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3 top tips for designing a broad and thought provoking primary school curriculum

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Curriculum best practice, Primary schools

I have been Head Teacher of Langford Primary School in Fulham (London) since September 2015. One of the things I’m proudest of is our work to develop a broader and evidence-led curriculum.

We place a lot of importance on this area, and one of the core pillars of our school vision is to embed and deliver a thought-provoking curriculum which broadens experiences and prepares our children for life in modern day Britain. We therefore spend a lot of time considering this, thinking about it as part of our curriculum design and lesson planning, engaging with research, and using this to help prepare our children for the next stage of their education.

We’re several years into our journey and are really pleased with our achievements, but we’ve also made mistakes along the way which we think other schools could learn from. So here are our 3 top tips on curriculum design:

1. Curriculum development takes time

Developing a strong curriculum takes time. It simply can’t happen overnight. At Langford we started our journey by thinking about each individual subject and what macro-concepts we wanted our children to develop a deep understanding of by the end of KS2. This was inspired by Erickson’s 3D curriculum, which argues that if we get children to apply what they know and can do so in a conceptual way, they are more likely to retain this.

Each subject is planned so that it links with prior learning and concepts children have already experienced. They contain knowledge organisers – which outlines the knowledge all children must master on a subject - to help them learn the basics, and this is quizzed regularly, using key questions to expose existing understanding. This goes hand in hand with well-planned lessons, which always ask the question, ‘what is this lesson encouraging the children to think about?’.

At the end of the learning journey, the children will have to answer a conceptual question in an essay/extended response manner. One example of this is present in our history curriculum, for which one of our macro concepts is ‘cause and consequence’. At the end of learning about both The Great Fire of London (Y2) and The Second World War (Y5) the children were asked if there were any positive consequences from these episodes in history – responses ranged from the birth of insurance companies to the formation of the U.N.

2. Don’t forget the National Curriculum document 

When we first began to think about our curriculum aims (whether whole curriculum or individual subjects), we started with the aims set out in the National Curriculum and this was a great starting point. One of the main reasons for doing this was following a conversation I had with a curriculum leader who showed me her 5-page document outlining the curriculum ‘Intent’ for her school. She is probably the only one who will read this and because of this, the document itself is likely to have little impact on the curriculum in her school. My personal view is that keeping things as simple and concise as possible is the approach that tends to be the most effective. This is why, if you haven’t looked back at the national curriculum in a while – now is the time to do this.

The two main aims of the national curriculum are:

  1. The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge that they need to educated citizen. It introduces pupils to be the best that has been thought and said; and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.
  2. The national curriculum is just one element in the education of every child. There is a time and space in the school day and in each week, term and year to range beyond the national curriculum specifications. The national curriculum provides an outline of core knowledge around which teachers can develop exciting and stimulating lessons to promote the development of pupils' knowledge, understanding and skills as part of the wider school curriculum.

There is some great stuff in the national curriculum that could really support you in thinking about the curriculum for your school. This is of course, should be tailored for each subject, and will support the subject leaders in your school and provide something for them to focus on. For example, one of the aims of the geography curriculum is to ‘develop contextual knowledge of the location of globally significant places’. Adopting this mantra ourselves influenced us to design our geography curriculum so that each year group studies a different continent, building upon and deepening the knowledge and concepts they experienced in the previous year/s.

3. Allow opportunities to re-visit  

Every child in our school starts their morning by revisiting learning they have previously encountered some time ago. When children come into class, there will be a number of questions on the board linked to prior learning which the children respond to immediately. If they can’t remember, this is the time they go back in their books, review knowledge organisers, or get a book to find the answer so next time they see the question they will remember. This spaced practice allows children the opportunity to make good links between different elements of the different disciplines as they progress through the school.

The impacts of a well-planned curriculum

The main positive impact of our approach to curriculum development has been on our children’s background knowledge and vocabulary. Both of which are fundamental in enabling them to achieve higher standards in reading and closing the disadvantage gap. We’re also finding it’s helping our pupils to be more engaged in their learning, developing a real thirst for it.

Our teachers are benefiting from this approach too though. As we are several years into this approach, our teachers now can focus on fine tuning their lessons, which simply involves scribbling notes in a planning jotter, and no time is wasted on unnecessary workload.

Let me finish by saying that the curriculum at Langford continues to be developed and refined, but hopefully this blog has provided a snapshot of some of what we have done.


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