The curriculum & Ofsted: Sequencing and structure with purpose

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Curriculum is now at the heart of Ofsted inspection, but does this mean all knowledge and no joy? Suzanne O’Connell meets two schools to find out how they created a curriculum to enthuse pupils while also satisfying inspectors

At the heart of the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) is the “quality of education” judgement and the concept of “intent, implementation and impact” (Ofsted, 2019a).

Reading Ofsted reports, you are struck by the references to sequencing and structure. It is clear – Ofsted expect nothing to be left to chance.

Subject leaders must know their subject and where each aspect of the national curriculum is being taught. Schools must demonstrate exactly where they want their children to get to, and this must be ambitious.

Ofsted’s guidance Inspecting the curriculum (2019b) states: “Leaders and teachers design, structure and sequence a curriculum, which is then implemented through classroom teaching. The end result of a good, well-taught curriculum is that pupils know more and are able to do more. The positive results of pupils’ learning can then be seen in the standards they achieve. The EIF starts from the understanding that all of these steps are connected.”

For many schools, all that’s been needed is to adapt the Ofsted vocabulary to their existing curriculum and make appropriate tweaks.

Knavesmire Primary School

Knavesmire Primary in York was judged outstanding during its full Ofsted inspection in November. Inspectors said: “Leaders give pupils a wonderful primary school experience. By the time they leave year 6 they are very well prepared for secondary school.

“The curriculum is exciting, packed full of interesting knowledge and has a purpose. ‘The Big Idea’ concept takes pupils on a journey of discovery, challenge and ultimately to an end-point where they can show off what they have learned.

“Nothing is left to chance in the curriculum. Knowledge has been successfully organised into year groups. For example, in geography, children in early years learn about the classroom and playground environment.

“In year 1, pupils use the forest school provision. As pupils then move through the school they study the human and physical geography of the local area before learning all about York city centre in year 6. This helps pupils to accumulate knowledge over time. The high-quality curriculum and the expert way in which teachers implement it leads to exceptional achievement for pupils at school.”

The Big Idea is the glue that binds the Knavesmire curriculum together and gives it the excitement and meaning that inspectors saw on their visit.

Headteacher Adam Cooper explained: “Every unit has an end goal which is the Guiding Purpose. It might be a presentation for parents or a debate on Guy Fawkes.

“Each subject is relevant to the Big Idea question. From there pupils and teachers design their Learning Journey and ask: ‘How do we answer this question? What do we need to know?’. Asking these questions helps clarify what the children already know and what they need to learn.”

Middlewich Primary School

Middlewich Primary in Cheshire was also inspected in November and was judged “good” by Ofsted. The report states: “Leaders have designed an ambitious curriculum for pupils. They have successfully identified the knowledge that they want pupils, including children in the early years, to learn.

“New knowledge is presented in a well-ordered and logical way. As a result of a carefully designed curriculum, most pupils make secure links between the different subjects and topics that they study. Added to this, teachers make sure that pupils get plentiful opportunities to revisit previous learning.”

Middlewich has “threads” that run through the curriculum, bringing it all together. Headteachers Sandra LaPorta and Gemma Reynolds explained: “We have threads of knowledge that run through each subject. So, for example, in history you have got sources of evidence and it’s important to track how this thread appears for each age group through the curriculum.”

Starting points

Although Middlewich had a curriculum in place, a year of high staff turnover meant that they had to ensure everyone understood what the curriculum entitlement was. Three staff INSET days over the summer helped to secure this.

“We had seven new teachers starting in September,” explained Ms LaPorta. “This meant that we needed to revisit our planning and ensure that everyone was very clear about its purpose and structure.”

She had been involved in work with Ofsted that meant she had already had opportunity to reflect on the curriculum, its foundation and the sources of information and support that can help it flourish: “These discussions with others about the curriculum have been very useful as we were evaluating and reforming what we already had in place.”

Knavesmire’s last Ofsted had been in 2007 with an interim inspection in 2011. Mr Cooper had worked at several other schools prior to becoming deputy headteacher at Knavesmire and this gave him a broad view of different approaches to the curriculum from which he took “the best bits”.

With an outstanding judgement in the bag, it could have been easy to have taken their foot off the pedal: “Our attention has always focused on ensuring that the curriculum grows, develops, and continues to improve. We ask different people for their opinions. We want to check – do they see it in the way that we do? Is it impactful?”


Both Knavesmire and Middlewich have a values-led curriculum. Knavesmire has designed 21 different values that have been chosen through engagement with pupils, staff and other stakeholders.

On its website you can see expressed the school’s aims, characters (these values), and a list of 50 things that students will do while they study there (link below).

Middlewich Primary meanwhile has developed the five core principles of: children, learning, quality, team-work, and continuous improvement. On its website pupils from each year group are quoted giving their impressions of each subject and the importance of enthusiasm and motivation are included on the curriculum home page (link below).

Personal development is a key factor for Middlewich with enrichment activities that pupils described as being useful for them in their future lives. Personal development awards and the Equality Pledge are all ways in which this aspect of school life is made to count.

Mr Cooper emphasises that personal development is not an add-on but intrinsic to the educational offer at Knavesmire: “By prioritising personal development, we are actually leading to a high quality of education.”

Sequence and structure

What is key is that inspectors can see the clear progression of ideas and the building of subject knowledge in a structured way across year groups. This is clearly demonstrated by Middlewich Primary on its website. Parents are invited to see how the content for each year group builds upon that taught previously.

At Knavesmire, “knowledge is a key pillar,” Mr Cooper said, “but it’s the way that we implement the curriculum that is vital.”

This implementation incorporates the opportunity to be flexible. Pupils help to define the learning journeys and have genuine choices on the form they take.

Some content is guaranteed, as Ofsted would require it to be, but the way this is delivered as the Big Idea is more flexible.

Mr Cooper added: “You can keep your eye on what must be taught while also allowing flexibility in the content that is being used to deliver it.”

On the school’s website you can see how each subject has its own map of knowledge sequencing. Against each subject, the intent is clearly identified along with the substantive and disciplinary knowledge to be delivered for each year group.

“The curriculum must be purposeful,” said Mr Cooper. “What’s the point if what you’re doing isn’t going to be useful for you in the future?”

Curriculum leaders

Since September 2022, Middlewich has had a dedicated curriculum leader and each subject leader gave a presentation during their three INSET days. This proved to be very useful and ensured a strong foundation and shared understanding among new and existing staff as they moved into the new school year.

The headteachers are keen to emphasise the importance of CPD: “It isn’t just about planned, specific times but the constant sharing of information and good practice,” Ms LaPorta explained.

Ofsted’s subject reviews are an important source of information although Ms LaPorta warns that they do require careful reading: “It is important to be reflective about your delivery and checking on impact. By now schools should be clear about intent.”

Knavesmire’s subject leaders work in teams and are accountable: “They have clear knowledge of their curriculum area and are the experts,” explained Mr Cooper.

“They know that they can join a lesson anywhere in the school and ask ‘where does this lesson fit in your learning journey?’ Pupils should be able to make links not only with previous learning in this subject but also across subjects.”

For those expecting an inspection, Ms LaPorta advises that if you are doing your best for the school you shouldn’t need to worry about Ofsted: “Each team is different but be open and honest and try not to see them as the enemy. If your subject leaders are confident in their knowledge, then this will work its way through your whole school community.”

Mr Cooper, meanwhile, summarises his top tips for primary schools for developing your curriculum:

  • Build the curriculum around knowledge with a fully immersed approach to personal development.
  • Absolutely own it, including your pedagogical choices.
  • Listen, research and know why.
  • Be brave, authentic, purposeful, engaging and values-led in all decisions.
  • Sing from the same songsheet.

For both Knavesmire and Middlewich, simplicity and consistency across the curriculum are key. They have both developed their own framework and maintained a passionate approach that they have true ownership of. 

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

Headteacher Update Podcast: Ofsted Inspection

This episode of the Headteacher Update Podcast from September 2022 tackles Ofsted school inspections, offering practical advice, tips and anecdotes for primary schools to help you thrive when the inspectors come calling. Featuring two experienced headteachers, we offer a range of insights and tips across all aspects of primary school inspection, including deep dives and curriculum. Listen for free via

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