Planning your primary school's curriculum

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I have just finished teaching at an outstanding-rated school, which places pride on its high SATS ...

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As the new draft curriculum is published, Suzanne O’Connell asks some good and outstanding schools how they go about crafting the prescribed curriculum to make it right for them

On February 7, the secretary of state for education announced the public consultation on the final draft of the new national curriculum.

In comparison to some of our previous curricula it is quite a light affair. In 1988, following the Education Reform Act, 10 national curriculum documents had provided a very different view of what the curriculum should look like. This very first version was prescriptive, comprehensive and compiled by specialists.

Since 1988 the core framework of the national curriculum has gradually reduced in size. However, the subsidiary guidance to accompany it has increased. The National Literacy Strategy, National Numeracy Strategy and the QCA Schemes of Work all brought a level of detail to the planning process that meant hours of additional work for teachers.

Constrained by these frameworks, some felt that the skill of the teacher as sculptor of a curriculum was gone, replaced by a processing factory where fitting it all into the school day remained the biggest challenge.

Now, 25 years removed from the first model, we witness something very different emerging. The new curriculum bares no resemblance in size or, perhaps, philosophy. The core knowledge of the new draft national curriculum might not be to everyone’s taste but it leaves plenty of professional decision-making in terms of how it must be delivered and how this delivery must be planned.

The government is allowing schools to fill in the detail for themselves and if you are an academy you need not even do that. It could be argued that the only real national curriculum we have now, applying to every state-funded school, is the requirement to offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which:
• Promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society.
• Prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.
However, even academies have their constraints. Schools have to meet the demands of statutory tests and examinations. High accountability through performance tables means that these are perhaps the real drivers of what schools must cover.

Primary schools have, for years, bowed to the demands of the different curricula. What planning framework do schools use to make sense of the content they are told to convey?

The curriculum overview

The long-term plan or overview remains the starting point for all the schools Headteacher Update talked to. However flexible they wish to make the latter stages of planning, there is a consensus that senior leadership needs to have a helicopter view of what is going on across year groups.

Lorna Reynolds, headteacher at Latymer All Saints CE Primary School in Enfield, describes their approach: “Each year group has an overview of the year and of the national curriculum standards that they will cover and the topics that they will teach. These are revisited at the end of the summer term, ready for September.”

At Newton Farm Primary School in Middlesex they have their own curriculum map. Headteacher Rekha Bhakoo explained: “The map is kept constantly under review and if there are changes like the grammar test coming on board in key stage 2 we tailor our planning to ensure that there is coverage of this in the curriculum in all classes, and not just year 6.”

Key features

For medium-term planning several schools favoured the setting of an agreed framework around which more detailed planning could emerge.

For example, at Cracoe and Rylstone CE Primary School in North Yorkshire, every topic has a launch event and a landing. The launch is aimed at stimulating and hooking the children in to the topic and the landing is a final event to bring all the threads and learning together. For example, it might be an assembly or performance where parents are invited in. Between these two events there is flexibility to involve the children and staff in a design focused around a skills-based approach.

The linking together of subjects remains a key intention for many primary schools. The division into subject areas can seem to limit learning and most primary schools are keen to dissolve artificial barriers and find ways of bringing concepts and content from different disciplines together.

In some cases this takes the form of abandoning the timetable for set periods and allowing teachers and their classes to go off-piste.

Developing creativity, stimulating the imagination and finding ways of engaging pupils, parents and community were the common threads of curriculum design and planning for those schools described as outstanding by Ofsted.

Skills, rather than knowledge, remain the main ingredient around which more detailed planning at class level emerges. Pupil involvement, even co-construction, is a key feature for these schools too.


These good and outstanding schools are quite often prepared to allow teachers and children to make decisions within their medium and short-term planning about the direction in which the curriculum should go.

Elaine Hibbert, at Hollin Primary School in Rochdale, was never in favour of too much prescription. She explained: “The QCA schemes of work were deadly and that’s what was being taught when I first came to Hollin Primary.

“The staff sat down together and over a series of weeks constructed the curriculum in consultation with the children. We wanted to know what they liked to do and what helps them learn – we consult regularly with them.”

Most of our schools suggested that planning can be influenced by the preferences and interests of the children and teacher. In some cases community involvement was a key feature, Ms Bhakoo at Newton Farm explained: “We also look at the specific needs of our pupils and community and ensure that the curriculum is relevant and dynamic so that it engages them all.”

However, with this greater flexibility, senior leaders need to keep a close check on coverage, ensuring that the curriculum does not become subject to repetition or omission.

At Latymer All Saints, topics are reviewed each year and may change due to special projects, events or the particular interests of students. However, coverage is not left to chance. Ms Reynolds said: “The curriculum overviews are then checked by the senior leadership team to ensure that across the key stages, the national curriculum standards get appropriate coverage.”

Every school that Headteacher Update talked to where the interests of pupils and teachers were moulding curriculum content, was keen to demonstrate that there was senior leadership involvement in ensuring breadth and balance.

Less is best

Another interesting feature that emerged from our good and outstanding schools was the decreasing emphasis on detailed short-term planning. Schools were keen to point out the need to take account of pupils’ emerging strengths and weaknesses on a daily basis.

For Heidi Conner at Jubilee Park Primary School in Tipton, there must be no compromise between the time spent planning and the focus on learning. She explained: “If we want teachers to spend more time moving learning on in lessons, we have to remove the planning constraints. It should be a response to need without the long carpet periods. Teachers should not work harder than children in lessons and we were finding that this was the case.”

Ms Conner is keen that her staff do not waste time on prescriptive planning.She continued: “I now ask for a simple plan of the journey for the week, misconceptions they might have to work with, and a real focus on questions and activities that provide suitable challenge for all groups. I don’t expect teachers to write down everything they are going to say!”

Andrew Carter, headteacher at South Farnham Community Junior School in Surrey, has a similar approach. He said: “We try to keep planning to a minimum for staff. Staff have a weekly plan on three sides of A4 for all subjects. This is kept on the computer and when they’ve finished the week, they update the plan so that what has worked well is carried forward possibly to be used the next year.”

Planning at the short term level is kept to a minimum at Latymer All Saints. Ms Reynolds continued: “We have weekly plans for maths and literacy completed by each year group and adapted by each teacher for their class or set.

“A weekly overview for foundation subjects is completed with a learning objective and a brief description of the task for each lesson. The amount of time spent on planning is decreasing. Most of our planning is adapted from the year before to suit the class/set. If a new topic is introduced then the year group develops plans for this, ensuring that coverage of the national curriculum standards is still in place.”

The impact of the new curriculum

Reaction from these schools to the new curriculum is pragmatic. Their focus on skills as opposed to content means they will be able to take what’s prescribed and find ways of covering it. That does not mean they are necessarily happy with the new draft, simply that they will find a way of making it work, once again, for their children.

• Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and former primary school headteacher.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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I have just finished teaching at an outstanding-rated school, which places pride on its high SATS results in Year 6. We were expected to write down almost everything we we would say in lessons, and so each week I'd spend 8-10 hours or more on writing plans and getting resources for the following week, totalling about 8 pages of A4 for literacy/topic and 5 pages for numeracy. On top of that, we were required to have at least 4 pieces of evidence in both literacy and numeracy books every week (in a so-called 'Creative Curriculum'). Then they wonder why they have a high turnover of staff.
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