1. What is the purpose of a curriculum?

This session will take approximately 25 minutes to complete.

Session overview

This session will focus on:

  • What is the purpose of a curriculum?
  • How to capitalise on existing resources

What is the purpose of a curriculum?

At a national level, the purpose of a curriculum is to set out an entitlement for all pupils to the knowledge and learning that our society determines is the most powerful and important for a well-rounded education. As we move to think about curriculum at a school and classroom level, a curriculum provides coherence (how the content, assessment, pedagogy and teaching materials align and reinforce each other). This is important because when curriculum lacks coherence, it is both harder to teach and harder for children to locate and place their new knowledge (Myatt, 2018). Only a well-designed curriculum enables successful learning.

In order to understand your role in curriculum design, let us look at the differences between the National Curriculum and the curriculum at a school and classroom level more closely. The National Curriculum provides programmes of study and attainment targets for each national curriculum subject, setting out the knowledge and skills to be taught at each key stage. A school’s curriculum enables it to set out its vision for the knowledge, skills and values that its pupils will learn, encompassing the National Curriculum within a coherent wider vision for successful learning. At the classroom level, the curriculum will also include pedagogy (how the curriculum will be taught) and how pupils will be assessed.

A roadmap is a helpful metaphor when thinking about designing a curriculum: a roadmap shows the destination (the ‘what’ and ‘why’ of the content to be taught) and the route to get there (the teaching practices most likely to lead to successful learning). When good schemes of work are in place, they can therefore reduce teacher workload and give teachers autonomy to adjust the ‘route’ as the scheme unfolds, lesson by lesson (Myatt 2018).

Listen to Ed Vainker, Executive Head at Reach Academy Feltham, talk about what he thinks the purpose of curriculum is for pupils, teachers and schools.

What is the purpose of a curriculum? – Ed Vainker

Video transcript

What is the purpose of a curriculum for schools?

So for schools I think a curriculum allows them to sequence and organize the knowledge that they want pupils to develop, and the skills they want people to develop over their time in the school, so it would include clarifying the order in which that should happen and also the content itself, so what it is they want pupils to learn and what skills they want pupils to develop and to what level.

What is the purpose of a curriculum for teachers?

For teachers a curriculum allows them to be clear about the knowledge and the ordering and the sequencing with which they want pupils to acquire that knowledge and the way that they’re going to demonstrate the particular skills of that subject, and it helps them to prioritise because within a subject there’s so much that can be taught, but to prioritise what each pupil needs and to make sure that they’re building on what pupils have learned in the past.

What is the purpose of a curriculum for students?

As someone who’s kind of studied the subject at university or at A level we, you’ve, developed a picture, a kind of a schema, a way of organizing your knowledge of that subject and so when you learn something new, you learn it in the context of other things that you’ve previously learned. And that’s what we’re trying to help pupils to do while they’re at school, to build these schema, these pictures of a subject in their heads, and a curriculum is what helps children to develop that schema and helps them to organise their learning and so that they can see how the way the Shang dynasty fell is connected to the fall of the Roman empire and that when an empire gets particularly big it becomes harder to keep it kind of under control. And that ability to organize knowledge and to organize ideas is what pupils I think can get from a well-planned curriculum.

What are the main features of a high-quality curriculum?

So a high-quality curriculum has been carefully thought about and it’s been carefully designed to be rigorous so it’s challenging and it asks pupils to develop really complex and challenging ideas, and then importantly it’s been really carefully sequenced and so the ordering of how pupils will learn and what they will learn at different times has been thought about and there are connections made across time and space, so that a year three curriculum builds on what pupils will have learnt in year two and ensures that that is growing their schema and their picture of the subject.

Choosing the topic of your scheme of work

Before we go any further, the first thing you need to do is to decide what your scheme of work will be about.

It makes sense for you to select a topic you will be teaching this or next academic year, so that you can teach it. This will also give you the added benefit of being able to review and revise your scheme based on how it goes.

Given we’re already in the Summer term, this might mean thinking ahead to the pupils and topics you will be teaching next year. If you’re not sure about what topic to pick, talk to your mentor before moving onto the next session.

Capitalise on existing resources

When designing your scheme of work, don’t feel that you need to start everything from scratch. You will not be the first teacher (nor the last!) to go through this thinking and planning process, so make the most of building on what others have done before you.

Draw on the expertise of your colleagues and wider professional networks and seek out many of the high-quality resources that exist online. Not only will this reduce your workload, it will also enable you to connect with and learn from your colleagues and the wider teaching profession.

Colleagues in your department or phase – and in your wider professional networks – are likely to have a collection of powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations and practice activities that they can share with you.

However, keep in mind is that your decisions about what resources to use should be driven by the needs of the curriculum (i.e. the concepts, knowledge and skills that pupils need to learn). What can be tempting, but should be avoided, is using a resource that you think looks great and distorting your scheme to fit it in. Using resources aligned with the school curriculum (e.g. textbooks or shared resources designed by experienced colleagues) will help you to develop a scheme of work that is coherent and well sequenced.

As you’re no doubt already aware, there is also an abundance of teaching and learning resources available online. This can feel overwhelming, especially as not all these resources are of a high quality. Following the recommendations of experienced colleagues is a good place to start.

Below are some questions which you could ask yourself when looking through available resources:

  • Does the resource align with the school curriculum?
  • Does the resource focus on the essential concepts and/or knowledge and/or principles of the subject?
  • If the resource or material is related to a pupil activity, does it ensure pupils’ thinking is focused on key ideas within the subject you want pupils to learn?


Watch the video of either Emily (Primary and Secondary) or Maria (Early Years) as they share how they sought out the expertise of colleagues and existing resources when designing their scheme of work.

Seeking the expertise of colleagues and existing resources – Emily Maule

Video transcript

When planning a scheme of work, it is important to do as much research as possible, making use of materials from subject specialists with more experience in the topic, so that we can be sure we are delivering material of the highest calibre to our pupils. Even though I studied geography at university and studied volcanology specifically in my final year, there were still elements that I researched again to make sure I was really teaching accurate information and providing the most helpful maps, diagrams and graphs. For example, for a long time teachers in Secondary school have taught that convection currents in the mantle move the tectonic plates. But we now know that this is not entirely true and that actually gravity and the weight of the plates are fundamental to their movement. I wanted to make sure this information, which is taught in the A Level curriculum, was present in the year 7 unit, because it makes it easier for pupils to understand, and also because I want my pupils to have geographically accurate knowledge.

And despite having taught plate tectonics at all levels, there were new illustrations that I came across from speaking to colleagues and observing colleagues teach, that I was able to incorporate into the scheme to support pupils in grasping some of these really complex ideas. So, to help teach the concept about gravity and the weight of the tectonic plates causing movement, I observed a colleague demonstrate to her class how a necklace with a heavy pendant on it, when hanging off of the table, slowly edges further towards the floor, which is great illustration to help the pupils understand how gravity acts on heavy materials.

We don’t want to reinvent the wheel and there are lots of great materials about. I incorporated lots of materials I had successfully used previously to teach the scheme. However, I also added in new materials from well-researched and reputable sources, to add rigour to the unit. And then having another subject specialist check over the unit and give their insight meant I was able to make some further revisions to the scheme which made it more robust. Time invested into the scheme’s planning pays dividends later on.

Video script – How did you seek out the expertise of colleagues and existing resources when designing this scheme of work?

The final version of this video will be available from spring 2021, as the publication of this programme was fast-tracked in response to disruptions to this year’s initial teacher training.

There are many different approaches to how the ‘curriculum’ is delivered in EYFS, with some settings providing all pre-planned, adult-directed learning opportunities and others following a freer, more ‘in-the moment’ approach (see Anna Ephgrave for more information on this). Personally, I try to use a mixture of both, taking lots of opportunities to follow pupils’ lead and empower them to run the play whilst setting out key new learning opportunities. It is hard to separate the curriculum between those discrete whole class learning opportunities and the ‘activity’ time when pupils are learning through play. I find the design of each are quite different.

This series of lessons focus around the Ghanaian traditional tale, “The Leopard’s Drum.” Due to the holistic nature of the EYFS you will find elements across the curriculum evident in the provision planning, but the adult input sessions around this theme were predominantly English based. When planning any unit of work, it is important to ensure that you have accurate information and knowledge around the topic and try to make use of specialists where you can, whether that be colleagues, parents or the pupils themselves. In the context of this series of lessons I was able to reach out to parents of two children in my class who were able to offer support in terms of their personal experiences of Ghana. Firstly, they supported with correct pronunciation of the characters in the text as well as supporting their children to prepare presentations on both Ghanaian food and dress. This not only supported the crucial link between home and school but empowered these students to take more of a lead in their learning. These sessions provided a great hook and made the otherwise slightly abstract concepts more tangible to the class as a whole. There are many resources out there to help with creating lesson plans and ‘activity’ ideas from Pintrest and Facebook groups to Twinkl and TES. Whilst these are all useful sources of ideas I often find them a bit overwhelming. It’s hard to avoid getting swept up in the fun activity ideas, “Can you create an elephant from a paper plate?” instead of focusing on the learning objectives and curriculum, “manipulates materials to achieve a planned effect.”

Before I start each new text, I take some time to look at the vocabulary that is being used, see if there are any new concepts or any opportunities to change the text slightly to provide a more interesting synonym. I find this works particularly well when doing a Talk 4 Writing project (see Pie Corbett for more on this). We need to have high expectations of our pupils; and ensure we are teaching them the correct vocabulary and facts surrounding their learning. Young children often learn misconceptions or inaccurate information that they have to then re-learn in later life, something which is much harder to do. In the context of this series of work it was a great opportunity to teach a wider range of vocabulary such as, “huge, magnificent drum”.  We know that the vocabulary gap is significant between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more affluent peers (see Alex Quigley for more on this) so, as educators I think we need to do as much as we can to empower young children with a wide range of lexicon. 

However, we do not need to reinvent the wheel and do everything from scratch. Once you are aware of your core text and have thought about where the gaps are in your cohort’s learning. Do they need more opportunities to develop their fine motor development? Or perhaps they need a bit of extra support in their self-confidence so you need to incorporate more public speaking opportunities; then plan backwards from these gaps to look at the resources out there that can help you to create these learning outcomes.

The key take-away here is: don’t reinvent the wheel.

As you work through this module, seek out existing resources from colleagues, professional networks, and online.

Keep asking yourself:

  • Which of my colleagues might have resources they can share with me on this?
  • Are there any other colleagues in my school or wider professional network who could support me with this?
  • What resources do my school or multi-academy trust have access to that could be useful here?
  • Which websites might have high-quality resources I could adopt and adapt for this scheme of work?

Related ECF strands

Subject and curriculum

3.1 A school’s curriculum enables it to set out its vision for the knowledge, skills and values that its pupils will learn, encompassing the national curriculum within a coherent wider vision for successful learning.

3b. Ensuring pupils’ thinking is focused on key ideas within the subject.

3c. Working with experienced colleagues to accumulate and refine a collection of powerful analogies, illustrations, examples, explanations and demonstrations.

3d. Using resources and materials aligned with the school curriculum (e.g. textbooks or shared resources designed by experienced colleagues that carefully sequence content).

3f. Discussing curriculum design with experienced colleagues and balancing exposition, repetition, practice of critical skills and knowledge.