What leaders need to know about the curriculum

This post, a follow on from previous in the same vein on cultural leadership and impact, aims to identify the knowledge needed by leaders to lead the curriculum. This knowledge is important because it contributes to leaders’ mental models – what they know and how it informs meaningful action.

National curriculum requirements

The national curriculum sets out the purpose of study, the aims and the content of each subject. Each subject’s content is split by key stage because the content should be taught by the end of the key stage. That said, the KS2 English curriculum has a recommended split by phase (Y3/4 and Y5/6) and the maths / science curricula have a recommended split by year group. Leaders are free to arrange the curriculum within a key stage to best suit their needs.

The core subjects (English, maths and science) have statutory requirements supplemented by non statutory notes and guidance.

Implications for the school leader’s mental model

Thorough knowledge of the national curriculum requirements enables leaders to make better deliberate choices about their curriculum offer and to be more discerning in the selection of published materials.

Models of curriculum thinking

Dylan Wiliam (quoting Bauersfield, 1979) popularised the idea that the curriculum can be thought of at three levels: the intended curriculum, the enacted curriculum and the achieved curriculum.

The intended curriculum is what leaders plan to be taught and is essentially the national curriculum. However, the national curriculum (for particularly the foundation subjects) needs more specification and leaders should be very clear about what exactly should be taught in each subject.

This is not an easy task and is the reason why many leaders rely on publishers to translate the national curriculum into meaningful blocks of work that teachers might use to teach from. This dissociation from the national curriculum may be all that leaders and teachers know so leaders should be well acquainted with the national curriculum in order to make good decisions about what is taught.

The enacted curriculum is what actually gets taught. A challenge for school leaders is to ensure that there is no difference between what is intended and what is enacted but there are a number of barriers that leaders must be aware of and mitigate against:


It is rather difficult to timetable all of the subject content and with the many competing priorities for teachers, just as difficult to stick to a planned timetable. Leaders need to accept this and take measures when designing the curriculum and when quality assuring the provision that intended content is actually being taught.


Primary class teachers are expected to be able to teach every subject and doing so well requires adequate subject knowledge. There is always a risk of some subjects not being taught if a teacher is less confident in teaching a subject or a topic – we all have our biases and our preferences.

Subject knowledge

Even when all subjects are taught, a lack of confidence can mean that the content is not explained as effectively as possible. A lack of confidence can often stem from insufficient subject knowledge. Both scenarios demonstrate the need for high quality subject knowledge CPD for every subject.


We all need to experience success in order to feel motivated and we’ll all have subjects that we need to work harder at teaching because of what we already and don’t yet know. If we’re not experiencing success in teaching a certain subject, it is quite possible for that subject to miss out when there is competition for time. Some motivation comes externally though. If leaders hold particular subjects in high esteem, this will more likely drive full enactment of it. Similarly, if there is high level of checking of a particular subject, it would be more likely to be enacted. Both of these can serve to motivate enactment.

Finally, the achieved curriculum is what is actually learned by children. You’ll have noticed that in the references to the national curriculum above, it is about teaching it, not children learning it. For leaders to understand what some content is intended, enacted but not learned, they need to know what learning is. I think that Kirchner, Sweller and Clark’s definition of learning as a change in long term memory is useful and it requires leaders to understand how memory works.

Leaders should also know what learning is not. Here’s Robert Bjork talking about the distinction between learning and performance.

Robert Coe takes this idea and identifies performance as poor proxies for learning; seeing the following things happen might be desirable but they do not reliably indicate that anything has been learned:

In addition to knowing the difference between learning and performance and accepting that not all that gets taught is learned, it is useful for leaders to know about forgetting. Ebbinghaus’ forgetting curve demonstrates the rate at which new information is forgotten over a period of time and demonstrates the need for multiple interactions with subject content to give children the best chance of learning it.

Implications for the school leader’s mental model

Setting out clear curricular goals and understanding the barriers to enacting them enables leaders to mitigate against them, including subject knowledge development training. Understanding that not all that is taught gets learned prompts more effective curriculum design prevent mistaking performing for learning – leaders can make better choices about spacing and other desirable difficulties to create a curriculum to be remembered, not just a curriculum to be taught.

Schema development

Leaders will need to know the merits and drawbacks of a cross curricular, topic based approach as opposed to a subject discipline approach. A topic based approach can provide full immersion in a range of content from different subjects and help children to see links between different subjects, developing a complex schema. The risk, however, is losing the aspects of each subject that make them unique. Also, blocking all related content can mean disregarding the spacing effect, giving the illusion of learning through familiarity and performance.

A subject specific approach can preserve the unique nature of each subject and allow children to see that nature clearly, giving them a better understanding of each. The risk, however, is children seeing subjects as disconnected silos. I’d suggest a measured approach that retains subject disciplines but makes connections where they are appropriate. These can be at the same time of year (for example studying Egyptian history and Egyptian art at the same time of year. However, in order to provide multiple interactions, spaced over a key stage, it might be more prudent to split them by a term or more. Our reading curriculum provides the opportunity to read Letters from the Lighthouse in Y5 before studying aspects of WWII in Y6. Who’s to say that’s the right way around or indeed effective at all? We do know that children arrive at the WWII unit with some prior knowledge from the novel though.

Implications for the school leader’s mental model

Having a clear idea of the choices that we have as leaders for what gets taught and where, and whether it is topic based or not will help us to make better decisions on content and how it is sequenced, protecting us from the ‘We’ve always taught X in Y3,’ thought trap.

Substantive and disciplinary knowledge

There is more to a subject than the information, facts and concepts that are taught and learned. These things are substantive knowledge. Each subject also has disciplinary knowledge and Christine Counsell definers it thus:

Disciplinary knowledge…is…what pupils learn about how (substantive) knowledge was established, its degree of certainty and how it continues to be revised by scholars, artists or professional practice.


Now this is great for secondary phase departments full of subject specialists who will have engaged in this type of thinking at undergraduate level, but what of the implications for the primary phase?

Historically I’ve seen this addressed as ‘thinking like a’ historian / mathematician / scientist etc but that simplification doesn’t get us very far when we start to consider other subjects: thinking like a reader / writer / artists / geographer / theologian / athlete.

Maybe then we should focus on what it is that historians / scientists / geographers / French speakers / programmers actually do in order to preserve the discipline in each subject and make it about more than substantive knowledge. For some subjects this is more straightforward. The disciplinary knowledge in the science curriculum is in a helpfully labelled section called The nature, processes and methods of science and includes, for example:

  • observing over time
  • pattern seeking
  • identifying, classifying and grouping
  • comparative and fair testing
  • researching using secondary sources

Other subjects are not so clear but the disciplinary element can be gleaned from the Purpose of study or the Aims sections for each. For example, we can extract from the music curriculum that the disciplinary knowledge might be compose and listen with discrimination.

Implications for the school leader’s mental model

By knowing the difference between substantive and disciplinary knowledge, leaders are in a stronger position to specify exactly what should be taught in a subject while promoting the discipline, not just the content.

Threads of key concepts

Once the content indicated in the national curriculum gets divvied up by year group and by term, there is a risk that those units of work themselves become disconnected from each other. Each subject has deeper conceptual ideas that underpins the subject content. For example, in maths children across the primary age range will learn (amongst other things):

  • The order of numbers
  • Calculating
  • Negative numbers
  • Ratio

One thing that connects these content areas is the conceptual understanding that all numbers have a position on a number line which, if explicitly taught, can greatly help children’s understanding of these things and their connectedness.

Luckily the national curriculum, in the Purpose of study and the Aims sections for each subject, reveal the key conceptual knowledge. It is important for leaders to acquaint themselves but this post is my opinion on the specification of conceptual knowledge in each subject.

Implications for the school leader’s mental model

Knowing that certain concepts provide cohesion for the subject content, and knowing what they are will help leaders to design a coherent curriculum.

Medium term plans

There is quite a jump from the national curriculum to a set of plans that teachers can enact lesson by lesson. The first consideration for leaders is the level of specificity given to teachers in terms of curricular goals and sequences of lessons. Too much and autonomy is jeopardised. Too little and there is no coherence to the curriculum in its entirety as each unit of work is at the whim of individual teachers. Leaders need to find a delicate balance of a well planned curriculum specified for teachers with autonomy of how it is enacted handed over to teachers over how those curricular goals are achieved. Different schools will require different approaches here. An inexperienced team with the urgency of tackling poor results or a negative inspection result may need to be more prescriptive in the short term than a more settled school. The caveat is that autonomous decision making will be successful if it a result of great CPD and high quality evidence based approaches to teaching. Both of these conditions require separate blogs to specify what leaders need to know about them.

Implications for the school leader’s mental model

Leaders knowing the reality of the trade off between prescription and freedom of how curricular goals are turned into sequences of lessons will be better place to make decisions that are right for their school at any point in a school improvement journey.

A finished article?

Mary Myatt’s advice that done is better than perfect is great here. Leaders should know that a curriculum is never finished and that there will always be improvements to make to content choice, the sequencing of lessons and fidelity to the discipline of each subject. As such leaders need to use this knowledge to guide their actions in regularly reviewing the curriculum to keep it as fit for purpose as it can possibly be.

The complexity of curriculum design

With so much to think about to develop a curriculum that best delivers the national curriculum requirements and meets the needs of the community, it is worth understanding some curriculum design principles. Dylan Wiliam’s work on this is very clear which I’ve represented below:

Implications for the school leader’s mental model

Having a clear set of principles serves as a guide for curricular decision making.

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