Case study: Planning a subject curriculum

Written by: Chloe Testa | Published:
Download Supplement
Image: Adobe Stock

How do you design your curriculum? What questions must you ask? What processes must you go through? Head of English Chloe Testa describes how she worked with colleagues to completely overhaul her school’s English curriculum

Before the world turned on its head, our minds were focused on one thing, and one thing only: curriculum. It was the latest buzz word to drip off the tongues of those on high, as if having a strong curriculum is somehow a) revolutionary and b) the way to solve all of our problems. If only that were so!

A strong curriculum is incredibly important – there is no doubt about this. But the thing about a strong curriculum is that it is never finished. Our curriculum should always be evolving and developing as we do. After all, no cohort of students will ever be exactly the same, so why should we assume our curriculum can remain untouched for decades (barring government changes that completely fudge things up of course – but that’s another story!)?

That is not to say we have to start from scratch every year! That would be utterly ridiculous. We do have to keep returning to what we have got on a very regular basis though.

With that in mind, I was given the opportunity to be off timetable for a whole day with both my key stage 3 and my key stage 4 coordinators where all we did was talk curriculum. And what a day it was!

It started with us squirreling ourselves away in an unused classroom in the back of the school with pens and markers galore, and ended with a more comprehensive, cohesive curriculum that we all felt more strongly about.

This is how we did it…

Step 1: What do we want students to have gained from studying English?

This was about getting into the nitty-gritty of skills. It needed to be clear and concise and had to be things we could actually instil.

First thing to come to mind of course was a passion and love for the subject, because that is what we have got for it. This is the most important element, because even if they end up not taking the subject further, if they have enjoyed it and fully thrown themselves into it because of this enjoyment, then we have already won half the battle.

Other key skills we came up with included:

  • Construction of analytical writing: Synthesize, Analyse, Evaluate, Compare, Selecting evidence, Relevant multiple interpretations, Relevant terminology.
  • Organisation of writing: Craft, Originality, PAF (purpose, audience and form).
  • SPaG accuracy.
  • Discourse marking and phrasing.
  • Oracy.
  • Performance.

In terms of knowledge, we wanted students to be fully confident with the following:

  • Context.
  • Canon.
  • Cultural capital.
  • Elements of text.
  • Genre/form.
  • Subject terminology.
  • Analytical phrasing.

Step 2: How often do we deliver these key skills?

Now that we had our key skills, we could better track these across the school year and what became painfully clear was how neglected oracy and performance were in the upper years.

We also came to realise that, although analysis features very heavily in key stage 3, comparison is not really covered in depth until mid-way through year 9 – no wonder we were struggling with GCSE!

Armed with lots of sticky notes, we plugged in what we currently covered, and then were able to begin the shuffling of modules and topics based on a more even coverage of all the skills. This included dropping two topics and amalgamating another.

And this is the scariest part of all this, actually getting rid of work you have done. The important thing of course is to remember that the reason why you are doing this is to answer that ever-pressing question: “Can we make this better?”

Step 3: Why are we teaching these units?

We had the skills, now we needed to make sure we understood why these skills were being taught in these units. This involved coming up with a short rationale for each topic – where we answered the following question: “Why are we doing this particular novel/play/poetry collection?”

It was amazing to actually discuss this, from realising that To Kill a Mockingbird bleeds quite nicely into a non-fiction unit on modern prejudices, to drawing connections between Of Mice and Men and Shakespeare’s tragedies, we felt we were fully able to explain the power of each unit, beyond simply “I like it”.

Step 4: How can we improve the flow of our units?

So, we have got skills and knowledge plugged in and our justifications for each unit. All we had to do was ensure they flowed. This happened organically alongside the previous step, as when discussing why we had chosen certain texts, a pattern began to emerge of key themes and ideas spreading across.

This was also an important step as we could better disperse elements as well, so that years 7 to 9 were not all doing Shakespeare at once – that will mess with even the most erudite of Shakespearites!

Step 5: Finalise the assessment

As part of steps 2 and 3, assessment was of course a main focus for discussion, but it was not until this step that we finalised these, because a unit of work is so much more than just the assessment.

It is naturally an important element as we have to ensure we are covering everything students need to succeed in the assessment, but we wanted to move away from what felt like a very heavily exam-focused curriculum.

A couple of notes

During this process, we naturally focused mostly on key stage 3, as key stage 4 has limited leeway and flexibility (set texts). However, as we had been considering a change in texts, we did discuss how our set texts fit in with our overarching themes but decided these are the best for what we have created. Another thought after having completed the exercise was that one day is nowhere near enough!


And that was it! Our perfect curriculum! Done and done! Except it’s not.

We came away from that day having created a strong curriculum that we all feel proud of and able to deliver confidently. It is a curriculum we were all able to take ownership of and lead on. You can download the finished document via the button above.

However, the curriculum we designed that day is by no means perfect. Every year we will review it, and though we will probably never have the same amount of time as we did for this project again, we will make time to reflect, improve and enhance.

  • Chloe Testa is head of English at The Hollyfield School in Surbiton. Find her previous contributions for SecEd via


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin