Curriculum Review at KS3: Some common issues.

Over the last couple of years I have had the great privilege of working with several schools on the process of curriculum review.   It’s such an enlightening process for all concerned – asking questions about what should be taught, why things should be taught, what absolutely must be kept in, what gets squeezed out and what the best sequence might be across a key stage.

As a prompt to help people doing this  – or for general information for governors or anyone taking an interest – I thought I would share some of the common themes that emerge from discussions with subject leaders across the KS3 curriculum.  (NB. I am not an expert in all these areas but these issues all come from my discussions and I’ve written this without notes – reflecting the range of questions I carry in my head about each subject.)

If you can’t read it comfortably here – here’s a pdf to download and share. Curriculum questions

  • Should all classes be taught the same texts or can teachers decide based on their preferences or knowledge within a framework?
  • The selection and sequence of texts:  classic texts, the canon, contemporary fiction.
  • E.g. is Holes acceptable? Is it more acceptable if all the other texts are ‘classic texts’?
  • How much Shakespeare?  Whole plays or extracts?
  • Can texts be said to be ‘equivalent’ as alternatives. – e.g. Of Mice and Men vs To Kill A Mockingbird?
  • Do we sacrifice some classics in order to feature more modern texts or texts with more positive representations in terms of gender, ethnicity, different cultural perspectives?
  • How far do we go to teach historical context or rely on what is taught in History?  E.g. Can we teach WWI poetry before the war is covered in history? What do we need to teach as context for A Christmas Carol?
  • Is there room for Beowulf, the Iliad?
  • Does it help to teach genres with their chronology in mind?
  • Is it better to sample lots of texts or cover fewer texts in depth?
  • Where do speaking and listening, reading and non-fiction/English language content get woven in with the literature?
  • Do we use the language of GCSE-style assessment objectives?
  • Is it meaningful to plot out a time-specified topic order in the context of a mastery model, teaching students from where they are?
  • What is the system used for setting questions, checking answers, setting homework – e.g. using specific textbook scheme plus say Hegarty Maths or MyMaths?
  • If there is a bought-in scheme such as White Rose, is it owned by the team – do they understand and support the topic order and general rationale?
  • Algebra or Number to start in Year 7?
  • Setting? If so, what does this mean for topic selection, sequence and the use of standard tests between classes?
  • Is there room for maths investigations?  Even just one? What’s the rationale?
  • How far do we go with context – e.g. famous mathematicians, historical origins of maths ideas?
  • Is there a central/ common scheme – textbook/resources/set practicals/tests and revision materials?
  • Do we understand the building blocks -e.g. organ/tissue/cell; particles; energy, elements, conservation of atoms in chemistry?
  • Do the concepts spiral well from Y7-Y11?
  • Do we talk ‘science’ or physics/chemistry/biology – and develop teachers along specialist or generalist lines?
  • What are the links with maths and geography?
  • Do we include space given that it does not feature in Combined Science GCSE or extensively in the national curriculum for KS3? (Yes!)
  • Which set practicals and demos should be mandated to ensure coverage? Is there a good balance of practicals for tacit knowledge/experience vs for concept building?
  • Does everyone know and understand key concepts in climate change, process of greenhouse effect?
  • What is the value of grouping units as themed umbrella topics beyond being a neat-feeling label for a group of rather different concepts?
  • Which selection of specific events and episodes within British and world history gives a strong platform – both for students who will go onto GCSE/Alevel and those that won’t.  Does it feel like a good cross-section? Is it all Kings, Queens and Wars or is there enough other themes and perspectives woven in?
  • Do we have a good balance of themes across time and the deeper dives into specifics? Do we balance building secure foundational knowledge with debate/alternative perspectives/uncertainty within some or all topics?
  • Do we have to teach chronologically to reinforce chronology?
  • Do we adjust curriculum to provide emphasis on people and places that link to students from different communities in the school – e.g. Caribbean, South Asian?
  • Are we sure to teach about the Holocaust and aspects of WWII at KS3 -knowing students will be dropping History after KS3? What else is so important that it must be included? E.g. Black History?
  • Are we clear to teach disciplinary knowledge and skills – e.g. evaluating provenance/bias of sources – in context of the topics rather than as    ‘ history skills’ with all the problems with that concept?
  • What links are made as context for other subjects or where chronology can be reinforced – science, geography, English, arts?
  • Is the blend of human and physical content appropriate and well sequenced, building a good spiral, providing a solid ‘Key Stage 3 only’ education as well as a platform for further study at KS4/A level?
  • How rigorously do we develop fundamental ‘skills’ around mapping and graphing, knowledge of local geography/UK and general world-map locational knowledge?
  • Is climate change knowledge developed in a thorough way, referencing physical and human elements, linking to sound science knowledge of greenhouse effect and climate/weather distinction? Is this a stand-alone topic and/or does it get woven in across a series of other topics?
  • Is sustainability/energy dovetailed with the science curriculum?
  • Do we include a good range of in-depth country case-studies developing breadth of knowledge of physical/human phenomena across the world without fuelling stereotypes (Africa = poor)?  Might it be better to explore fewer places from a range of perspectives, for example?
  • What are the opportunities for field-trips – hands-on geography?
  • Is it RE or RS or Philosophy and Ethics?
  • How much time is given – e.g. is it part of PSHRE or taught discretely?
  • Is the Agreed Syllabus/SACRE guidance a driving factor?
  • Is there a balance of learning about and from a range of faiths and personal reflection?  What is the knowledge content that all students have to learn?
  • Do we balance coverage of major faiths with learning about a smaller number in depth?
  • Are we teaching potentially controversial areas appropriately – e.g. existence of God vs atheism; LGBT rights, the fact of evolution, abortion.?
  • Is this compatible with messages given in SRE/PSHE?
  • Do we teach one language with the full time allocation or try to split the time and teach more than one language?
  • Do we offer a choice or just be content with being a school that specialises in one language?
  • Are we building fluency through sentence-level recall as a foundation (e.g.  the Gianfranco Conti method?) or are we sticking with single-word vocab lists and grammar paradigms?
  • Which historical/cultural/literary references do we include alongside functional communication topics?
  • How committed are we to high percentage target language use and intensive choral work and ‘books closed’ recall practice?
  • What’s are the opportunities to improve listening and build confidence with speaking? What can students do to practise between lessons?
  • Do we make a technical distinction between PE and sport? What does this look like in practice?
  • Do we use actual sports as a framework – e.g. (football, cricket, tennis, gymnastics) or generic descriptors (solo performance, invasion games, rackets)
  • Is there progression from Y7-9 in terms of ‘games for understanding’, tactical awareness, individual performance.
  • Is there provision for elite performance – possibly linked to school teams and competitions – or is that entirely separate?
  • Do we worry about GCSE-style knowledge around cardio-vascular function and anatomical terminology – skeleton/muscle groups?
  • Do we provide the recommended minimum 2 hours per week?

General Issues

  • In general, do students have enough time in each area? Do we have the right balance of breadth of experience across art/DT areas versus depth in each?
  • Is there a carousel? If so what does this do to continuity year to year?
  • Is there a period per week? Is so, does this allow time to sustain development of skills across a range of projects?
  • Is there the possibility of a Year 9 option structure where, before GCSE options, students choose and art/DT subject or two to specialise in?
  • What does excellence look like?  Are we pitching high in terms of student outcomes compared to other schools at KS3 (given absence of official moderation process?)
  • What are the areas we can cover: Food, Resistant materials, textiles, electronics, graphics?  Is there time/resource/expertise? What gets priority?
  • Is CADCAM integrated into the curriculum – or even taught discretely?
  • Do our projects offer experience with good range of materials, reference good range of designers, blend rigour of skill development with room for real creativity at the right point?
  • Do we assess knowledge of terminology, concepts in design process, the work of designers?
  • What range of media will be included? Do we have capacity for ceramics, photography, digital – at KS3? – alongside more traditional media.
  • Are we referencing a good blend of art movements, the key artists that serve as reference points for art history? Does this mix reference a good range of cultures?
  • Do we include an appropriate/exciting mix of contemporary art and artists?
  • Might we do better to specialise in something specific and classic – like drawing skills– in Year 7 rather than going down the ‘lots of different media’ path?
  • Is this primarily a classical education focused on knowledge of classical composers -for listening and performance – or is there a strong compositional /performance element that is more contemporary?
  • Which composers will all students learn about? Which musical genres will all students study? Does this have elements that reference communities within the school population?
  • What instruments are available for performance to allow both ensemble and solo performance to be developed?
  • What’s the extent of instrumental tuition to feed into music curriculum?
  • How strong is the singing culture? Does everyone sing?
  • What’s the exposure to music tech for composition and/or recording?
  • Does the curriculum have a good structure covering individual, small group and then ensemble performance?
  • Is there a good balance of improvisation/ devised drama versus scripted drama?
  • Do we cover a good range of theatre movements/playwrights? How does this link to the English curriculum coverage of plays and poetry?
  • Do we assess student knowledge of drama concepts in writing or focus on performance?


  • Is this taught by trained specialists or rotating teams of teachers who develop specialisms or by form tutors who teach everything or through ‘drop-down days’? (Can you really do SRE seriously on one day per year?)
  • Is there a sensible mix of topics that can be taught in some depth or is it becoming a dumping ground for too many issues?
  • Do the people teaching SRE have the knowledge and confidence to this properly including handling LGBT students’ needs? Is SRE planned in tandem with science curriculum?
  • Do we worry about formal assessment of PSHE knowledge or is it all a series of activities and discussions?


  • Is this a good blend of computing/computer science and old-style ICT?
  • Is there an element of application training – e.g. word, PowerPoint, database, web design– or have we taken some of those things out in favour or more time for coding, networks etc
  • Do we have good provision for e-safety curriculum?
  • Which language(s) do we teach? Most schools seem to focus on Python – but what else might be included?
  • What are the key projects and products student will produce across the year – and is the curriculum sufficiently hands-on versus theoretical?
  • What are the links do DT, maths, science – e.g. with control systems, logic etc?
  • Do we include a thread about the history of computing – Turing, Lovelace, Berners-Lee et al.

If you think I’ve misrepresented your subject or left out something huge, leave a comment.


  1. Dear Tom,
    Below are our thoughts on A&D
    We’d really value your views on what we’ve written.
    Best wishes
    David Barlex and Torben Steeg
    Point 1
    As noted in our comments on the D&T specific section, it is Important to get to get the name of D&T correct; not DT.

    Point 2
    In general, do students have enough time in each area? Do we have the right balance of breadth of experience across art/DT areas versus depth in each?
    We do not think it is helpful to anyone (especially students) to bracket ‘the Arts’ with D&T. Arts develop outcomes that are primarily concerned with expressing and/or evoking, some sort of personal, emotional or political response. D&T outcomes are primarily concerned with developing interventions into the made and natural worlds usually with the intention of making improvements to a particular situation. Given these different intentions, comparing these two curriculum areas in particular does not seem that logical. We can see that creativity is required to develop outcomes in both areas (other subjects will also make a claim on creativity) but the different intentions means that although there will be some overlap with regard to the use of, for example, particular making techniques or technical ways of working, Arts and D&T will call on different bodies of knowledge. Also the arts are to some extent indifferent to the nature of response they generate in that the responses will be subjective and the creative artist does not necessarily want a positive response. However in D&T the aim of the activity is usually predicated on identifying user needs and wants and trying to meet these. So it is probably better to consider them as independent subjects with their own unique purposes as opposed to linking them on the grounds that they are both ‘creative’. As independent subjects they would each require equal time in the curriculum. If planned carefully it is possible to capitalise on areas in which there are overlaps.

    Point 3
    Is there a carousel? If so what does this do to continuity year to year?
    We understand that for various reasons some schools combine aspects of the Arts and D&T in a KS3 carousel, but even here there needs to be clarity about what the elements of such a carousel ‘represent’.
    More broadly we think the notion of a carousel arrangement should be challenged. We understand that the idea of a carousel arrangement is attractive in that it assigns teachers with particular expertise to groups of learners on a rotational basis and hence puts the learner with those who have expert knowledge. The downside is that the time spent with such teachers is limited and the teacher does not get to know the learners as well as if they were teaching them for a whole year. it also often leads to a poor overview of subject knowledge development over a whole year. To overcome the difficulty of subject expertise, teachers need to work in teams, ideally co-teaching but if this is not possible then co-planning with on-going progress reviews. Whichever system is used it is important that progression is built into to sequence of lessons.

    Point 4
    Is there a period per week? If so, does this allow time to sustain development of skills across a range of projects?
    With regard to time available the simple rule of thumb that appears to work is that to prepare learners for a single subject GCSE course at Key Stage 4 requires one double lesson per week each week across Key Stage 3. It is essential that the sequence of lessons, however organised into topics or projects, is underpinned by the teaching of knowledge, understanding and values as well as skills in a way that builds into a coherent whole over the time of the course. Again, these will be different for the Arts and for D&T.

    Point 5
    Is there the possibility of a Year 9 option structure where, before GCSE options, students choose an art/DT subject or two to specialise in?
    We believe that students should experience as broad a curriculum as possible right through KS3. (For this reason, we are not fans of two-year KS3 arrangements as these generally force students to make subject choices after less than 18 months of secondary experience of subjects.)
    Also, as we note in our specific comments about D&T, neither the KS3 National Curriculum nor the new single-subject GCSE D&T view the subject as a series of separate material areas. An attempt to use materials as a basis for organising the KS3 D&T curriculum is not going to be helpful to student progress in the subject.
    We realise that the EBacc is something that many schools feel they can’t ignore (and we note reports that recent Ofsted inspections have criticised schools’ low EBacc entries).
    However, not all schools feel beholden to the Ebacc, for example some schools support both Art and D&T at Key Stage 3 with the opportunity to take both to GSCE level at KS4. We know of one student who is taking triple science, D&T, Computer Studies and Art at KS4 with the result that he has dropped humanities and modern foreign languages. The school organises that KS4 timetable based on the subjects the pupils wish to take so their choice drives timetable structure rather than them having to fit into a ready given structure.
    Point 6
    What does excellence look like? Are we pitching high in terms of student outcomes compared to other schools at KS3 (given absence of official moderation process?)
    Aspiring to excellence appears laudable but needs to be unpacked. Do we want excellent outcomes? No one is going to answer ‘no’. It seems to us that the curriculum in the Arts and D&T should be designed such that excellent outcomes are definitely possible but it is unrealistic to expect that all learners’ outcomes will be excellent. And perhaps excellence should be viewed as a function of the individual as much as a measurement against external standard. This approach towards creativity was advocated in the Robinson Report. Possible features of excellence should include things beyond the final artefact (which might be a prototype), so the ability to engage with an open context, to really get under the skin of users’ needs, to consider sustainability and wider values including possible impacts on climate change and those who might use or produce such artefacts in the wider world.

    In planning a particular course of study it will be essential to teach knowledge, understanding, skills and values that can be used in executing outcomes. In this way every learner has the opportunity to deploy their learning to the best of their ability. There will be a range of performance across a class with some outcomes significantly better than others but such a rank order snapshot does not tell the whole story in that the outcomes have to be put in the context of individual student’s learning journeys and improvement may well have taken place for those learners whose achievements are modest. A useful mantra is ‘progress not perfection’.


  2. Dear Tom,
    Below are our thoughts on D&T
    We’d really value your views on what we’ve written.
    Best wishes
    David Barlex and Torben Steeg
    Concerning D&T
    Point 1
    We feel it is important to get the name of the subject correct – Design & Technology (D&T), this is not a trivial point as the Parkes Report spent some time establishing this as follows
    1.5. . . . Our understanding is that whereas most, but not all, design activities will generally include technology and most technology activities will include design, there is not always total correspondence.
    1.6 Our use of design and technology as a unitary concept, to be spoken in one breath as it were, does not therefore embody redundancy. It is intended to emphasise the intimate connection between the two activities as well as to imply a concept which is broader than either design or technology individually and the whole of which we believe is educationally important. (Page 2 DfE&WO 1988)

    Point 2
    What are the areas we can cover: Food, Resistant materials, textiles, electronics, graphics? Is there time/resource/expertise? What gets priority?
    This question isn’t helpful as it undermines the integrity of the subject; both the KS3 NC and the new GCSE have dropped materials as a key way of thinking about the subject. A more useful approach is to frame the curriculum as repeated access to the Big Ideas of the subject (Barlex et al 2017a): e.g. materials, making, functionality, design and critique, with each getting appropriate time and being supported through a wide range of material experiences including ones that combine materials.
    The issue of expertise is an important one; certainly at KS3, there is nothing in the content that a competent D&T teacher couldn’t manage, though there is a need for appropriate CPD to support this.
    Prioritising against time and resource; we know that both allocated curriculum time and availability of D&T teachers are issues for some schools. We strongly (if naively?) believe that SMTs shouldn’t use availability of D&T teachers (or lack thereof) as an excuse to shrug shoulders and reduce curriculum time; the subject is no less important than any other and it deserves the same effort to support it as any other – including through retraining internally if necessary.
    However, prioritisation will be a fact of life; and should be viewed through the lens of big ideas noted above.

    Point 3
    Is CADCAM integrated into the curriculum – or even taught discretely?
    CADCAM is an approach to both designing and making and should be seen as part of teaching both of these, in which both digital and non-digital ‘tools’ are used. That is, not taught as a separate ‘unit’, though there may well be the need for focussed teaching as appropriate.
    It is worth noting that some designers have been reported as saying it is important to leave using CAD to as late as possible in any designing activity as it limits creativity – (See The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr).

    Point 4
    Do our projects offer experience with good range of materials, reference good range of designers, blend rigour of skill development with room for real creativity at the right point?
    It is important not to see the curriculum as a series of projects (things to be made) but as a learning journey involving different sorts of learning experience (things to be learned).
    We would suggest such a journey should involve the following sorts of experience: designing without making; making without designing; designing and making; and considering the consequences of technology (Barlex et al 2017b).
    Each of these activities can be devised to enable the learning of important Big Ideas so that across a sequence of activities there is significant progression in learning.
    Any activity involving designing should enable pupils to be creative, but this will only occur if they are given the opportunity and support to develop their own ideas. This means providing increasingly ‘open’ design contexts – something that, in any case, preparation for the GCSE Contextual Challenge will require.

    Point 5
    Do we assess knowledge of terminology, concepts in design process, the work of designers?
    It is important to assess pupils learning against the teaching intentions, and these should be linked to the Big Ideas.
    Hence, in each of the devised learning activities the teaching intentions should be clear and pupils should be assessed against the extent to which they have met these intentions. This requires that the learning experiences be devised according to what is to be learned as opposed to what the pupils will do/make.

    Barlex D., Givens N., Steeg T (2017a) Big Ideas for D&T; A working paper David and Torben for D&T. Available at
    Steeg T., Barlex D., Givens N. (2017b) Re-Building D&T; A working paper David and Torben for D&T. Available at
    Carr, N. (2015) The Glass Cage, who needs humans anyway? Vintage, London
    Department for Education and Science and Welsh Office (DfE&WO). (1988). National curriculum design and technology working group interim report. London: HMSO. Available at


  3. […] There’s been a mighty wave of activity around curriculum review at year group and subject level with many schools now having recently-reviewed curriculum plans in various forms. However it’s far from complete and most schools recognise the scale of the challenge, tackling every subject in detail. Everyone talks about the need for more time! The next stage is to embed the process of curriculum review as an ongoing one – not a fixed completion-orientated task – with calendared review time set aside across the year and a sensible set of milestones to review the curriculum unit by unit, ongoingly, deepening teachers’ understanding of the learning issues inherent in the curriculum as they consider the rationale for each element within the overall framework. Related posts: Curriculum + Pedagogy. And Sandcastles. Curriculum Review at KS3: Some common issues. […]


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