Curriculum planning and delivery during a pandemic

Written by: Lekha Sharma | Published:
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Curriculum planning and delivery at a time of such disruption to education is challenging to say the least. Lekha Sharma considers how primary schools can plan ahead and prepare their curriculum for the rest of 2021 and beyond…

I hope that this article offers you some practical ways in which you can steer and adapt your school’s curriculum during current the challenges we face.

However, before I begin, I would like to say that the work that leaders have done in schools during this global pandemic has been utterly phenomenal. Be confident in the knowledge that your leadership and direction is, for many, the comforting clarity in an uncertain, misty fog. Bravo headteachers – you truly are an inspiration!

So, below I focus on curriculum design and delivery in the context of the pandemic and will try to offer you some specific guidance, while compartmentalising the many challenges you will face as a school leader beyond this.

Benjamin Franklin said: “Success is the residue of planning.” And although we know things don’t always go to plan (more so now than ever) we can strategically plan in a way that considers today as well as logically paving the way for tomorrow.

I call this process “informed crystal-balling”. It is the notion that rather than simply “predicting” the evolution of your curriculum, you forge clear potential avenues that all prioritise the same end-goal – high-quality teaching and learning for all our pupils. That, after all, is at the very heart of what we hope to achieve in our schools.

By engaging in forward-planning and carving out these potential contingencies for what shape your curriculum might have to take in the coming months, we can avoid knee-jerk reactions.

Ultimately, we must prioritise a strategic, simplistic approach to curriculum delivery that is bespoke to our pupils and our schools.

Back-to-the-future thinking

The global pandemic has been all-consuming – it has consumed the headlines, our means of connection and of course “schooling” in the traditional sense.

In the context of schools, it is admittedly incredibly difficult as a leader to reconcile the current “normal” with any subsequent “normal” that may follow. Things are changing so fast and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

However, herein lies an opportunity to employ “back-to-the-future” thinking: fast-forward into the “future” at your school – perhaps Easter, or perhaps the end of the academic year – and reflect upon/discuss the following questions:

  • Are the pupils and the school community safe (both mind and body)? How have you achieved this?
  • Where does your curriculum stand and how far off the intended path have you veered during past few months?
  • What are now the key barriers we face in “kick-starting” our school curriculum and ensuring that pupils are knowing more, doing more and remembering more?
  • What do we need to streamline to make this happen? (If it isn’t contributing to your overall aim – cut it out).
  • What are the key strengths we can lean on to accelerate our progress towards that ultimate goal?

With every potential model you have in place, consider what this will look like “on the ground”. What will each strategic plan translate to in a living, breathing classroom?

Only once we have considered this can we ensure that the model aligns with our strategic direction while also being practicable. Remember, as Brian Tracy said: “Every minute you spend in planning, saves 10 minutes in execution; this gives you a 1000 per cent return on energy.”

And I think I speak for all leaders in schools right now, when I say that energy is something we would quite like to save.

Contingency curriculum planning

In the world of engineering, “fail-safes” are employed to ensure that when things go wrong there is a plan in place that ensures minimal damage to equipment, the environment and people. I argue that a fail-safe approach is the way forward in terms of curriculum planning too.

Once we have an established and clearly defined idea of our priorities in terms of curriculum delivery, we can then design ways in which outcomes can be achieved (within reason) regardless of shifting extraneous variables.

Of course, this all sounds well and good and is easy to say – to have contingencies in place – but what does this actually look like?

I would try having a one-page matrix that summarises key and very brief bullet points for the various potential situations we may find ourselves facing in the coming months. We can then make “tweaks” to these plans in response to the changing bigger picture, while still ensuring that the common desired curriculum outcomes remain our focus.

For example, if before the pandemic, “reading” was your dragon to slay, you may wish to consider ways to tackle this in the various scenarios that we may face: an extended lockdown, full re-opening in March, a fourth national lockdown and so on.

Popping a timeline over the top of the matrix will enable you to methodically ensure that the important stuff is not falling by the wayside, but that responses to the current situation are measured, aligned to your school and focused on what the pupils need to make progress.

Keep your ‘why’ fixed in a ‘sea of change’

At the heart of this is having a clearly defined purpose and secure curriculum priorities. If these can remain fixed in a sea of change, you can chip away at these priorities regardless of the way the tide turns.

The global pandemic has indeed been a testing and difficult time but the sheer ingenuity and creativity of the teaching profession in responding to these challenges has been overwhelming.

In this vein, I encourage you to not to be afraid to employ innovative solutions to achieve your priorities as a school. The loss of learning that will have inevitably led to gaps in knowledge and understanding for our pupils is something we must tackle head on. Remember Plato: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Think big and small

As I have said, strategic decisions need to be aligned with what is practicable and translatable in classrooms. Having an ambitious and challenging curriculum for all pupils is crucial, but the implementation of this is just as important as your ultimate curriculum aims. This is, undoubtedly, a very challenging balance to strike and much easier said than done.

I like to think of it as a jigsaw puzzle – endeavouring to maintain the bigger picture while still paying attention to the component jigsaw pieces. Even if one piece is missing – the picture is incomplete.

So consult with your team, consult with teachers, consult with support staff. Make sure all the pieces of the puzzle fit together. Big picture thinking, but done with a collaborative approach and paying attention to the finer details, can be a winning combination.

Teachers know best

In your endeavour to craft your “bigger picture” – speak to teachers. They are the experts in terms of what pupils have and have not mastered and will therefore have invaluable information about how the curriculum needs to be tweaked going forward, considering the gaps that will inevitably have emerged.

Have whole staff “think-tank” style CPD sessions that involve candid conversations about what needs to be done to secure key knowledge and learning ahead of full school re-opening, ahead of the summer term and also the new academic year in September. These conversations will be vital in mapping your path.

This all comes with a slight word of caution – don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. Good teaching and sound pedagogy will remain good teaching and sound pedagogy. Make these concretes your “core business” and maintain this collective focus.

Curriculum planning can be incredibly challenging, particularly during these unusual times, so go easy, focus on high-quality teaching, lead with compassion and empathy, and maintain focus on achieving the best possible outcomes for all the pupils you serve.

  • Lekha Sharma is the vice-principal for quality of education at a primary school in south London. She is a blogger, Tes columnist and a post-graduate student at Oxford University studying learning and teaching. She is the author of Curriculum to Classroom: A handbook to prompt thinking around primary curriculum design and delivery (John Catt Educational, 2020, £12). Visit

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