriculum provided opportunities to develop academic success, which is reflected in our on-going high standards of attainment. However, we also appreciate that success can be measured in an array of non-academic ways.

Linked to the Church of England’s vision for education and the recognition of “educating for life in all its fullness” and the Department for Education’s 2018 Activity Passports (see further information), the staff and all stakeholders designed the “Top 10 things to do before you leave St Mary’s”.

This included a list of key activities we wanted all children to have experienced before they left us to move on to secondary school – activities such as opportunities for courageous advocacy, impacting on local and global causes, learning to be sea safe, learning outdoors and celebrating nature.

Senior leaders produced a series of progression documents, mapping out which areas of the national curriculum for each subject would be covered in each year group. Teachers use these documents to ensure that they have coverage and progression of all the key skills and knowledge required.

The curriculum in action

Each topic is launched with an “un-Google-able” question, such as: “What does our world need from us?” or “What’s more amazing – fact or fiction?” Topics were changed from half-termly to termly to ensure subjects are visited in enough depth. Dazzle days remained and all topics were finished with a real-life end. For example, as part of year 5’s Mayans topic pupils visited a chocolate factory, designed and printed their own chocolate bar labels and sold the products at a school event.

Children’s work was evidenced in newly organised topic books and shared with parents on the class blog. Key topic vocabulary sheets were also introduced to ensure that all children had the language and vocabulary to access the full curriculum.

Pre-teaching sessions were held for those children (Pupil Premium/SEN) who may need support accessing some of the technical language. This has enabled all children to take a full and active part in all areas of the curriculum and not be disadvantaged by any barriers to learning.

Impact at St Mary’s

There is a real buzz and sense of excitement around school. Staff are excited about what they are teaching and are enjoying opportunities to research developments in their subject areas. Work in topic books is of a high standard and children are really proud to share them at organised “Topic Talk Time” sessions.

Having an open classroom once per term, parents attend and spend time with their child finding out about their learning while also being able to ask questions about the upcoming topic. The success of these sessions is evident through increased levels of parental engagement. They also provide children with an additional opportunity to embed knowledge into their long-term memory. In a recent survey, 96 per cent of parents said that their child is enjoying the new curriculum.

Taking action in your school

At the beginning of our journey, we attended some curriculum training. The course leader shared a really powerful anecdote which has been in my mind throughout the process. He showed a picture of Renoir’s painting The Umbrellas and described how this great masterpiece was painted in several phases, taking more than five years to perfect. I expect that, even then, Renoir felt he could have improved on it further.

Renoir spent many years researching the work of other great artists and discussing ideas until eventually he reworked the figure in the forefront of the painting in a more classical linear style.

It really helped me to realise the importance of taking time to research and explore ideas until you find what works for your school. This journey takes time and schools need to be open to change and flexibility.

Small steps

Designing a new curriculum or developing an existing one is a huge job. Below are just a few suggestions for places to start:

  • Hold some Aspiration Assemblies and invite members of the school community to share what it is like to do their job.
  • Develop a list of subject-specific vocabulary to be learned and used for each topic.
  • Develop a system for tracking children’s acquisition of knowledge.
  • Allocate time for staff to research their subjects and related pedagogy.
  • Invest in a variety of subject-specific reading materials for classrooms (National Geographic, New Scientist, Aquila). 


  • Nicola Bray is headteacher of St Mary’s CE School in Truro, Cornwall.

Further information & resources


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