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National Curriculum

Principles of curriculum design - the big picture


What is a curriculum?

Any school’s curriculum consists of everything that promotes learners’ intellectual, personal, social and physical development. As well as lessons and extracurricular activities, it includes approaches to teaching, learning and assessment, the quality of relationships within school, and the values embodied in the way the school operates.

In partnership with practitioners and curriculum experts, QCDA has developed an approach to curriculum design based upon three key questions:

  • what are we trying to achieve?  See Element 1: Curriculum aims

  • how do we organise learning? See Element 2: Curriculum organisation

  • how well are we achieving our aims? See Element 3: Curriculum evaluation

These three questions have been used to develop A big picture of the secondary curriculum. This is not a policy document but a tool for discussion that could help to shape your thinking as you seek to design a curriculum that really meets the needs, interests and aspirations of your learners and contributes to raising standards.

For an overview of the the big picture of the curriculum, which you can use as an introduction to whole-school curriculum design work, watch a video 'A big picture of the curriculum video'.

Each of the key curriculum questions has a set of design principles to consider. These principles are outlined in elements 1 to 3. You will need to use these principles when developing the curriculum design activities as part of the planning process in your school.  

Element 1: Curriculum aims

A well-designed curriculum is built on a clear vision of what it is trying to achieve. It:

  • has clear aims that reflect the national aims for education and learners’ needs as individuals and citizens

  • promotes the intellectual, personal, social and physical development of all learners

  • establishes high expectations for all, extending horizons and raising aspirations

  • identifies outcomes relating to knowledge, skills, and personal attitudes and attributes

  • is underpinned by clear values.

Go to activities to help you establish what you are trying to achieve.

Element 2: Curriculum organisation

A well-designed curriculum is organised to achieve its aims. It:

  • helps every learner to make progress, building on their experiences both within and outside of school

  • is based on a clear and shared understanding of how learners learn

  • recognises the dynamic interplay between content, pedagogy and assessment

  • provides a coherent and relevant set of learning experiences, both in and out of lesson time

  • provides for the full range of capabilities and aspirations

  • uses expertise from outside the teaching staff to enrich learning

  • uses time flexibly to meet learning needs

  • provides opportunities for learners to experience the benefits of different learning approaches, including learning through subject disciplines, thematic approaches, areas of study of their own choice and problem identification

  • provides opportunities for learners to learn on their own, in a team, in a large group and with virtual collaborators

  • provides opportunities for learners to learn in a range of places and to benefit from resources in the local community

  • includes global, national, local and personal dimensions

  • reflects and makes use of current technology

  • meets statutory requirements.

Go to activities to help organise your learning.

Element 3: Curriculum evaluation

A well-designed curriculum is constantly evaluated:

  • to find out the impact of provision, not simply the provision itself

  • using a wide range of indicators, reflecting all aspects of the curriculum aims

  • by learners, parents and carers, and the wider school community.

The results of this ongoing evaluation are used to decide how learning and assessment can be improved to allow all young people to make progress and achieve.

Go to activities to evaluate how well you are achieving your aims.

Key actions:

Curriculum case studies


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