Your curriculum defines your school. Own it. Shape it. Celebrate it.

At the Heads’ Roundtable event this week I was making a pitch for school leaders to get stuck into a deep curriculum review process – as many already have.  Not because of the expectations of whatever accountability process is underway, but because it matters so much.   To a degree that is underplayed all too often, I would suggest that schools are fundamentally defined by their curriculum.

Every school has its motto – those value statements emblazoned on every letterhead, every blazer, above the entrance… Respect. Courage. Resilience.  Ambition.  Compassion.  Fortiter Ex Animo.  Carpe Diem.  But these grand ideas only take form in the context of students doing things, learning things, experiencing things, receiving messages about things.. actual things that you have decided on.   And those things are your curriculum; the actual tangible real-life curriculum that is enacted across the days, weeks and years of a life in your school.

As I have explored in some detail in this post, 10 Steps for Reviewing Your KS3 Curriculum, there is a process that applies to any curriculum review, starting with getting to know your school curriculum as it is.   I’m suggesting that school leaders make sure they have developed a strong set of principles around curriculum design and content informed by exploring their own curriculum and a range of alternatives.  What do you believe about what your children should learn across the curriculum?  Often leaders are only relatively expert in a narrow set of curriculum ideas – we’ve all largely been trained in specific knowledge domains so it’s difficult to know what the possibilities are; to know what an excellent curriculum might look like in every area. But, whilst it may always be necessary to defer to the expertise of others – inside and outside your school –  it pays to get into the detail, to begin to  learn about each area and develop some reference points.

Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself about your school curriculum:

Maths: How is the maths curriculum organised and sequenced? Is it logical, appropriately designed for mastery, vertical coherence.  Where does it start? Number? Sequences? Why does it start there? Who decided? Do they know why?

English:  Which books will students read in each year group? If you don’t know, this is a good place to start.  What’s the rationale for each one and the overall sequence?  Which books have been left out.. who decided?  Do teachers choose or is it a departmental approach? Overall, what’s the range of genres, the balance of ‘classics’ vs contemporary fiction?  Is the selection something you feel is bold, interesting, building a secure foundation in the literary canon for future reading, opening doors to the world of literature, challenging and demanding as well as inspiring and engaging?

History:  Does your history curriculum provide your students with the knowledge and understanding you’d hope for given who they are and where you live-  including those who select if for GCSE and those that don’t?  What does your curriculum say about your priorities – it is balanced well between   UK history and world history, a range of historical periods, a range of types of events – power and politics, social history, wars?  Does it allow for alternative perspectives and some depth studies alongside a broad factual overview of events and key figures – the facts that every child should know?

The same questions for English and History apply to art and music and RS.  Which artists do they meet? When do students learn about Islam? What do they learn about Islam?  Which style of music curriculum do we offer: composition-focused with a contemporary slant or more classical with a strong strand of theory, notation and music history?

In Science- are you confident that the curriculum is designed bottom-up with key concepts – particles, energy, cells – embedded and built-upon.  What’s the general experience in relation to practical work and hands-on learning? Will students grow those plants or just label diagrams of them in theory? Will they ever design an experiment of their own?  Will the Geography and Science curriculum links be strong so that your students definitely all gain a very strong foundation of knowledge about climate change and sustainability? What exactly will they learn? And when?

Across the curriculum, where do students get to develop their oracy skills, to extend their knowledge of their local community, to mentally travel the world, to physically get into the countryside or the city, to see museums, to gain cultural experiences, to hear the Holocaust story, to discuss homophobia and racism, to learn about sex and relationships, to make things and be creative, to engage in an extended learning project of some form, to make a choice about the way they communicate their ideas?

Across the curriculum are you satisfied that it is challenging enough?  Challenge is a vague notion until you tie it down to some specific curriculum choices.  What’s the diet like in Year 5 and Year 8?  Are your highest attainers truly stretched? Is there any padding, filler, soft, weak meandering when a bit more rigour might be more appropriate?  Where you’ve had to make compromises because of the constraints of time and resources – are you happy you’ve arrived at the best possible balance between competing choices?

All of these questions can be answered.  And then you have to decide what you think. Is it a good curriculum? Are there different, better choices you could make? Is it a curriculum you feel proud of – that represents the school you want to run and be part of?       Because this is what your school actually is.  Your curriculum is your school. So, to the greatest extent possible, it pays to own it, to shape it and to celebrate it.  It’s so powerful if you can be on the front foot before anyone else comes along to test it out.  Here’s our curriculum: This is what we are. This is what we do.  And we’re proud of it.


  1. I am going to visit a primary school this week that has shaped its’ curriculum around the National Trust’s ’50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4′. I’m looking forward to seeing how this works in practice!


    • Good morning Maz,
      As with so many others I’m considering/reviewing curriculum and content. I’m interested to know how you found your visit and reflections, based on the National trust ’50 things’. Seems to me an experiential learning model could be a strong concept for SEMH provision.

      thanks in advance.


      • here’s the relevant part of their website. It’s a school in a fairly deprived area, so this gives all children the chance to have those vital life experiences, giving them at least a chance to match their better off peers. There are some parts that feel like they’ve been made to fit, but I find that happens whatever thematic scheme you use!
        Definitely a good way of looking for those shared, non curricular opportunities for all and part of learning that the children seem to enjoy. Great for semh, encouraging staff to spend time outdoors with their classes


  2. […] teaching. This is awesome. But curriculum is far bigger than a process. It’s what your school is. As Tom Sherrington says, “Your curriculum is your school…This is what we are. This is what we do… Please think about this carefully before churning out the above. Curricular thought is good. […]


  3. […] For some, the school curriculum should be BRAVE: buzzing, relevant, academic, vocational and evaluator (Hywel Roberts (2012). For others, it should be a personalised, anti-gimmick and pro-wisdom cohesive curriculum (Robinson, 2019). But whether you plait the curriculum, make it irresistible or go global, it has to be “owned, shaped and celebrated” by the school because “your curriculum is your school” (Sherrington, 2019).  […]


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