What is curriculum?

Wednesday 8th May 2019

John Blake is Ark’s Curriculum Design Lead. Before joining Ark, he was an education policy researcher for a leading think-tank and before that a history teacher for ten years in both comprehensive and selective schools within both the local authority maintained system and academy trusts. 

Ark’s curriculum work aims to build high-quality, coherent curriculum programmes, as part of a partnership between schools within Ark’s network and others. This is the first in a series exploring that work and the ideas, assumptions and choices which lie behind it.  


“Curriculum” is an essential feature of education, but the term itself is used without much precision to denote lots of different features of school life. A simple definition of curriculum would be “the subjects studied in a school, college, etc. and what each subject includes”, but even this short sentence contains two different aspects of curriculum: the subjects studied, and the content of those subjects. 

In English schools, these can be seen as two very different things, largely controlled by different groups. The precise name and number of subjects taught in a school are determined by a mixture of the law, government directives, and school senior leaders. Often, this implies particular content ought to be taught: if a headteacher puts “History” on the curriculum, she may have clear expectations about what children will learn in that lesson, but unless the Head is a subject expert (and no Head is an expert in all the subjects taught in their school), that may not be a very specific expectation, and even if there is, that expectation still needs to be given life by the teachers in the History department. This is repeated in every subject: putting a subject on “the curriculum” may imply but not control the content of “the curriculum”. 

So, we need to think about at least two different meanings of curriculum if we are going to discuss it. One is what at Ark we call “the macro-curriculum”. Essentially, this means the building blocks of the timetable: what subjects will appear on the school timetable, and how much time will they be given. Each teacher and each child in the school will receive a personalised version of that timetable, which will be their “macro-curriculum”, the subjects they will teach or learn, and how much time will be set aside for doing that. Ark’s Director of Insight Rich Davies will be writing about what his analysis of the schools in Ark’s network tell us about their different “macro-curricula”.  

My focus will be on what happens after the macro-curriculum is set and we get into the second part of that ‘simple’ definition of curriculum, quoted above: what will actually happen in that time that is set aside for each of those subjects, what will teachers teach and young people learn in that time? This is what, at Ark, we call “the curriculum content”.  

Often, when I discuss curriculum with people who do not work in schools, they are surprised to discover that curriculum content is not already tightly defined – isn’t that what the National Curriculum is for? Answering that question, and explaining why it isn’t that simple, and what we at Ark are attempting to do about it, will be the main focus of this series of blogs. 

Before I get to that, it is important to answer an obvious question that arises from my discussion of curriculum above: does it only mean what is taught in lesson times? What about all the other things schools do that might communicate things we want young people to learn? That will be the subject of my next blog.