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Community curriculum-making: Mixing the ‘local’ with the National Curriculum

Written by: David Leat and Ulrike Thomas
7 min read

Principles of community curriculum-making

Most people will be familiar with the African proverb that ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. Hold that thought. There are a range of pressing issues facing society in 2019. These are well represented in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, which include:

  • affordable and green energy
  • sustainable cities and communities
  • good health and wellbeing
  • climate action.


While there are long-term trends upwards in GCSE and A-level results, for which schools are highly accountable and should take much credit, it is debatable whether the current curriculum is preparing young people for such challenges. Our argument is that where there are spaces to do so, there is a strong logic in using the principles of community curriculum-making (CCM). CCM is a variant of project-based learning (PBL), reflecting a number of other influences. The first of these influences is engagement. Engagement is a critical concept in education, as it indicates intrinsic motivation. Lawson and Lawson (2013, p. 433) present it as the ‘conceptual glue that connects student agency (including students’ prior knowledge, experience, and interest at school, home and in the community) and its ecological influences (peers, family and community) to the organisational structures and cultures of school’. If students are not engaged, it suggests that something has become unhinged in this set of relationships and that in some respects the curriculum has failed. The consequences are evident in England in pupils’ instrumental approaches to school (Hufton et al., 2002) and disengagement (Kelly, 2009).

The second influence is ‘area-based curriculum’ (Thomas, 2012), which aimed to develop partnerships between schools and local organisations in order to develop a curriculum that was:

  • about a place: making use of local context and resources to frame learning
  • by a place: designed by schools in partnership with other local stakeholders
  • for a place: meeting the specific needs of children and local communities.


This is not to argue that curriculum turns its back on global issues, but that there is a real effort to connect to place. A third influence is service learning (Butin, 2010), which sees students doing work of value to the wider community (for a place), a principle in operation in the National Citizen Service ( Other significant influences are ‘Funds of Knowledge’ (Moll et al., 1992), developed in the US to help bridge the cultural gap between formal education and the cultural knowledge of Latin American migrants, and role-modelling, where school staff and community volunteers offer out-of-school or extra-curricular activities. When students engage with adults in such roles, they increase their social capital and develop social competence, which informs their school engagement and academic performance (Stanton-Salazar, 2001). There is much synergy between CCM and the Cambridge Primary Review (2009, p. 19), which aimed to empower children to ‘manage life and find meaning in the 21st century’ by becoming an educated person with a focus on wellbeing, empowerment, engagement and autonomy. In practice, the Broomley Bee Project embodies many of these influences, where a class of Year 4 children worked with a wide range of professionals to research the threats to pollinating insects, investigated bee-keeping and trialled methods for improving habitats for pollinators (McGrane et al., 2017).

Planning CCM

While many schools do have links with the local community, CCM goes further and makes interaction with community a principle of curriculum development. With such a principle, a school would explicitly create and continuously update a record of useful contacts in relation to particular topics and/or subjects. Obvious topics might include local history/heritage, wildlife, STEM, health and medical services, food, arts and culture, energy, ageing and religious communities. Curriculum-planning over a key stage would map the local and regional locations visited or focused on, and the school would have a list of the venues for showcasing students’ work. There is a sense in which the school is giving back to the community (service learning) and we have evidence of the powerful effect on community participants of contributing to the education of the next generation (McGrane et al., 2017). Although there are specialists in the community who can provide expert knowledge, there is also great scope for people with interesting roles, hobbies or experience to be interviewed or ‘hot-seated’. In consequence, your choice of countries to study in geography could reasonably be determined by the foreign nationals who are available to talk about their home country and/or provide feedback on the students’ analysis of their country of origin. CCM is a mindset, and other obvious moves include using the whole staff (i.e. non-teaching) as a source of valuable contacts and publishing topics in advance and asking parents/carers for contacts. In disadvantaged communities, there may be hesitation and a lack of confidence from families, so be prepared to work on this over time.

There is an increasing number of frameworks and guidance (Patton and Robin, 2012) to support planning of community-related projects, such as a model developed in Australia by two primary headteachers (Kenna and Millott, 2017), which is organised around a hierarchy of questions (see Figure 1). In the early days of establishing a CCM culture, the advantage of the hierarchy is that it provides structure while maintaining the spirit of a driving question.

Figure 1: Hierarchy of questions (adapted from Kenna and Millott, 2017)


Earlier sections have suggested some of the benefits, but to clarify, CCM can help with a number of school agendas:

  • the development of a more localised, distinctive curriculum as opposed to a uniform national curriculum
  • addressing the ‘Gatsby benchmarks for Good Careers Guidance’ (Gatsby Foundation, 2014)
  • promoting engagement, collaborative and independent learning, the use of technology, and social mobility
  • developing stronger links with parents and the local and wider community.


Perhaps of most significance is the powerful effect on identity, aspiration and self-concept of students that can result from increased exposure to social and cultural capital, captured in our tagline for CCM: ‘Going Places, Meeting People and Doing and Making Things’ (see Leat, 2017).


One of the intriguing questions around CCM is who or what is community, to which there is no neat answer, but certainly community extends beyond the few miles around the school and can reach any part of the globe via digital communication.

There are three main challenges in planning. The first comes from needing to plan with a community partner and deciding on roles and responsibilities in the planning and teaching. There is a clear need here for brokerage (see Leat and Thomas, 2016; 2018) – someone from inside or outside the school who can help build relationships and address some of the issues in the other challenges. The second challenge comes from breaking the mould created by the usual equation of one teacher and 20 to 30 students/pupils in one classroom or teaching space. Different spaces and locations, timings and groupings may be required, which can be highly disruptive to school systems. The third challenge comes from needing to be more flexible, moving away from tightly teacher-controlled lessons and towards projects in which pupils take more responsibility. Furthermore, the powerful learning in many CCM projects does not neatly fit an objectives-led planning model, as it is common for learning outcomes to vary considerably between individuals.

Research possibilities

If your school is new to using PBL, a good starting point is to investigate your (and colleagues’) practice and what your students are thinking and feeling. Action research and professional inquiry are fitting. Some useful research questions would include:

  • How and when should subject instruction be used in CCM projects?
  • How do students respond to adults other than teachers?
  • Do students talk to their parents and peers about the work?
  • Do the CCM projects have an impact on identity, engagement, self-concept or motivation?


Our work is in North East England, centred on Newcastle. Our current project, funded by the Edge Foundation, will generate 30 CCM projects using university, employer and other community resources, documented to allow other schools to adapt and use them. These projects and others like them provide a vital opportunity for a wider community to support the education of future citizens – the curriculum is, after all, about more than passing exams; it is equally about allowing young people to develop their human capability. In our view, it does take a community to educate a child/student.


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Cambridge Primary Review (2009) Introducing the Cambridge Primary Review. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

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Hufton NR, Elliott JG and Illushin L (2002) Educational motivation and engagement: Qualitative accounts from three countries. British Educational Research Journal 28(2): 265–289.

Kelly S (2009) Social identity theories and educational engagement. British Journal of Sociology of Education 30(4): 449–462.

Kenna P and Millott B (2017) Adapting self-organised learning environments to primary schools in Australia. In: Leat D (ed) Enquiry and Project Based Learning: Students, School and Society. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 108–127.

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Leat D and Thomas U (2016) Schools and partners’ guide to community curriculum making through enquiry and project based learning. Newcastle University: Research Centre for Learning and Teaching/ESRC. Available at: (accessed 25 March 2019).

Leat D and Thomas U (2018) Exploring the role of ‘brokers’ in developing a localised curriculum. Curriculum Journal 29(2): 201–218.

McGrane J, Halliday J and Moore S (2017) The Broomley Bee Meadow Project. In: Leat D (ed) Enquiry and Project Based Learning: Students, Schools and Society. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. 171–192.

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Patton A and Robin J (2012) Work That Matters – The Teacher’s Guide to Project Based Learning. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Stanton-Salazar RD (2001) Manufacturing Hope and Despair: The School and Kin Support Networks of US-Mexican Youth. New York: Teachers College Press.

Thomas L (2012) Area-based curriculum. Available at: (accessed 20 June 2014).

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