What makes a great school curriculum?


‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum, and I shall move the world’

Archimedes, 3rd century BC


 “The curriculum is the difference between failure and success in education”.

Siegfried Engelmann, 20th century AD


A great school curriculum coherently sequences the best ideas of our global civilisation.

Is this the last national curriculum? Last week, Labour proposed that academy freedoms over the curriculum should be extended to all schools. A majority of secondary schools are now academies, and can already opt out. Schools are already thinking hard about how to innovate with the school curriculum. Even before I started teaching, over the last decade a couple of things particularly sparked my thinking on the curriculum.

I was trekking in the Rift Valley, the cradle of civilisation, in Kenya in 2007 when electoral and ethnic violence erupted, killing almost 1,500 people, sparking such horrific events as the 300 unarmed Kikuyu civilians burned alive in a Church on New Year’s Day. Ethnic tensions between Luos and Kikuyus in the Rift Valley had exploded during previous Kenyan elections, such as 1992. When I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro on the Tanzanian and Kenyan border, I asked one of the guides why there’d never been electoral violence in neighbouring Tanzania. In one word, he said, ‘education’. Premier Julius Nyere went to great lengths to ensure that from 1960 a national curriculum forged a powerful sense of Tanzanian national identity rather than tribal or ethnic identification. By contrast, no such national curriculum existed in Kenya. Kenyan politics is now disturbingly divided long ethnic lines. Tanzanian politics is not. There are clearly myriad other factors, but one thing’s for sure: it made me realise how much the curriculum matters.


In another African parable, writing my Masters’ thesis on South African post-apartheid education in 2010, one story I found revealing was the story of Michael Young. Young published Knowledge and Control in 1971, arguing that knowledge was a social construction that could be manipulated by those in power. Apartheid and its segregated education system in South Africa was the classic example of oppressive ‘knowledge of the powerful’. Post-apartheid, Young influenced the South African government’s 1994 curriculum reform away from knowledge (which had been shown to be corruptible), towards skills- and outcome-based education. Evaluating its effects as standards fell and inequality deepened, Young had a shocking realisation: his assumptions were ‘deeply flawed’: ‘outcomes on their own are not an adequate basis for the curriculum; they are, at best, a resource for assessment not a resource for the curriculum or pedagogy’ (2009). Instead, ‘a common curriculum should be based on the most reliable ideas that we have in any field of knowledge. This knowledge – I call it powerful knowledge’ (2011) can create cohesion and challenge inequality.


Is there something of a zeitgeist in thinking through a knowledge curriculum, as Chris Waugh suggested for the August blogsync? The Greater London Authority has a set up a £24 million knowledge-led fund as the next pioneering London-led reform agenda. But advocates of knowledge have been tarred as being right-wing, even from the BBC.

Let me say clearly: there’s nothing inherently right-wing about knowledge. Apart from Michael Young, three great left-wing advocates of knowledge show this: Frank Furedi, Claire Fox and Diane Ravitch. Furedi was founder and Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, and writes:

‘Contemporary pedagogy has lost faith in the importance of knowledge. Studying a subject or a body of knowledge is rarely perceived to be a good thing in itself … but frequently condemned as elitist. Society needs to challenge the tendency to downsize the status of knowledge’.


Fox, also a Communist, and now Director of the Institute of Ideas, wrote recently on the TES in an article headlined – Face the facts: for without them we know nothing:

‘It is dispiriting that the traditional building blocks of understanding, whether reciting poetry or learning factual knowledge, are now the subject of educational disdain… That could only result in denying generations the rich legacy of past insights, and leave them befuddled, fact-poor and stuck in the present’.


Ravitch has impeccable left-wing credentials as the most prolific antagonist protesting against the charter school movement in the US. But she has also criticised the ‘contentless curriculum’, from which it is worth quoting at length:

‘The consensus that undergirds the contentless curriculum is built on certain assumptions: that we lack any common, shared culture worth speaking of, much less preserving; that there are no particular literary works that should be read by all students; that historical studies are problematic insofar as they require students to memorise and recall certain facts. They derided it for emphasizing a “canon” and for expecting students to master a “body of knowledge” (the notion of “mastery” was itself suspect)…

‘Can we sustain a healthy civic culture when so few students (or adults) understand the evolution of our political democracy? Can we preserve a common culture when many high-school and even college graduates know little or nothing about our nation’s history and its literary heritage? Can we, even as we recognise increasing numbers of women and people of colour among the ranks of great authors, simply abandon those earlier writers whose works inspired them?

‘The vacuum created by our failure is being filled not by cutting-edge critical theorists, but by the commercial entertainment industry. If we do not teach our children history, Walt Disney and Oliver Stone will do it for us. If we do not teach literature, the rising generation will be denied access to one of the smartest and most effective methods of forming critical and independent minds…

‘There is a price to be paid for the flight from content and from knowledge during the past generation, the numbing nihilism of the contentless curriculum. I do not believe that we should accept mediocrity as our fate. As scholars, as teachers, as parents, as citizens, we must reclaim our common culture — or risk seeing it disappear.

At Wellington Education Festival 2013 this weekend, at a debate on ‘what should our pupils know?’ Lindsay Johns from Peckham stole the show. ‘Language is power’ he said, and disadvantaged young people need to ‘learn to articulate their thoughts in the language of those who have power’; ‘we need proper grammar, not ghetto grammar… in this society, the people who know grammar have the power’… ‘Teaching inner-city kids hip hop Hamlet is offensive’:

Hamlet doesn’t need a hip-hop sound track for young people to enjoy or understand it. It’s been doing just fine for the past 400 years. It is both patronising, and frankly racist, to think that black and brown kids in the inner cities will only ‘get’ Shakespeare if it’s set to a hip-hop beat and presented to them in 3-minute MTV Base-style chunks’.

Instead, Johns’ organisation in Peckham takes the approach of raising academic achievement, expanding cultural horizons, and developing a moral compass. In the same talk, Anastassia de Waal, primary teacher and Deputy Director at Civitas, urged the audience of teachers to ‘win hearts and minds’: knowledge is an equaliser, not elitist.


Young, Ravitch, Fox, Furedi, Johns and de Waal are all egalitarian in their impulse, and they know that what students know is vital. The killer question for a great school curriculum is, what should all students know and understand by the time they leave school?

There is an emerging international consensus that a cohesive, challenging curriculum is a cornerstone of effective education systems, good schools and great teaching. As Michael Barber, former McKinsey and now Pearson head of education put it in his most recent paper: ‘The central challenge is to grasp a broader, wider and deeper curriculum.’ What should the breadth and depth of a world-class school curriculum consist of?

If I had one criterion for inclusion of content in the curriculum, it should be this: include our intercultural inheritance of the best ideas that have been thought over millennia, which should be understood by all pupils.

This includes the alphabet, reading and writing; the number system, calculation and more complex mathematics like algebra, geometry and statistics; the scientific discoveries of forces, particles and life systems amongst others in the disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology – all of these are inventions which have transformed our existence. The great stories, turning-points, problems and innovations of past and present civilisations in history; the interactions between people, places and their environments in geography; the grammatical core for communication in modern foreign languages and other cultures; the trailblazing idea and practice of liberal and parliamentary democracy pioneered on this continent; the greatest legacies of imagination ever created by humanity across the globe, great works of music, art and literature that have inspired and challenged people throughout the ages. This content has proved its cultural value and practical importance over the long sweep of history: it is the content that has proved again and again to be the best and most secure foundation for innovation, creativity and invention. In short, all pupils should understand our most valuable and enduring human achievements.

There is nothing inherently elitist about this. There is nothing that almost every single pupil cannot grasp by the end of their time at school. It is instead elitist to deny any child their global birthright, the inheritance of the centuries that have gone before them. To live without an understanding of the greatest ideas humanity has ever created, such as writing, is a travesty. The best education systems in the world ensure every pupil has a broad knowledge and deep understanding of them by the time they leave school.

There are three crucial but much-underestimated components of a great school curriculum: subjects, knowledge and sequencing.


1. The Importance of Subjects for Understanding

Subjects work, as this blog post explains. They are the most effective way of organising the curriculum to ensure pupils learn. All the best education systems in the world use subjects. An INCA enquiry examined international evidence on curriculum organisation and content. (Oates 55) It showed ‘a very strong pattern, with high-performing jurisdictions tending to promote a wide range of subjects though years of compulsory provision’ (Oates p.23); ‘in all high-performing systems, the fundamentals of subjects are strongly emphasised, have substantial time allocation, and are the focus of considerable attention in learning programmes’ (Rudduck G & Sainsbury M 2008; Stigler J & Stevenson H 2006). (Oates p.15) Cognitive science gives us the rationale for why subjects work. Thinking skills are subject-specific and depend on domain knowledge. Teaching through subjects ensures broad and deep coverage of different domains. Subject categorisations are an arbitrary but effective way to help us to introduce vital and difficult concepts as varied as the conservation of mass and poetic metaphors.

2. The Importance of Knowledge for Skills

Subject content has proved again and again to be the best and most secure foundation for innovation, creativity and invention. Critical thinking skills require background knowledge and cannot be separated from it. Devoid of factual content, analysis is impossible to teach. High-level problem solving requires sufficient background knowledge in the long-term memory to free the working memory for thinking.

3. The Importance of Sequence for Memory

Optimal order of content needs careful consideration within and across subjects. Judicious selection of the optimal amount of content for each year is vital so as not to overload students but ensure retention in the long-term memory. Content must be sequenced cumulatively, incrementally and ideally with interleaving so that it is consolidated and revisited, folding easier into harder material to test new applications of taught concepts. Only through a carefully considered sequence across the humanities, for example, will students emerge with a secure understanding of chronology in global literature, arts, music and history.

Clearly, the school curriculum is a necessary but not sufficient foundation for great teaching. It also depends on great assessment and great training. Nevertheless, sequencing the greatest ideas of our global civilisation is an excellent starting point for academic achievement, cultural capital and intercultural inheritance.

It’s better to explain by example than by assertion. So I want to briefly compare two concrete examples of a school curriculum in one subject and one age range, Key Stage 3 (aged 11-14), and evaluate them against the criteria of coherence and sequencing. One designed by David Didau, and one by me.


David’s curriculum is impressive for a couple of reasons. First, its distinctive and dedicated allocation to grammar allows the time for consolidation, and the sequence embeds revisiting within and across years. Second, the texts selected all broaden horizons rather than narrowing them: they don’t fall prey to the opportunity cost that comes with teaching texts that students should read for pleasure and in their own time, but do not need. The extended time given to Orwell’s and Dickens’ novels, undoubtedly challenging, provocative and mind-expanding texts, is exciting. My question would be: has the content and context been coherently sequenced so that students build a strong, enduring understanding of literature and language? Has the sequence been thoroughly thought-through, ideally dovetailing with the history curriculum, as we know powerful chronological and contextual knowledge deepens understanding accelerates students’ interpretations of texts? These are tough questions for any curriculum designer.

The English curriculum I’ve devised answers the question of coherent sequence by interweaving of grammar, vocabulary and spelling with the cultural texts it teaches, using the lessons we’ve learned from Siegfried Engelmann and Michel Thomas about interleaving and revisiting. With this in mind, I’ve drafted a very rough snapshot of the Key Stage 3 English curriculum that I’d ideally like to teach, that I’d envision my students studying, and that I’d hope my own kids might eventually learn:


This English curriculum spins the globe, from 20th century BC Eurasia to 20th century America. Its chronology is sequential, which will leave students will a memorable framework in their minds for understanding any the cultural achievements of the past they may come across. In the future, this ancient, medieval, renaissance and modern framework should help them peg new ideas to their prior conception of the eras. The curriculum also has a gender and ethnicity balance, from ancient and early modern heroines like Antigone, Boudicca and Anne Boleyn, to African, Indian and black American civil rights activists like Mandela, Gandhi and Malcolm X. Great stories, great characters and powerful words: this to me is what makes English the most exciting, enjoyable, accessible and inspiring subject.

Much depends on the detail of practical implementation. One snapshot cannot capture the complexity and thought that must go into sequencing and interleaving. This is early days in an embryonic experiment, one I am happy to hear criticism of and glad to take suggestions on; most of all, though, it is one that I am hugely excited about. If Hirsch, Willingham and Engelmann are right, such a curriculum could make a difference to our pupils’ futures.

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

39 Responses to What makes a great school curriculum?

  1. Joe Kirby says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber and commented:

    On curriculum coherence and sequencing…

  2. behrfacts says:

    I have to admit I’m impressed by the passion of your arguments. My only issue is I’m not clear where the ‘eggy’ bits are when it comes to skills. In science this centres around the hands on, practical aspects which define many different types of scientist. In mathematics this is about being able to apply your knowledge to real world scenarios. In history this is focuses on being able to put together an evidence-based argument in an unbiased way – what barristers are trained to do, for example.

  3. David Didau says:

    Good job Joe. Regarding my curriculum and your questioning of it, it’s probably worth stating that the choices were in part determined by the context of my school and some financial restrictions. Also, I’ve put a fair bit of thought into what I think are the ‘threshold concepts’ of English and how their teaching should be interleaved in order to take advantage of what we know about the role of forgetting in learning. Readers might find it useful to follow the link to my original post: http://learningspy.co.uk/2013/03/25/redesigning-a-curriculum/

    Thanks, David

  4. Michael Tidd says:

    “Its chronology is sequential, which will leave students will a memorable framework in their minds”
    I keep reading statements like this. Is there any evidence that chronological teaching of anything creates chronological understanding?

  5. Richard says:

    “Let me say clearly: there’s nothing inherently right-wing about knowledge. ”

    Nobody ever said there was. Only the those on the right who wallow in a sense of victimhood because some people dare to oppose certain of their educational ideologies believe anyone did. It’s as bad as the Rights’ lastest pitch for martyrdom, comparing itself to gay people in the 70s for opposing gay marriage. I ain’t seen any opponent of gay marriage getting the living daylights beaten out of them on the streets, lately.

  6. @MichaelTidd Lots of evidence that *causal* connections improve memory–enormously. Causality is easy to get w/ chronology.

    • Michael Tidd says:

      I can definitely see the usefulness of causality… but that’s not as simple as just selected a handful of things to study and putting them in strict chronological order, surely? You would have to cover the full sequence of events, which isn’t suggested here.
      I’m not suggesting that teaching chronologically is bad, merely that alone it is not a sufficient guarantee of an ability to sequence & understand. For example, teaching WWII before the 1980s won’t be sufficient to fully understand, without also considering the massive significance of the Cold War, etc. in between.

  7. HeatherF says:

    The comments of Richard above and of Anastassia de Waal illustrate the real challenge faced by those of us that want a knowledge based curriculum. Again and again in debate those that hold dear a higher priority on skills, dismiss arguments in favour of a more knowledge in the curriculum by saying that they are not against knowledge. Of course, as Anastassia says, no one is entirely anti knowledge or anti skills. It is true that real debate gets stifled because those in favour of more knowledge in the curriculum react with frustration to accusations that they just want rote and ‘the other side’ are annoyed by the suggestion that they are anti-knowledge. Even so, I wanted to say to Anastassia yesterday that despite the cycle of misunderstanding in the current debate, talking of false dichotomies is unhelpful because it implies we all agree deep down when there are fundamental differences between the two camps, apparent in support for markedly different curriculums. Anastassia was unhelpful because she seemed to imply those in favour of a knowledge curriculum would persuade those on the other side of the debate if they chose their words more carefully. I disagree because people who are deeply and emotionally attached to their views are unlikely to change them, phonics denialism illustrates this nicely. However, debate wold be more meaningful and closer to grappling with the real issues if we slog to say precisely what we mean. I’ve read Daisy Christo’s book and it is so impressive because she has managed to do that.

  8. Hannah Cusworth says:

    Recently I’ve been thinking about a some the same issues myself. I’ve begun to realise that to really improve the quality of my teaching next year, I have to have a clearer idea of where I want students to be by the end of the year. “Oh I need her to be a Level 5b.” isn’t enough….

    Having looked at your KS3 curriculum, I’ve got three things I wanted to ask:
    1) How come there are 5 ‘blocks’ and not the more usual 6 (for half terms or 6 week cycles)

    2) How do you plan to teach writing? It looks like all the units that you describe are all essentially reading units. I notice you’ve spoken about interweaving grammar, but that’s different to explicitly teaching different text types/genres; or is that what you plan to do each year in Block 5 ‘Structure’?

    3) What goes under each unit? i.e what parts of a sentence will you teach in Year 8 as opposed to Year 9, what do you want you children to be able to do when studying Shakespeare in Year 9 that you might not expect in Year 7. This is something I’m really trying to get my head around at the moment.

  9. Therese says:

    >“Let me say clearly: there’s nothing inherently right-wing about knowledge. ”

    >Nobody ever said there was. Only the those on the right who wallow in a sense of victimhood >because some people dare to oppose certain of their educational ideologies believe anyone did.

    Have you read Daisy Christodoulos’s new book? I imagine not, as if you had, you wouldn’t claim that ‘nobody ever said there was’. She provides ample evidence.

  10. I should begin by saying that I am an admirer of this blog generally. You write lucidly and passionately and I absolutely appreciate your mission to push beyond the polarised and the predictable to explore, well pragmatic reform. All power to your elbow.

    That said – and I am open to being converted, I really am – I can’t shake the suspicion that this that this whole knowledge zeitgeist thing is the mother of all straw men arguments… a wicker man cult at war with a cargo cult, if you will. I hope this is taken in good spirit – I just genuinely don’t get what are you actually arguing for. Let’s take a look at the list of things you say should feature in a curriculum:

    • the alphabet
    • reading and writing
    • the number system, calculation and more complex mathematics like algebra, geometry and statistics
    • the scientific discoveries of forces, particles and life systems amongst others in the disciplines of physics, chemistry and biology
    • the great stories, turning-points, problems and innovations of past and present civilisations in history;
    • the interactions between people, places and their environments in geography (This is a call for cross-curricular learning surely? Can Geography adequately express the complexity of the Arab Spring for example?)
    • the grammatical core for communication in modern foreign languages and other cultures
    • the ideas and practice of liberal and parliamentary democracy

    Does it really need mentioning that this all sounds kind of familiar? Then comes the next bit…

    “the greatest legacies of imagination ever created by humanity across the globe, great works of music, art and literature that have inspired and challenged people throughout the ages… this content has proved its cultural value and practical importance over the long sweep of history: it is the content that has proved again and again to be the best and most secure foundation for innovation, creativity and invention. In short, all pupils should understand our most valuable and enduring human achievements…”

    Two things strike me here: 1) nobody would argue that this shouldn’t happen; and 2) nobody could really argue that this doesn’t happen already, at least to a significant extent. No doubt it could always be done more, or better, and no doubt there is huge variation within the system – it is certainly clear that there has often been a tendency to dumb things down at Key Stage 3.

    Now I am not an English teacher (I am a Science teacher – in Science telling kids what has already been worked out tends to go down like a lead balloon – far better to help lead them toward understanding in my experience – not “discovery learning”, whatever that it, but the guided construction of knowledge, as per Neil Mercer – my PhD supervisor). The programmes of study developed by yourself and David Didau look impressive – but do they really mark a significant shift from what has gone before? Without wishing to generalise from the particular, I studied Animal Farm in year 7 at my state comprehensive in the late 1980s, and Shakespeare in year 8, and the Greeks, and poetry, and grammar was woven throughout it… Am I missing something here? Please can you explain how this is any different to what has gone before?

    Like Willingham you say that Critical Thinking Skills require knowledge… from this I assume you accept that critical thinking skills constitute some sort of desirable end game for education, or at least a set of “higher order processes” than merely learning pre-ordained knowledge. So let’s turn the debate on its head for a moment: how have critical thinking skills in the current or past curriculum been adequately addressed? In my own subject, Science, they have in recent years taken the form of ‘How Science Works’, a bizarrely limited set of taught precepts that bear little resemblance to how science, erm actually works (I used to work in a multidisciplinary neurobiology research lab at Harvard Medical School, and I never once heard anyone mention independent variables…)

    Like I say, I am open to being convinced, and I look forward to reading Daisy’s book. However I think the reality is that you overstate the case that Skills agenda has taken over the asylum. Robinson and Claxton are influential yes but they are not central players – and if 200 schools are running Opening Minds that leaves thousands that aren’t… is it possibly the case that you too are generalising from the particular?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  11. HeatherF says:

    No, it is not generalising. The last set of exam reforms moved towards assessing skills separately from knowledge. My A level markschemes no longer have an assumption within the levels that knowledge is foundational and higher order skills will be on display in the higher levels. Instead skills are assessed separately from knowledge. What this actually means is that students without a firm enough grasp of the detail to anayse (despite my best efforts…) now have to learn analytical points which I provide them and they can regurgitate in their essays to gain some of the 3/4s of the marks available for analysis.
    If you look at the last secondary NC document you will see the same focus on skills.

    • Hi Heather, thanks for responding. I’d be interested to hear more about this, as your post generates lots of questions. Please can you give examples of what you mean? Which subject/exam board do you teach at A level? Do you mean to say that 75% of the marks in essay-based exams are given purely for analysis, with no knowledge requirements? What’s the problem with assessing them separately? Do you know of any examples of skills and knowledge being assessed simultaneously in the past? If so how was this done? So you think skills should be taught/developed/assessed at all? If so in what form?

      And if Dan WIllingham and Joe and others agree that critical thinking skills form a desirable educational aim – and indeed that we should teach knowledge as a prerequisite for higher order critical thinking skills – then what is the problem with these skills being assessed? My point is, skills are present yes but I think they have often been ill-conceived, taught poorly, and assessed haphazardly. This doesn’t mean it’s a lost cause – we just need to do it better.

      I have spent the last 3 years developing a skills-based curriculum that promotes transfer across domains, and which can be assessed reliably in a range of ways. The preliminary data are very promising. It can be done.

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  14. Paul says:

    It’s a shame that some of the interesting comments and questions have not been replied to. There is the opportunity for thriving debate and a honing of views. This is passed up when discourse is avoided.

  15. HeatherF says:

    Not replying was certainly not to dodge the argument. In fact I wrote what amounts to a very full response to pedagog here and in the comments below it.

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  27. Hannah Obertelli says:

    Joe, this is something I’m working on right now and would love to sit down with you about. I’ve come up with another ks3 english model with lots of similarities and have a good chance to develop across a federation of schools. If you’ve still got my number, give me a bell.

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  37. Rufus says:

    Reblogged this on No Easy Answers and commented:
    Wonderful writing on Curriculum by Joe Kirby

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