Four pillars of principled curriculum design, to articulate and evidence curriculum intent

Alex Galvin, Senior Education Lead, SSAT writes…

Ofsted have made no secret of the fact that their big focus for the foreseeable future will be curriculum. Both Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford spoke last term about the rationale behind this shift of emphasis. Speaking at the Festival of Education, Amanda Spielman said: ‘One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.’

Given the unprecedented pace of change in curriculum and qualifications at all key stages in recent years, it’s not surprising that curriculum has often been conflated with national policy, exam specifications and accountability. This is wrong. SSAT has long advocated a principled approach to curriculum design – from our work with David Hargreaves on personalisation to our more recent Redesigning Schooling campaign with Dylan Wiliam.


We welcome the shift in emphasis flagged up by Spielman and Harford, and wholeheartedly endorse the belief that all students should have access to a broad and balanced curriculum that enables them to achieve their potential. We have always advocated an approach to curriculum that is long term and sustainable rather than focused on short-term interventions. We hope that there will be increased recognition of some of the accountability pressures which have resulted in schools feeling that they are caught between doing what is in the best interests of their students and the best interests of the school performance tables, and for example end up narrowing their curriculum offer.

So what does this mean in practice? Sean Harford has explained it like this: ‘Schools need to know their curriculum design and intent; know how their curriculum is being implemented; know what impact their curriculum is having on pupils’ knowledge and understanding…’

Curriculum intent shines a light on decisions at all levels

A focus on curriculum intent can provoke interesting and useful discussions. It goes to the heart of what you want to achieve as a school and shines a light on the way in which decisions are made at all levels. It is not about a particular curriculum model being prescribed by Ofsted (or anyone else) but about curriculum in its true sense, as Dylan Wiliam puts it: ‘the lived daily experience of young people in classrooms… curriculum is pedagogy’ (SSAT Redesigning Schooling – 3, Principled Curriculum Design).

A focus on curriculum intent goes to the heart of what you want to achieve as a school and shines a light on the way in which decisions are made at all levels

Curriculum planning will always involve a series of compromises; there is no ‘right’ answer. The most important thing is that you know which questions to ask and are confident in your answers.

SSAT have captured some of the key questions provoked by a focus on curriculum intent in 4 pillars of principled curriculum design. We hope this will be helpful in supporting conversations across your school and ensuring that you are confident in articulating the approach you take. It takes you through the stages of curriculum planning:

  • Intent
  • Content
  • Delivery
  • Experience.

In terms of the ways in which this focus on intent might require you to think a little differently, it may be helpful to reflect on your practice in terms of the following key areas:

Intent/vision: how confidently can you and all of your team articulate what you are trying to achieve through your curriculum offer?

Joined-up decision making: does this intent inform the decision-making at department and classroom level about what is taught and when?

Joined-up improvement planning: is your curriculum intent seamlessly aligned with your approach to teaching and learning and the wider development of your students?

Joined-up quality assurance: are decisions about curriculum fully integrated with your self-review process? How do you know that your offer is right for your students and that your ambitions are being realised?

Collaborative planning: who shapes and owns your curriculum intent?

Ofsted will be interested to see how well embedded your curriculum intent is – whether the way in which you articulate your vision reflects what is happening at all levels. They will be looking to see the rationale behind your decision-making. So it will be vital that you can show your choices are principled ones that aim to provide your students with a rich and rewarding experience enabling them to achieve their potential. And not just for Ofsted.

We hope that the 4 pillars of principled curriculum design provide a useful tool for exploring these areas in more detail.

Download your SSAT member-exclusive resource 4 pillars of principled curriculum design.

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One thought on “Four pillars of principled curriculum design, to articulate and evidence curriculum intent

  1. gharrison123 on said:

    It is interesting that you talk about the intent of the curriculum and the need for us to focus on it at a departmental level. As a HOD I have done this and redesigned our KS3 curriculum as I felt that we weren’t preparing our pupils well enough for the rigorous nature of the KS4 curriculum. Do you think it is import to have an inter-levered curriculum, in so far as, departments should plan content that has some connection to each other to maximise the impact of the curriculum school wide? This isn’t the case at my current school, where I know as a middle leader, that many departments have redesigned their curriculum’s but we haven’t had a collective conversation about this.

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