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Pupil agency in action: Developing curriculum and pedagogy

6 min read
Dr Yana Manyukhina, Research Associate, UCL Institute of Education, UK
Dominic Wyse, Professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education; Founding Director, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0 to 11); President, British Educational Research Association (BERA), UK
Gemma Norman, Associate Headteacher and Teaching School Lead, Gatley Primary School, UK

There have been efforts, nationally and beyond, to mobilise pupil voice to inform aspects of school improvement. From school councils to leadership councils, the forum for gathering pupil voice varies from school to school, but typically the output is the same. Opinions are sought, experiences are shared, and these may have a bearing on school policies. But to what extent do these forums empower pupils to ‘lead their own learning’ (Robinson, 2014, p.18)? Pupil agency has been defined as ‘giving students voice and choice in how they learn’ (Manyukhina and Wyse, 2019, p. 224). Some primary schools regard agency as synonymous with consulting pupils through the offer of a thematic curriculum. This approach forms an important part of attention to agency, but to what extent is this truly shaped by pupils?

There is arguably a tension between pupil agency and the National Curriculum (Manyukhina and Wyse, 2019). The underpinning of the 2014 National Curriculum was predicated on tackling some of the social injustices evident in a disperse curriculum offer. The aim was to ensure that all pupils, regardless of background, had access to a curriculum offer that would enable them to stand on an equal footing with their peers to engage in society politically, economically and socially. It was felt that there should be a certain body of knowledge that pupils should acquire in order to develop the cultural literacy needed for successful engagement in modern society. Attempts to address this issue have inspired contributions to the definition and perception of knowledge, more specifically a distinction between ‘knowledge of the powerful’ and ‘powerful knowledge’, i.e. that which ‘provides the best understanding of the natural and social worlds that we have and helps us go beyond our individual experiences’ (Young, 2013, p. 196). However, there are obvious philosophical questions to be asked here, such as who defines what knowledge is to be taught and how it is to be taught?

A curriculum that is too heavily focused on knowledge also threatens to cause a disconnect between curriculum and pedagogy. For Manyukhina and Wyse (2019), the exercise of pupil agency can only be fostered if curriculum design and pedagogy are developed simultaneously. It is therefore essential that all aspects of the three ‘I’s – intent, implementation, and impact – are analysed together when considering pupil agency.

An ideal curriculum is one that combines two fundamental dimensions – social and individual (Beck, 2013, p. 187):

Equipping young people to understand themselves, both as individuals and as members of complex, rapidly changing societies, is, or should be, one of the most important of educational aims, and logically should be so for all future citizens in democratic countries.

The need to reconceptualise curriculum to also ensure personal and social development is recognised globally. The 2014 UNESCO Report (UNESCO-GMR, 2014) and the UN post-2015 Education and Development Framework (UNDES, 2015) emphasise the role of schools in supporting learners to develop not only intellectual capacity, but also their socio-emotional and behavioural skills. This points to the importance of everyday knowledge (in addition towhich learners acquire in informal learning contexts including, but not limited to, the home environment (Zais, 1997). We argue for everyday knowledge as an essential basis for learners’ ability to draw personally relevant connections between their life goals and their learning in schools.

The Education Learning Trust (ELT) has seen this as an opportunity to offer a partnership between the social and the individual. It is a partnership between curriculum and pedagogy in which the National Curriculum texts are used with a degree of flexibility, enabling pupils and staff to establish the optimal context for learning. For one of the schools in the Trust, this is encapsulated in their mission statement, where everyone ‘Enjoys Achieving and Learning Together’ (Gatley Primary School’s mission statement).

For the Education Learning Trust, pupil agency is exercised in every aspect through the quality of education that it provides. The Curriculum Charter exemplifies what the Trust defines as pupil agency in action, where the curriculum is designed and evaluated by pupils, enabling pupils to exercise agency in shaping its authenticity. This belief permeates through the school’s ethos and, for Gatley Primary School, this also manifests in the curriculum and the pedagogy offered.

The curriculum context is established by the pupils each term. Pupils demonstrate the relevance and maturity of their cultural literacy through choices of complex thematic approaches, reflected in the titles such as ‘Inequality isn’t Sporting’. In this example, the pupils recognised the tensions that exist in the sporting world. The cross-curricular approach allows teachers to prioritise pupils’ choices. The consultation offered to all pupils, from Nursery to Year 6, enables pupils to explore something or someone that inspires them, something that they are passionate about, and something that they are curious about. Staff use pupil responses to establish the curriculum context, using the National Curriculum as the basis for challenge. Learners’ personal identities and everyday knowledge become richly and effectively woven into the curriculum design and delivery.

he curriculum context is dynamic and different across year groups, whilst also ensuring continuity and progression over a pupil’s primary school journey. The staff seamlessly blend pupil choice with National Curriculum requirements, as they have worked in a curriculum team to co-construct curriculum progression grids indicating where the National Curriculum benchmarking sits and how the curriculum offered exceeds this benchmarking ( In its implementation, the curriculum offers further depth to its consultation through the use of process-based success criteria. Here, the basis for learning is the use of prior knowledge related to the context of the lesson. Pupils are consulted on what this prior knowledge is, creating yet another opportunity for learners to draw and capitalise on the abundant reserves of everyday knowledge that they bring into the classroom. This prior knowledge is then layered to enable a depth of learning, so that pupils ultimately demonstrate their acquisition of knowledge by generating further questions or making broader links across the curriculum.

Pupils also exercise agency in the learning environment. Here, there is a strong connection between curriculum and pedagogy, as pupils explore single set objectives through a layered learning process. Pupils navigate a learning environment based on key skills such as problem-solving, collaboration, communication, ICT and research. It is important here to make the distinction between this approach to learning and continuous provision. There is one clear learning focus each week, with one clear success criterion for maths, English and topic-based lessons. This approach enables independent learning and, most importantly, pupil autonomy through offering choice. The areas for learning are not time-bound, nor do they operate on a carousel basis. Unlike continuous provision, this environment and learning approach is in place for all pupils from Early Years to upper Key Stage 2. Pupils use the independent learning opportunities to navigate which areas they visit and in which order, depending on where they are in a cycle of learning (Figure 1). The learning cycle provides a scaffold for pupils in understanding themselves as learners. It supports their understanding of how they move their learning through the four stages and, as such, develop their metacognition.

Figure 1 is titled "Learners' understanding of their learning". It shows the diagram of a cycle labelled "Stages of Learning" with the following four stages: "Stage 1. Low consciousness of learning. Early competence in learning", "Stage 2. High consciousness. Early competence", "Stage 3. Fully developed learning. Full competence", and "Stage 4. High consciousness. High competence". Each stage is connected to the next with arrows pointing clockwise.
Figure 1: Learners’ understanding of their learning

In exploring how to further segment the perfect partnership between the National Curriculum and pupil agency, the Trust is currently working on a research project to explore how concept mapping can enable pupils and teachers to understand the level of clarity and connectivity within and between the knowledge that is acquired across the curriculum. For this Trust, National Curriculum knowledge is only the baseline; it is the connections made across the themes explored and the ways in which the knowledge is employed that demonstrate true learning and learner agency.


Beck J (2013) Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge. Cambridge Journal of Education 43(2): 177–193.

Manyukhina Y and Wyse D (2019) Learner agency and the curriculum: A critical realist perspective. The Curriculum Journal 30(3): 223–243.

Robinson C (2014) Children, Their Voices and Their Experiences of School: What Does the Evidence Tell Us? York: Cambridge Primary Review Trust.

UNDES (2015) Transforming our world: The 2030 agenda for sustainable development. New York, NY: UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs. Available at: (accessed 4 August 2020).

UNESCO-GMR (2014) Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2014: Teaching and learning: Achieving quality for all. Paris: UNESCO. Available at: (accessed 4 August 2020).

Young M (2013) Powerful knowledge: An analytically useful concept or just a ‘sexy sounding term’? A response to John Beck’s ‘Powerful knowledge, esoteric knowledge, curriculum knowledge’. Cambridge Journal of Education 43: 195–198.

Zais RS (1997) Curriculum Principles and Foundations. New York: Harper and Row.


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