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Issue 18: Curriculum innovation and impact

Published: May 2023
Guest Edited by: David Leat

This issue explores the theme of curriculum innovation and impact, with sections on:

  • Collaboration and whole-school impact
  • Creativity, knowledge and learning
  • Wellbeing and the wider curriculum
  • Innovative approaches to curriculum planning


David Leat, Professor of Curriculum Innovation, Newcastle University, UK


Teachers are curriculum makers. Whatever is mandated in National Curriculum documents or signalled in the Ofsted inspection framework, there is still a long step from the ink on the page to the classroom. However, policy developments over the last 30 plus years have not necessarily resulted in sufficient focus in practice on this critical aspect of teachers’ professionalism. Despite notional freedoms in curriculum, Greany and Waterhouse (2016) provide evidence that comparatively few schools use those freedoms and readers will be familiar with the many arguments about the narrowing of curriculum and ‘teaching to the test’. Parker and Leat (2021) found that many primary teachers in a given sample did not see themselves as curriculum makers and instead saw the curriculum as something they delivered, not something they developed. They report:

‘one teacher positioned curriculum as the “rules and regs [sic] of education” and another said curriculum is: “a set of rules that you have to abide by and make sure that you reach those targets, and that you’re giving the children the education that they’re supposed to be having”.’

If curriculum making is a social practice (Priestley et al., 2021) set in a working context, involving interaction with a range of other ‘actors’, including fellow teachers, then it is important that there is supportive infrastructure and culture within and beyond the school for teachers’ role as active researchers and creators (Sachs, 2016). According to Priestley et al., teachers are the nano site in curriculum making, while schools are the micro site, curriculum support organisations the meso site and government the macro site and the sites need to interact productively to support curriculum development. Without the support of that interaction, teachers become de-professionalised and unable to perform their role as curriculum makers. It is vital that this support comes from a mixed economy, both government and independent, and sometimes dissenting, voices. This plurality is present in this issue.

The limitations of space restrict lengthy discussion of varying definitions of curriculum. I will note however that the view that curriculum is an expression of a collective vision of future society is being given more credence by a growing list of existential crises, such as climate change and sustainability, biodiversity, mental and physical health and cyber safety, being eased into the wider curriculum. This editorial benefits from one of the papers (Cook and Wyse) providing a valuable overview of curriculum types: knowledge-based, skills-orientated and learner-centred (Manyukhina and Wyse, 2019). It is worth considering a fourth – addressing societal issues, which may be global or local, contemporary or historical. Schiro (2012) provides an alternative, if overlapping, classification which brings political values into sharp focus by referring to four ideologies:

  • Scholar Academic, which broadly equates to the knowledge- or subject-based model
  • Social Efficiency, which emphasises students becoming valuable workers and good citizens
  • Learner Centred, which foregrounds the development of individual capability or talent and becoming a whole person
  • Social Reconstruction, which aims for a more just society by challenging cultural norms, as seen in the Black Lives Matter movement, and campaigning for greater gender equality.


The making of curriculum is a political process. As you read these papers you might go beneath the skin and identify the model, purpose or ideology of the ideas being advocated, as undoubtedly governments – and others involved in designing and influencing curriculum – will have their own overt agendas.

England compared to other countries

England is an outlier in terms of its curriculum in comparison with many other countries, having taken an unapologetically subject/knowledge-based approach to curriculum with little attention given to a more ‘learner-centred’ focus on competences or social reconstruction. The very subject-oriented nature of the curriculum in England is the hallmark of Michael Gove’s period as Secretary of State and reflects his ideological standpoint on education in which he privileged a traditional view of curriculum, building on the work of writers such as E.D. Hirsch (2009) and Michael Young. This focus relies on a belief in the importance of objective knowledge being the product of the work of communities of disciplinary scholars over centuries (Young, 2013) – scientists, historians, mathematicians and revered writers. Such ‘powerful’ knowledge, seen as ‘the best that has been thought and said’ constitutes a ‘cultural capital’; a term now appropriated by Ofsted, much to the frustration of some sociologists as it was strongly associated with Bourdieu and his critique of the reproduction of class privilege. Such capital needs to be acquired, hence the press on retrieval in curriculum expectations, for without it those students particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds will continue that disadvantage, not least because they will be limited by relying on everyday experience in conceptual development. As proof that curriculum is an arena for political ideology, there is fierce contestation of the cultural capital logic (see Wrigley, 2018). However, the mix or emphasis of curriculum types is always in flux. 

Meanwhile, a ‘learner-centred’ focus informs curriculum in other countries, usually in the form of an emphasis on competences. Scotland, our near neighbour, is a clear example of this with its four capabilities (competences by another names): successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens and effective contributors. In New Zealand the key competences are thinking, relating to others, using language, symbols and texts, managing self, and participating and contributing. Such competences are seen as transversal, applying across learning rather than being linked with particular subjects. 

However, the mix or emphasis of curriculum types is always in flux. Teachers as curriculum makers need to be able to adapt, enacting policy in line with accountability whilst preserving curriculum purposes that they deem vital on professional grounds – their red lines. For example, England did have a period in the early part of this century when competences were part of curriculum in the form of personal, learning and thinking skills, but they were removed after the advent of the coalition government in 2010. 

Efficiency or transformation?

Competing trends are present in curriculum innovation in England and indeed in the papers in this issue. A common trend is school effectiveness which majors in identifying and implementing more effective methods of achieving system-mandated policies and outcomes. Currently these are exam results and Ofsted inspection grading criteria, such as the retention of subject knowledge. This is what schools are held accountable for, so school leaders have a strong incentive to stay on the right side of these numbers and expectations. A considerable government investment has gone into infrastructure that supports school effectiveness, most notably the Education Endowment Foundation and its meta-analyses of research studies providing measures of cost and potential impact in a league table of interventions. Increasingly schools need to give consideration to the EEF’s valuable Teaching and Learning Toolkit in their spending of Pupil Premium funding. It should be remembered that it is not always simple to ‘import’ an intervention if it does not align with other curriculum elements. Of course, strong exam results are also prized by students and parents for providing access to cherished degree courses and employment pathways. Several papers in this edition are in this tradition of school effectiveness (see Bishop et al., Dickin and Thompson, Fairfield and Fox, Riddle and Watson). Another trend evident in these papers is the search for curriculum coherence, or alignment, such that the subject ‘parts’ of the curriculum relate to one another in a positive manner and create a sensible whole, there is clear progression and that assessment practices are aligned with curriculum intent and implementation (see Oguledo and Bishop et al.)

If effectiveness and alignment are trends, then curriculum transformation is another. In many cases this is spawned by some dissatisfaction with the content, processes and outcomes of what might be termed the usual curriculum business. For example, some headteachers, teachers or other educationalists work to broaden the curriculum offer. The issues they are seeking to address include mental health and wellbeing (see Griffiths, Morgan and Woolf et al.), creativity (see Brown et al., Lucas, and Unsworth and Raymond), disciplinary ways of knowing (see Gooch), sex and relationships, cyber safety, drug and alcohol abuse, knife crime, climate change and biodiversity (see Lupton and Whaites), student voice (see Wells Dion), learning outdoors (see Cook) and drama (see Sullivan and Stephenson and Lofthouse). 

Some of these proposed and actual innovations to ‘shift the dial’ are at the individual teacher level (nano site), some at the school level (micro site) and some among the curriculum-making support level (meso layer), but they all depend upon interaction between these sites for sustained realisation in some degree. Transformation is a strong theme in Cook and Wyse’s survey data through the prevalence of teachers’ learner-centred preference in an ideal curriculum. Perhaps the most holistic paper on transformation is that by Robinson and Seleznyov on Big Education’s schools, which demonstrate interaction between ‘sites’ (teacher, school, trust and Citizens UK), and addresses relationships, creativity and, interestingly, social activism and reconstruction.


There is a tendency in public debate, not least in social media, to polarise and create false dichotomies. In the argument for the subject knowledge curriculum there have been attacks on ‘progressive’ education and the influence of education academics betraying disadvantaged young people. Equally there is a temptation to dismiss all subject knowledge as the knowledge of the powerful, oblivious to the concrete lived reality and injustices of the oppressed. It is more productive for these voices to be in dialogue. If young people are to navigate the promise and challenges of the twenty-first century they will be crossing multiple social and cultural boundaries and this requires the benefits of self-awareness and self-regulation with an empathy towards others as well as profound subject knowledge.

It is my strongly held view that all valued educational outcomes, as outlined in the papers, cannot be achieved through a single pedagogical approach. Some outcomes can only be achieved through experience. This point was famously made by Anna Sfard (1998) in her paper On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One. The two metaphors are acquisition (of knowledge), the current dominant model, and participation or learning through experience. If curriculum is to achieve the outcomes that are implicated in the personal development element of the Ofsted framework and the transformative ambitions detailed in this edition, then it is essential to mobilise both of those metaphors (and possibly others?). As Gear, Hurley and Waters stress, ITE programmes must include ‘opportunities for exploratory experiences to innovate and deploy a repertoire of strategies.’ As these papers indicate, the system, not least teachers, need a repertoire of pedagogies, curricula types and assessment technologies if young people are to receive and experience an education appropriate to our demanding and exciting world. Enjoy the papers.

This issue's articles