Reviewing and shaping your curriculum

Written by: Lyndsey King | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

When she took up her current post as headteacher, Lyndsey King set about reviewing her school’s curriculum offer. She talks us through the approaches her school took and the lessons learned

Before I began my headship at St Mary and St Thomas’ CE Primary School, I oversaw the school’s curriculum design as assistant headteacher.

When I stepped up to the role of headteacher, I wanted to continue my mission: to develop a curriculum which excites and engages our pupils, and truly equips them with the knowledge and skills needed to enhance their learning and improve their life chances.

Approximately 60 per cent of our pupils receive Pupil Premium funding and most enter school with knowledge and skills considerably below the national average. Because of this, English and maths have always been placed at the heart of our school’s curriculum. As a result, most pupils make accelerated progress and leave school working at the expected level in English and maths, with a proportion working above this.

There is limited time in the school day to cover everything, and we had decided to focus on the core subjects which we felt our pupils needed the most. However, despite our achievements, I felt this was at the expense of a broader and richer curriculum, where pupils could develop their knowledge and skills in subjects such as geography and art.

When I joined Ambition School Leadership’s Future Leaders programme in September 2014, I was given the opportunity to visit several schools with curriculum offers I found inspirational.

The schools had similar intakes to ours, however their innovative curriculum design was wide-ranging in its approach and effectively addressed the needs of the children. The school visits prompted me to reflect on our own curriculum and explore how we could create something similar for our pupils. I decided this would be the focus of my impact initiative.

What does a ‘good’ curriculum look like?

Having recently converted to an academy, I wanted to embrace the additional freedoms around curriculum and create something which was personalised to our school to meet the needs of our pupils. As well as visiting other schools, I spent a lot of time researching different curriculum models. I compared them to our curriculum and noted down any particular strengths that I thought could work in our school. I found it useful to ask myself some initial questions:

  • Is our curriculum fit-for-purpose?
  • Does it meet our pupils’ needs?
  • Is it cutting edge?
  • Does it prepare our learners for the 21st century?

In developing a new curriculum, I wanted to avoid jumping on the latest bandwagon or marching ahead without questioning the rationale behind it and appropriateness for our school’s context. It was also important to me that any changes we made were evidence-based.

I invited staff to complete a curriculum questionnaire to reflect on what they had covered the previous year and where they would like to go next. I included support staff in the discussions so that all staff could share their ideas and vision for the curriculum and I used our parent forum to share our ideas with parents and get their input.

We completed a “Diamond 9” activity using the Teaching and Learning Toolkit (Education and Endowment Foundation). Staff arranged nine different “interventions”, such as collaborative learning, in order of which they believed would have the most impact. Nearly all staff identified social and emotional learning as the most important, so this became a priority for the new curriculum.

Developing a clear (and catchy) vision

After collating and reviewing the discussions and ideas put forward by stakeholders, I worked with colleagues to create a vision for our curriculum, informed by evidence and underpinned by a clear aim and set of principles. We developed a succinct statement which staff, parents and students could talk about easily and, most importantly, that they could remember!

Our Curriculum Aims are:

  • Develop life-skills which promote a love of learning.
  • Grow an understanding of ourselves, each other and the world.
  • Nurture curiosity and creativity which feed the imagination.
  • Cultivate aspiration through motivation and self-belief.
  • Instil resilience, independence and other personal attributes.

We drew up 12 Curriculum Principles, which included: a focus on collaborative and mastery learning, fostering a growth mindset in pupils, developing effective feedback strategies including peer feedback and self-evaluation, developing pupils’ social and emotional skills, and engaging pupils through a shift to project-based learning. Oracy was also placed at the heart of curriculum to ensure pupils are able to express themselves fluently, grammatically and confidently.

After creating our vision, aim and principles, we began to drill down into what the curriculum should look like in terms of knowledge and skills. I was careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the previous year we had done a significant amount of work on producing a progressive set of “key knowledge” for each curriculum area and subject, which we believed would provide the children with a solid foundation for later life. For example, by the end of year 1 in geography, pupils should be able to identify the four countries within the United Kingdom.

Alongside the knowledge strand of the curriculum, I wanted to introduce a set of core skills for pupils to develop. On a school visit, I had come across something called PELTS (personal, learning and thinking skills).

This is a set of skills that pupils develop during their journey through school, such as being an effective participator, team worker, independent enquirer and so on. I felt it was crucial to incorporate something like this as I believe that developing pupils’ skills is as important as developing pupils’ knowledge.

Launching the new curriculum

To roll-out and embed the new curriculum, I made sure we had a regular, open dialogue with pupils and all stakeholders about the changes coming into place, and made sure our vision and principles were visible around the school. We spoke to the school council and conducted whole-school assemblies. At the beginning of the school year we sent out information to parents and discussed it with them during our annual “meet the teacher” event.

We conducted lesson observations to see how pupils were engaging with the new curriculum principles in class and reviewed pupils’ books to assess pupil voice and the impact on grades. We looked for signs of clear progress: what can the children do now that they couldn’t do before? What do the children know that they didn’t before?

During the design of the curriculum we had chosen a number of key performance indicators (KPIs) for each unit of work which became the assessment statements. Each term, we collect and analyse the results so we are able to see which children are on track, or below or above, and adjust the provision accordingly. Subject leaders use this data to feed into their evaluations and action plans for the school improvement plan.

We closely monitor the new curriculum to ensure that it is fit-for-purpose and is doing everything we need it to do. Where things are not working, we have made changes. For example, it became clear that pupils’ PELTS weren’t developing at the same rate as the knowledge element of the curriculum.

When I asked how they had developed their communication skills, pupils were unable to identify any activities or lessons which had specifically concentrated on this. As a result, staff now pay particular attention to developing these skills in their lessons.

The impact

Since implementing the new curriculum, a clear progression of knowledge, skills and understanding is evident. Pupils are also able to talk about their developed skills and knowledge more eloquently. Staff attribute this impact to their lessons becoming much more focused, allowing them to take the subject deeper.

During their recent monitoring morning, governors were particularly impressed by pupil engagement, commenting on how enthusiastically pupils talk about what they’re learning and how it will benefit them in the future.

Importantly, I have received positive feedback from staff, who have said that the new curriculum allows them to plan in a much more creative way. Introducing project-based learning has been particularly successful, as it allows teachers to teach subjects in cohesion rather than isolation. Each project begins with a question.

In year 2 pupils studied The Great Fire of London and the children were asked: “Are we safer now than we were then?” Because the topics transcend individual subjects, children have multiple opportunities to learn about a particular topic across a number of different lessons.

We have also seen a positive impact on workload. By really drilling down into what skills and knowledge we believe are important to suit our children’s needs, staff are covering meaningful content with a common theme as opposed to trying to cover lots of objectives in a range of subjects.


Reflecting on our curriculum journey


I was lucky that all stakeholders were receptive to developing a new curriculum and were on board with the changes we made. I think this is largely because everyone recognised a need for change, but also because we included everyone in the decision-making process, discussed ideas often with staff, parents and pupils, and sought their buy-in every step of the way.

For any leader considering redesigning your curriculum, my advice is to share your vision from the outset, listen to others and ensure that everyone is helping to shape what it will look like. We are lucky to be surrounded by a wealth of creative people in schools – it’s important to make the most of that.

  • Lyndsey King is headteacher at St Mary’s and St Thomas’ CE Primary School in St Helens and a graduate of the Future Leaders programme run by charity Ambition School Leadership.

Ambition School Leadership

Ambition School Leadership is a charity that runs middle and senior leadership development programmes in England to help school leaders create more impact in schools that serve disadvantaged children and their communities. Visit www.ambitionschoolleadership.org.uk


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