Teaching & learning under the national curriculum: a different way of thinking & planning

Posted by Dr Julia Coop on September 24, 2015

Teaching and learning under the national curriculum: a different way of thinking and planning?


The underlying principle of the national curriculum, first introduced in 2014, is that pupils study fewer topics in greater depth. This not only increases expectations, but provides schools with much greater transparency in terms of specific age-related curriculum content.

The new national curriculum effectively sets out the expectations for what pupils should know, understand and do at set points in their time spent at school. Consequently, it establishes a clear framework for what should be taught and assessed in each year or phase. However, perhaps the most significant fundamental aspect of the curriculum is the revised understanding of ability.

Implications of the removal of levels

With the removal of levels, all pupils are deemed capable of reaching the age-related standards, unless a child has a significant or complex learning disability or difficulty. This not only increases teacher accountability, but gives rise to a number of questions which teachers and schools need to address if they are to respond successfully to the challenges that teaching the national curriculum brings:

How do I ensure that more able pupils are suitably challenged and not held back while waiting for other pupils to catch up?

 At what point do I move the learning forward for the whole class?

 How do I support pupils who may be struggling to grasp a new skill or are grappling with understanding new knowledge, and ensure that they keep up with their peers?

How do I ensure that the curriculum is organised so that pupils have sufficient time to make sense of ideas and skills, and is flexible enough for learners to revisit topics if necessary?



Raising expectations

If schools and teachers only view the national curriculum as a change in prescribed content, and fail to address questions and issues such as these, there is a danger that the focus will be on ‘how well the new curriculum is taught’ rather than on ‘how well it is being learned’.

The national curriculum not only provides a basis for explaining what pupils are to learn and at what stage, but it raises expectations by including the key concepts that all pupils need to achieve by the end of each year or phase. Thus, the real challenge is to find a teaching approach that informs, drives, and enables the attainment of high standards by all pupils, while at the same time addressing developmental variance and the differences in experience, prior knowledge, and interest that learners bring to the classroom.

In order to meet this challenge, a school’s model for planning and curriculum development could potentially look much different from the linear lesson-plan formats and topic-sequence curriculum documents that some schools have used traditionally. The danger with this traditional method is that pupils could progress forward to the next lesson in the pre-planned sequence regardless of whether or not they had completely grasped the key subject knowledge or skill. Although the national curriculum is prescriptive in terms of what all pupils must learn, teachers will need to continue to be creative in the use of varied strategies when teaching the standards and objectives, so that nearly all pupils are enabled to understand the new knowledge or skill being taught before progressing to the next.

High quality assessment practice

It is commonly accepted that high quality teachers are skilled at using assessment strategies to adapt their teaching in order to meet pupils’ different needs and thus accelerate learning. However, since most pupils are now expected to achieve the same standards, the assessment process needs to be even more varied and comprehensive. All teachers will need to become adept at using a variety of assessment strategies, including the use of ‘rich questioning’ in order to extend and expand learning. This is essential, not only to identify what has been learned and understood and by whom, but also to identify which pupils need more immediate input or further challenge and to determine when to move on, for example building banks of questions from the internet and other sources to support learning and check if the pupil has understood the key ideas. In addition, the underlying principle that most pupils are deemed capable of reaching high standards requires schools to re-think their approach to assessment in order to inform pupil groupings.




When teachers plan and deliver a standards-based curriculum, more than ever, it is important the teaching can respond to the learner’s needs. What is necessary is flexibility; a recognition that learning outcomes – in terms of knowledge, skills and understanding – are unpredictable. A pupil may quickly grasp a new skill one day and be able to use that skill in more challenging ways, only to find they struggle with later content and require additional support. Frequent assessment provides the teacher with feedback on how well pupils are learning. Where difficulties in learning arise, within the national curriculum teachers are given the responsibility for seeking alternative approaches to teaching a particular skill or developing knowledge and understanding. Each day, different individual pupils or groups of pupils may need additional support or further challenge. Differentiation, therefore, becomes much more complex than simply providing different daily activities and input for each ‘fixed’ ability group.

To ensure as many pupils as possible achieve the age-related standards, teachers will need to challenge all learners by providing materials and tasks on a particular concept at varied levels of difficulty, with varying degrees of scaffolding, through multiple and flexible teaching groups, and with time variations. Teachers still need to plan lessons, but should not become slaves to their plans. They need to have the confidence to adapt their plans, possibly every day; to remain receptive to what is happening in the moment, and to react spontaneously to it. All of this will have a significant impact on teaching styles.

An opportunity to improve

Successful implementation of the national curriculum requires a commitment to learning more about effective teaching and assessment practices, and for schools and teachers to have the confidence to re-think their current approaches and recontextualise their understanding of ability and progress. But perhaps most importantly, the removal of assessment levels provides schools with an opportunity to improve the overall quality of teaching and learning by focusing, not on pupils’ average points progression over time, but on how well pupils are learning every day, how to increase that learning and how to ensure that no child is ‘left behind’.

The lesson footage contained in Tribal’s brand new DVDs Lessons in Observation Vol 5 and Lessons in Observation Vol 6 was filmed in a primary school that has embraced the changes to the national curriculum. Teachers within this school began to adapt their styles and teaching approaches to meet the demands that the 2014 changes to the national curriculum brought, whilst recognising that there was more to be done.

Schools are unique – each has different contexts, levels of expertise and resources. What works well in one school may not work as successfully in another. However, we hope that schools which use these resources will be inspired to rise to the challenge and have confidence to seize the opportunity to improve teaching and learning in their own school.

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