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Can a collaborative approach to curriculum development aid teacher retention?

Written by: Kat Howard
9 min read
Kat Howard, Executive School Improvement Lead; Founding Chief Executive Officer, Litdrive, UK

Does an absence of meaningful curriculum development in schools prompt the loss of teachers?

There is a widespread and justified concern about the alarming shortage of teachers currently teaching in the UK and how this fails to match the staffing required in schools. The data available enables us to make some inferences regarding the tools available to attract individuals to teach and, equally importantly, for the profession to retain teachers over time.

If we consider the reasons that teachers and leaders provide for thinking of leaving their roles, four key factors emerge (Education Support, 2022):

  • volume of workload
  • not feeling valued
  • seeking a better work–life balance
  • unnecessary paperwork or data-gathering.


These indicators of risk to retention might be difficult for school leaders to measure, quantify as key risks or strategically respond to, because they are (a) time-sensitive and (b) likely to result from in-school practices determined at a local level. However, it could be argued that the role of teacher autonomy and establishing a sense of purpose is a concurrent theme across the four factors; teachers do not perhaps feel as though their time is spent in a way that might be deemed purposeful. Indeed, in the 2020 NFER report on the topic of teacher autonomy, Worth and Van den Brande (2020) note that 38 per cent of teachers have ‘little’ or ‘no’ influence over their professional development goals and report low autonomy over curriculum content in their phase or subject. For most, the perception of autonomy is captured through what content to teach and how to teach it most effectively.

It could therefore be inferred from both reports that teacher purpose is vital and that the absence of this professional fulfilment has an impact on decisions to leave the profession. Not having a sense of control over workload, feeling as though the contribution is not valued and that the data being collected doesn’t demonstrate the true impact of work would undoubtedly lead to a reduced sense of purpose.

If teachers are not directly involved in the process of constructing a curriculum and planning for curriculum delivery, or if curriculum-related tasks are served as secondary to data-collection or other administrative tasks, then this moves teachers to spend less time on the very aspect that brought many of them into the profession: advocating for a subject and enacting this subject curriculum for students in the classroom.

Can a focus on curriculum development help as part of recruitment or retention initiatives?

It seems that many graduates consider teaching or intend to teach at some stage; in a 2018–19 study, almost 60 per cent of over 4,400 undergraduate students had considered a career in teaching, and 20 per cent were intending to teach. Interestingly, for those already applying, intrinsic attractors such as the enjoyment of working with children (Goller et al. 2019) or a desire to help others were behind their choice (Gorard et al., 2021, p. 918). Yet it would appear that upon entering the profession, these factors are not aligned with the lived reality. The Department for Education’s school workforce data for 2022 reported that 12.8 per cent of teachers had left the profession after only one year, 23.9 per cent within three years and 31.3 per cent within five years (DfE, 2023). 

There is further evidence to suggest that the profession is losing the experience and expertise of expert teachers, which will undoubtedly impact the quality of curriculum development and delivery over time. Only one in five teachers are over the age of 50 (DfE, 2023). This would suggest that the likelihood of a teacher’s experience of teaching through a curriculum cycle (for instance, EYFS to Key Stage 2 or, in secondary, Key Stage 3 to post-16) lessens over time, and these valuable mental models that expert teachers develop and share over time are lost. At this stage, it is difficult to establish the precise impact of this loss on curriculum design or quality of teaching delivery in the classroom, but we do know that teachers collaborating to develop their knowledge and expertise is highly effective, as Cordingley et al. (2015) outline. They highlight a number of ways of building this shared sense of purpose, including building in peer support among teachers, using evidence from experimenting with new approaches about how students are responding, and working on why things work, as well as what does and does not work in different contexts. If teachers are to be empowered to carry out such tasks, curriculum is a key lever to ensure that this is a possibility in schools.

Indeed, as Tarnanen et al. (2021) assert, enabling teachers to have access to learning communities to exercise their voice with regard to their mental models and the mental models of others is likely to reveal new ways of working that may not have otherwise been discovered. Therefore, school leaders should consider how teachers are provided with the time, opportunity and clear working models to think carefully about what they teach, curate materials or models that will support their teaching and evaluate the effectiveness of their teaching to collectively attend to the persistent challenges that they face. This is not just conducive to securing a high quality of teaching but it also compels teachers to work with one another in direct relation to the very thing that led them to teach in the first place.

Curriculum development as teacher development

In some contexts, subject leaders might construct a curriculum plan for a team to teach, possibly accompanied by the creation of materials to support delivery in the classroom. While there are arguments for this approach in relation to the workload of teachers, we mustn’t forget the importance of agency through all team members contributing to the process, to exchange experiences of unpicking the complexity of content with students, and leaning on the shared experience of teaching that curriculum as a result.

To ensure that we sustain a profession that harnesses a teacher’s core purpose and actively combats the shared reasons for considering leaving, we may wish to consider the following questions in response to the problem outlined:

  • How do we create mechanisms that give teachers autonomy and maintain or reduce workload?
  • How do we maximise the teaching knowledge, expertise and experiences of more expert colleagues so that all teachers benefit from this?


Frameworks for effective curriculum preparation

A compelling rationale and shared language

Subject leaders and teachers might co-construct a vision for the subject curriculum that informs the choices that they make regarding what to teach and which considers the professional development implications that emerge, to ensure that all teachers feel prepared to teach the content selected. This may include teachers discussing the intention of their curriculum offer, or looking back at what has been taught before and discussing how this might be used to refer back to when introducing new content, so that teachers teach with the curriculum in mind. This ensures that all teachers take a role of stewardship over the curriculum that they intend to teach, have insight into the rationale that underpins it and are empowered in the delivery and evaluation as a consequence.

For instance, if the subject vision is for ‘all children to pursue the truth of the subject’, then there will certainly be discussions around how this might be achieved and what must be taught to ensure that sense of truth. For a particularly compelling rationale, subject teams will consider the persistent challenges that children in their context face and how the curriculum may attempt to tackle those challenges. This rationale provides a point of reference for teachers when the team comes together to establish what they define as high-quality teaching for their subject.

A shared understanding of implementation to ensure ‘curriculum readiness’

For these decisions to be effectively implemented, the subject community needs to collectively hold a grounded understanding of implementation over time, so that, together, they can set manageable and realistic timelines for curriculum changes and consider the impact that significant or rapid change will have on the success of the intended implementation. For example, if a team decides to replace a component unit within the curriculum because it does not serve the subject vision, the team will need to consider the time that it will take to create materials to support the team, in addition to any training needs that the team may have ahead of the point of delivery. This will not only ensure an increased likelihood of high-quality curriculum enactment, but will also ensure that colleagues are effectively supported in the preparation stages ahead of teaching. The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) implementation guidance (Sharples et al., 2019) is a useful framework for teams to use when considering realistic timelines and how ongoing review points might feature as part of their planning.

Collaborative planning for curriculum delivery

To support effective delivery, teachers should have ample opportunity to discuss how they will teach this curriculum and the materials that they will collectively create to ensure that it is taught with fidelity to the subject. Mccrea (2018) states that expert teachers have ‘knowledge of how to… iterate… and an awareness of their own cognitive biases’ (p. 6). This means that they are able to reflect, refine and share tighter practice through experiences over time. This might be a discussion regarding the conceptual progression over time that students will experience, where more experienced members of the team might lead in sharing key modelled exemplar pieces that they have used with students previously, talking colleagues through a step-by-step process of how the piece might be used in the classroom. It may be that longer-serving colleagues familiar with the curriculum draw less-experienced colleagues’ attention to common misconceptions that students are likely to present. This sharing of experiences acts as a reconstruction whereby teachers are provided with a lens into the classrooms of their colleagues.

Not only can this collaborative approach bring about a sense of belonging and shared effective practice, but it provides a mechanism for teachers to significantly reduce workload related to planning in isolation; instead sharing strategies for teaching in a low-stakes environment with other subject experts.

Tools for effective curriculum evaluation and development over time

Evaluation of the curriculum as a collaborative act ensures that, once taught, a team returns to evaluate the effectiveness of the materials that they co-created: perhaps the creation of a shared model to exemplify a process or outcome to students, the difficulty in delivering an explanation of a particularly complex term, the notion of using prior content to help students to make conceptual connections when studying new content, or the design of a subject assessment.

This ‘book-end’ approach to collectively planning and evaluating curriculum as a team provides a feedback loop for teachers, not just in affirming their areas of successful teaching delivery and sharing this with colleagues, but also in directing their future professional development. By providing the opportunity to retrospectively consider their approach and adapt this for future practice with other experts, again teachers have a forum in which to exercise their voice, feel that their input is valued and see the immediate impact that sharing this classroom experience will have on improving the quality of curriculum delivery in the future.

Final thoughts

Being an active participant in shaping, teaching and evaluating the effectiveness of curriculum helps teachers to develop their understanding of the curriculum and develop strong mental models of how this looks in their teaching and that of their colleagues. For teachers to feel a true sense of autonomy in schools, school leaders should look for opportunities to provide all teachers with the protected time and support necessary to engage with subject-level discussions, collaborative planning and shared practice, ensuring that knowledge is developed and shared across teams. Access to subject-specific development ensures that present and future subject leaders will have the knowledge and expertise to develop their teams with the tools provided to them in the early years of their careers, and which compelled them to remain part of the teaching profession.

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