top of page

Curriculum implementation - responding to the challenges

Updated: Apr 15, 2023

Question for senior leaders: What does it take to turn your ambitious curriculum into reality? What, at a senior leadership level, are you grappling with? What have been your successes and what are your next steps? To what extent is your current position the same or different to that of other schools when it comes to implementing the curriculum effectively?

Is this a topic close to your heart? Are you a senior leader with responsibility for curriculum? Join me on the 19th May for a 2-hour focused training session. I hope you find this blog stimulates thinking and that you find the content useful to yourself and your team.

What started as a simple LinkedIn post grew into a blog about the challenges leaders face in turning their school's ambitious curriculum into classroom reality. It is important to regularly take stock and ask 'Where are we now?'.

Leaders' knowledge and understanding of curriculum design, curriculum research and tenets of curriculum practice have grown substantially over the last 4 years. Think back to before the Ofsted framework changed to place more emphasis on the curriculum. How much has your knowledge grown?

Primary schools have invested many hours into redesigning and personalising their school's curriculum, and in supporting teachers to understand the importance of making curriculum changes. There has been much agonising in developing 'intent' and schools have generally made great strides forward in planning for the delivery of foundation subjects. And, whilst there have been advancements in delivery, there is still much to do to reap the academic rewards of redesigned curriculums and see the benefits of teachers / leaders knowing more about curriculum principles. By seeking to understand general issues, school leaders can reflect on their school's current position and this can help to clarify what the next steps should be. By identifying and tackling the current delivery issues, school leaders can ensure the work already undertaken has maximum impact.

(This blog focuses on the implementation of the academic curriculum, particularly thinking about foundation subjects).

How many hours have you and colleagues in your school already invested in curriculum development? What positives have arisen from the time and effort devoted to curriculum development?

Have you taken the time to take stock and celebrate the improvements?

  • Pupil voice

  • Book reviews

  • Subject reports

  • Wall displays

  • Lesson observations

  • Teacher voice

  • Special events

What is different now compared to last year, the year before and the year before that?

Seeing the image made be chuckle and think 'too true'. We've all experienced going 'two steps forward, one step back', or found ourselves in a position where growth started at a rapid, enthusiastic pace and then hit a plateau which left us having to dig deep to regain momentum, or feeling like we were never going to make progress followed by a sudden leap in performance. Growth is emotional.

Schools are amazing places. Blogs, twitter, talking to pupils and teachers - it doesn't take long to see the fantastic work taking place in schools. When you think of your curriculum, what are the highlights? You may find that your answer isn't about a particular subject, but about 'episodes' in the learning journey. Perhaps it is a set of experiments that Year 5 raved about, a challenging piece of drama that took your breath away, an amazing geography field trip that still makes you smile, poems about World War II that were stunning, a child saying or doing something that others thought would never be possible. Are you celebrating what is special about your curriculum?

What brings you joy?

When you meet leaders from other schools, what improvements are they talking about? There are some generalisations that we can make. In the past, when you reviewed pupil books, there were often 'pockets' of excellence within foundation subjects. There are now far more examples of excellence across subjects and year groups. In the past, a considerable amount of the National Curriculum was not being delivered. In fact, some teachers rarely looked at the NC to check coverage. Now, a much higher percentage of the NC is being taught. This doesn't mean that there aren't gaps, believe me there are, but in most schools the gaps are reduced. Previously you might have seen a random collection of activities loosely associated with a topic, driven more by what resources could be found rather than what needed to be taught. This has largely been replaced with a much more coherent curriculum that relates to more precisely defined objectives. Teachers are much more aware of the knowledge and understanding to be achieved. Getting to more precise objectives has not been easy. Some elements of the NC are quite well defined, such as in science, others are much looser and have required schools to decide for themselves what specifically will be taught. For example, what precisely will be covered under the heading 'biomes' in geography? Leaders and teachers have grappled with important decisions about what to include in the curriculum, what knowledge pupils will gain, what skills will be prioritised, what depth and breadth will be set. Long running debate about what should be taught in schools continues, but that is a whole other blogpost!

However, despite the many advancements, curriculum implementation is still very much a work in progress. And, the disruption to education has also taken its toll. In the recent Ofsted subject review on science (Feb 2023), the report acknowledges how home learning deprived many pupils of practical science experiences and we know how this has impacted on pupils' understanding and skill base. One of the problems of implementing a newly designed curriculum is that it takes time for pupils to move up through the school. If the curriculum design is spiral, taking into account prior learning, then later units (at the moment) rely on elements some pupils will never have experienced. Newly designed schemes of work being delivered currently in Year 2 may cover knowledge and understanding that the current Year 6 were never taught. It will take time for all the changes to feed through into tangible impact.

It also takes time for new ways of working to feed through into classroom teaching! Why would be surprised to find that implementation is not perfect?

Whilst there have been substantial gains, it is far from being all roses. For some schools, choosing what subject to suggest to Ofsted for a 'deep dive' is one that can keep leaders awake at night. How can we expect ALL aspects of the curriculum to be equally strong? Think about the vastness and complexity of the curriculum. Finding a subject that is expertly delivered and has great outcomes for ALL pupils, in ALL year groups, across ALL topics...diamond. There will be some subjects that are much stronger than others across the board. And there are some subjects that are likely to be more patchwork. And others, well, where you would rather no-one quite looked. And yet, in even in those subjects, there will be a few gems.

With limited amount of time for teachers to engage in thinking, professional dialogue, planning and training - it can be hard to make progress across all the subjects in the national curriculum.

Are you dealing with any of the following?

What type of meetings / leadership structures are helping you to manage these challenges? For example, are you making greater use of phase leaders and redefining their role to give greater insights into the highs and lows of curriculum implementation within each phase? Have you changed the way you work with subject leaders to empower and equip them with the skills needed to make more impact? Do you have regular SLT meetings that have a curriculum focused agenda? Are you considering how to improve pupil skills so that they are better equipped to engage effectively with a more challenging curriculum? Does your CPD plan for the year ahead reflect the challenges?

If you are a senior leader with responsibility - don't try to carry this alone. When the goals change, e.g. moving from curriculum design to curriculum implementation and impact, we need to consider how to change structures and working practices to meet the new challenges.

The challenge of making the school experience as good as it possibly can be, the demands of ensuring our pupils leave with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in their next stage of education, helping pupils to develop into the best people they can be - happy, healthy, thriving (etc) - the desire to achieve these ambitious, lofty goals is what keeps us going. When I was first teaching, in fact when I was first leading a subject, I thought it was possible to get to the point of being 'finished'. A point where all the schemes of work were complete and effective. A point where all topics were strong. A point at which all my team could deliver the curriculum effectively. A point where all pupils would be achieving their potential. And at that magical point, my workload would reduce because I would be steering a ship through calm waters and the development work would be complete. I envisaged that we would be sunbathing on the deck while the ship sailed on. Then I realised, this never happens. The goal posts move, the circumstances shift, the occasional storm comes in, the staff get promoted...or you move on as a leader to tackle a new challenge! You have to learn to love the journey. You have to enjoy grappling with the complexities of learning. You have to want to push to improve the stubborn, hard to fix elements.

So, as a school and as a leader, what are the challenges that you are currently grappling with?

It is worth considering if any of these 4 challenges are challenges that your school faces. When looking in books, talking to pupils, watching lessons...etc., are you considering if true learning has occurred? Did pupils get to full understanding? Are they likely to be able to utilise their learning? Is it likely that they will remember what has been taught? Has 'mastery' been achieved? All of the National Curriculum, not just mathematics, is based on a mastery approach to learning. How do we know if they have reached mastery? How do we know if they have achieved understanding? Step 1: 'is the curriculum delivered'. However, we need to move past the ticking that coverage has been achieved. If it was previously missing, step 1 is for it to be taught! But we must then move beyond this to consider quality, and most importantly impact.

The more pupils are metacognitive and are able to ask themselves if they have achieved understanding, the more likely it is that we will equip our pupils to be successful life long learners. Deciding if you have learned something, deciding if you will be able to remember something, deciding if you have gained enough knowledge - these are all metacognitive decisions under the heading 'judgements of knowing'. Sometimes, we get these judgements wrong. For example, you may recall a time when you have under or over revised for a test. This is one of the reasons we might self-test ourselves before an examination- to check the accuracy of our own judgement. Metacognitive thinking can be taught and developed. Pupils need to be given the opportunities for reflection. In a busy timetable, reflection and metacognitive skills can get overlooked. They can't be taught in isolation - they need to be threaded through all the subjects.

I always liked this quote by Dr Helen Drury. When you are judging the impact of your curriculum, how sure are you that learning has been achieved? Is your curriculum a mile wide and an inch deep? Does it move on before pupils have mastered the content? Does it set pupils up for the next increment in their studies? Which elements of the curriculum are really strong?

An ambitious curriculum requires pupils to engage in deep and meaningful thinking. Thinking helps pupils to grow their schema, make connections and develop conceptual understanding. A renewed emphasis for 'thinking' in foundation subjects can mean that pupils are being asked to undertake sophisticated thinking without the prior experience, tools, modelling and skills to undertake it successfully. Could this be the case in your school? When the thinking has taken place, pupils need ways of being able to express and communicate their learning. You may find that pupils are lacking in the skills to be able to show depth and sophistication in their answers. Teachers have to, within subjects, model how to write explanations, develop sentences that focus on giving reasons, help pupils to write texts that are analytical, etc. When you look at pupil answers, do they demonstrate the level of understanding that was actually achieved in the lesson?

There are some brilliant trips, visits and experiences that teachers work hard to provide. I do sometimes think that we are not capitalising on these from an academic perspective as much as we could. A little work before a 'castle trip', e.g. reading and hearing about castles, examining photographs of castles, preparing questions, planning what to record whilst there, etc., can enhance the pupils' experience. Pupils 'hear' the language that castle guides might use when talking to groups. The pupils hear terminology like 'keep, turret, moat' that can help them ask questions, find their way around, appreciate what they are seeing. They can make connections between what they see and what they have read, helping the new knowledge to be more sticky. A little work after the trip, e.g. using RECALL to think back on key experiences can help solidify and improve retention of knowledge - this might be achieved using photographs and engaging in structured talk activities. After the trip, the teacher needs to help the children to think back on their experience in order to grasp new knowledge and concepts. The teacher needs to help bring the threads of learning together. It is best not to make the trip a 'hook' right at the start of a unit, nor a 'celebration' at the end, but instead to have lessons before and after to get the most from the experience. Since this, again, could be a whole separate blog, I will move on, but leave you to think about it. Is cognitive science, including knowledge of memory, being utilised in relation to trips and visits?

When evaluating curriculum implementation it is important to consider the 'zoomed out' perspective which is the overarching vision for the subject. And the 'zoomed in' perspective which is the specific objectives and details of knowledge and skills that will be taught.

Zoomed out view: Are you delivering on the aims and purpose of a subject? You can find details of these at the start of each subject section in the National Curriculum. Most likely, the key elements are incorporated into your school's subject statements and subject leader's vision for the subject.

For example, in science -

  • To what extent have lesson delivery provided opportunities to work scientifically, e.g. observing over time, noticing patterns, classifying and grouping, conducting comparative and fair tests? How well developed is pupils' ability to 'observe' and how do they make use of 'observations'? Can pupils separate out the skills and benefits of different ways of classifying so that they could use classifying effetcively in future topics / in other subjects?

  • To what extent are pupils developing their knowledge of apparatus so that they can become increasingly confident in designing their own enquiry / working with greater levels of independence? For example, do they learn the term 'pipette' and consider the relative advantages of using this piece of equipment over an alternative, and in doing so build their ability to make future decisions on whether to use a pipette for a particular task?

  • Are they learning the importance of accuracy, e.g. selecting equipment with accuracy in mind, checking results, re-measuring when appropriate?

  • To what extent are they developing an understanding of how science uses evidence to develop explanation?

  • To what extent have pupils been asked to participate in different types of scientific enquiry, answer scientific questions, engage practically with science?

  • To what extent have pupils been required to explain concepts, articulate their thinking, provide rational explanations, predict how things will behave?

  • To what extent are pupils 'exploring', asking questions, being supported to develop curious enquiry?

  • To what extent are teachers tapping into learning from other subjects (such as mathematics and computing) when collecting, analysing and presenting data?

We should not jump straight to the content and objectives for a specific unit, but consider it in the context of the subject vision.

In the recent Science subject review (Feb 2023) Ofsted noted that "Leaders' plans to develop pupils' disciplinary knowledge were much less developed than their plans to develop pupils' substantive knowledge." In my experience, this is not just in science but applies across all subjects.

  • Too little time is devoted to teachers revisiting and discussing subject vision and aims.

  • With planning time being limited teachers often do not plan with reference to the bigger picture of the subject aims.

  • Teachers are rarely asked to evaluate the impact of a unit of work based on the subject vision.

Schools have spent so much time developing subject statements and creating a vision for the school curriculum and for individual subjects within it. This work can't sit idle on computer networks, but should be living and breathing documents that help pave the way for high quality professional dialogue. What is the situation in your school?

When it comes to the zoomed in view, most schools have precisely defined the knowledge, objectives and skills to be achieved. This looks different across schools. Some schools have added useful advice or prompts to help teachers who are less experienced to know exactly what to aim for. Many have developed knowledge organisers which help teachers as well as pupils.

Considering the above example: If I have never taught this unit before, I can get a really good sense of what I need pupils to know and understand. I can then make informed decisions about the resources that will help me achieve this. I can start to think about the activities that will help pupils to grasp the concepts. I can think about how much time I need to deliver the unit and which elements might combine well together. If I am an experienced teacher, I might remember from previous years that pupils really struggled with the idea of the equator and that a globe might help. I might have seen on a twitter post how a teacher in an other part of the country had used a world map jigsaw and remember thinking that the ability for pupils to hold a continent in their hands would be useful for increased awareness of shape. The WHAT is specified. The HOW becomes the plan.

When the objectives and coverage are well defined, it is easier for leaders to monitor and evaluate implementation and impact. The teacher can also decide what will help them to check / assess children's understanding. Some schools have used blooms taxonomy words to help define this more sharply. The National Curriculum uses the word knowledge 117 times. It uses the words 'know' and 'understand' often. But what does it mean to 'know' and what does it mean to 'understand'. Specify this more precisely helps with assessment, e.g. can list the animals... can explain why a Llama is well suited to living in South America... argue, justify, define, give examples, create, label, categorise. How might the knowledge be used? How might understanding be demonstrated? How clearly defined are your units of study? Assessment is still a large and complex issue that is difficult to get right. Sometimes schools are not assessing a subject at all, sometimes schools are assessing elements of the curriculum but the information is not acted on, in some schools assessment covers only easy to measure elements, in some schools the assessment doesn't check how new learning links to learning in previous year groups. Trying to balance best practice in assessment whilst keeping workload manageable across all subjects in the curriculum is a headache. Have you made meaningful inroads with assessment in foundation subjects?

When units have been delivered, it is important for teachers to evaluate them and consider if any need to be re-shaped, re-specified. Towards the end a terms are teachers provided with any opportunity to reflect on the unit? Which were the hard to teach elements? What activities worked well? Was everything delivered? If re-teaching this unit, what would you change?

Teachers should also consider the way that all the learning within the unit fits together. In Ofsted's examples of curriculum objectives, they talk about the 'composite' and the 'components'. How do all the elements link together? Do the individual elements work to feed into a bigger concept? If the intent of the curriculum is still an point for development in your school, I advise you to return to previous training on intent.

The idea of teaching in concepts is still one that we are perhaps not capitalising on sufficiently. If you know the concept of 'invasion' you can apply this to thinking about any invasion, e.g. reasons why people invade, likely response of the inhabitants. It makes it easier to study different historical invasions. You can also apply it to study beyond history, e.g. an invasion of ants, an alien invasion. It enables pupils to make comparisons, consider key points, analyse situations, consider similarities and differences with greater ease if pupils have that 'top level' thinking. As pupils progress through school (and life) their concept of invasion increases and they can build an ever growing schema that links to the concept.

It is incredibly stressful for teachers to be delivering topics in which they lack knowledge, skills and confidence. With a crammed curriculum, it can lead teachers to pay lip service to these topics or can result in de-prioritisation / non-delivery of some aspects of the curriculum. For example, a teacher who feel under skilled and underconfident in art may deliver far less art across a term than a confident, highly-skilled teacher who loves art! If we want teachers to be able to teach effectively, address misconceptions, achieve the curriculum goals, then they need to have CPD opportunities that are right for them. This may be having a set of age-specific nonfiction texts to learn from before a topic is delivered, it may be accessing face-to-face or online training about teaching the subject, it might be additional planning time to work with the subject leader in planning a series of lessons. There is a statutory minimum PPA time, but if we want delivery across the curriculum to be high-quality, we will need to get creative about offering teachers more than this.

If we are serious about reducing workload in primary, we also have to consider how many subjects teachers are asked to teach and be experts in. When Ofsted carried out curriculum research back in 2017/18 they considered how well different aspects of the National Curriculum were being delivered. (Band 5 was the best level.) Could there have been a link between PE and MFL being rated higher than other foundation subjects due to the knowledge and understanding of the person delivering the lessons? At the time, in PE there was extensive use of external coaches to teach or team teach lessons, and in MFL the subject was often delivered by one specialist across all the year groups. Whilst I am not advocating that primary schools switch to a secondary model, I think it is possible to deliver interesting, cross theme topics to pupils whilst not personally delivering all subjects to your own class, particularly in larger 2 and 3 form entry schools. Is it time to think outside the box? If I teach only 6 subjects rather than 10 my workload is surely less than if I am teaching all the subjects. If you had been categorising subjects in your school back in 2017/18 what would it have looked like? What does it look like now?

In the DfE research report 'Working lives of teachers and leaders – wave 1' April 2023, teachers were most confident in teaching English and Mathematics (90%) and Science (76%) and least confident in teaching languages (24%), music (33%) and computing (39%). What would such a survey tell you about confidence in teaching subjects in your school? What about topics within the subject?

Some schools have chosen to use external schemes of work and externally produced resources, e.g. computing schemes of work. This can be helpful, as instead of having to plan lessons from scratch, teachers can concentrate on how to deliver the already planned lessons effectively. (It does require the schemes to be high quality!)

Perhaps the teacher is worried about teaching sewing. Perhaps the teacher has little knowledge about the Maya civilisation. Perhaps the teacher is concerned about using saws in DT. How is support personalised to the needs of the teacher. Are they asked at the start of the year to look through schemes of work and long-term plans to identify the areas they think will be most difficult for them to deliver?

There is an abundance of resources and help to increase leaders' knowledge of their subject, e.g. Ofsted research series, Ofsted subject reviews, Ofsted videos, curriculum related books, subject associations, training courses, networks, online social media. You can not acquire expertise and knowledge overnight. There is also a continuous shift in who leads on a subject as staffing changes in schools. You might, for example, currently have a very experienced and knowledgeable science leader who is just about to retire. What annual plans do you create for the development of subject leader knowledge and how does this relate to their individual needs?

As a senior leader, it can be hard to have a handle on the quality of implementation across the whole curriculum. You are likely to engage in professional dialogue with leaders, read subject reports, hear presentations from subject leaders, see the results of monitoring activities. It can also be incredibly useful to undertake a 'year end' review to gain an overview of the curriculum by reviewing what you know already with a book review of ALL books from September to July. Depending on the size of the school, reviewing the books takes 3-4 solid days (as in no interruptions / pure concentration).

Undertaking a deeper analysis of the overall picture, you will gain useful insights into the challenges that middle leaders face. It isn't just about the amount of knowledge they have, experience or skillset - it is also about the hill they are trying the climb. For some, the curriculum is well developed, mostly understood by staff and 'happening' - they are working on pockets of practice that need to be developed, or perhaps they are working to strengthen a strand of the subject. For others, they are all too aware that their subject has only pockets of good practice but that substantial work needs to be undertaken to make improvements and they know there is resistance from staff. These two leaders need different types of help and support!

It obviously has its limitations as an activity, but you might be surprised how much you might learn! You are not looking to explore questions such as is the curriculum challenging enough for higher ability pupils. It will not tell you if SEND pupils are effectively supported to access the curriculum and make fantastic progress. What it will do is give you an overview of the academic curriculum in its entirety. How do all the subjects fit together to make a whole? What does whole scale progress look like between year groups? How does one subject stack up against another?

Choose pupils who are 'representative' and who had good attendance. You are using them to get a feel for the curriculum delivery, an insight into what it is like to undertake your curriculum. You are imagining the lessons. You are considering what pupils have gained across the year.

Here are some prompts to aid your thinking:

In the past, you may have found lots of photographs stuck into pupil exercise books as 'proof' that these activities occurred. Thankfully, teachers are no longer undertaking this time consuming exercise in printing and sticking. However, it does make it more problematic to get a sense of any practical activities that took place. Sometimes you can see the impact and might not be able to work out from looking in books how the outcome was achieved. For example, a series of talk activities may have taken place that you don't know about, but the end result is a short piece of independent writing explaining the pros and cons of living near a river and how the pros and cons of this have changed over time.

When I speak to subject leaders they are often very passionate about their subject and can often articulate exactly what their vision is for their subject. However, they have limited opportunity to communicate this to teachers and lack opportunities to work with teachers to ensuring it comes to fruition.

I have observed lessons where pupils are very engaged, but not making any progress. I have seen lessons in which 'enjoyment' is a key factor, but little real learning was gained. We don't want to throw out all elements of fun (and even at times silly trivia), but we do want to make sure teachers are skilled at selecting the right activities to achieve the objective(s). We want to make the best use of the time available. Children are more likely to enjoy learning when they feel like they are making progress, when the work is challenging and they are supported to achieve.

When reviewing the books of 2 pupils in each class, you may find that the review of the first book takes considerable time, but that reviewing the subsequent books is faster as you are often just confirming (or not) that what you saw in book one is actually representative across all the classes in the year group. Make comparisons unit by unit. Consider if pupils are asked similar questions, complete similar activities, produce answers which are broadly the same level - etc.

I think we have a lot of work still to do on this issue. I would advise colleagues to have a good look at oracy activities, physical ways of representing learning, graphic organisers, visual thinking frameworks and how to write within a subject discipline.

Padlet can be a great way to share your findings with other colleagues and list the questions you have. Undertaking this work now can help you form questions to discuss with subject leaders and provide an understanding of the challenges that they are facing.

You can email me to book a place, request a form to complete, book a place online and pay either by credit card or choice the invoice option. You can see other focused sessions and microlearning courses in our summer brochure.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page