Leadership podcast: the curriculum planning challenge

In the latest episode, Rebecca Foster talks to assistant head Ruth Ashbee about how to choose which knowledge to prioritise and why it’s important to accept you don’t know it all

Rebecca Lee

curriculum planning

What is powerful knowledge?

The kind that will open the greatest number of doors for students, according to Ruth Ashbee, an assistant head and physics teacher.

Speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Leadership podcast, she explores the challenges of curriculum development and how those leading curriculum can support middle leaders in this challenging process.

One of the key challenges facing those who are leading curriculum at a whole-school level is that they lack specialist knowledge of the subjects that they’re leading beyond their own.

“The first thing that curriculum leaders must do is recognise that gap,” Ashbee says. “We can’t be specialists in all of the subjects.”

However, she says, this can’t be accepted as a reason to not understand subjects better. She recommends reading around – using specifications, exam paper and subject-specific books – to help “understand the structure and nature” of other subjects.


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A key curriculum development challenge is deciding what should be taught. Ashbee makes a case for selecting the “best knowledge” for students.

“We choose knowledge because we think it’s the most empowering and ambitious and it’s going to open the most doors for students, intellectually as well as in terms of further study and careers.”

Which, she says, means that those developing the curriculum need to ask how many doors will be opened by a subject and by the content of that subject.

“The word ‘skills’ has a lot of unhelpful baggage,” she continues. 

It’s much better, she says, to understand that knowledge has two strands: substantive and disciplinary.

“This helps you to plan your curriculum and make sure you’re not just going hard on lots and lots of facts and not helping your students to operate within that subject but, equally, that you’re not just attempting to teach how to do the subject without giving them any of the substance that you need.”

Timing trouble

But if we’re going to meet the challenge of offering a broad curriculum, Ashbee says, we need to stop wasting time.

Pointless activities, poor routines and low-level disruption are “stealing time from children in every lesson, every day”, she says.

“If you add that up over the years, that’s days and days of curriculum time that could be used for more breadth and depth.

“Our students are capable of so much more. There is so much wonderful knowledge in the world that humans have worked on and treasured for thousands of years: it’s the entitlement of our students to learn that knowledge.”

But, she warns, “it’s very easy to underestimate how big a job it can be”. 

“We have to try and be courageous about the fact that we can’t do it all at once.”

You can listen on the player above or by typing "Tes – the education podcast" into your podcast player (including Spotify) 

Rebecca Foster is head of English and specialist leader of education at Wyvern St Edmund’s Learning Campus in Wiltshire

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