Designing your school’s curriculum on a shoestring

Written by: Julia Harnden & Suzanne O’Farrell | Published:
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How can schools design an effective curriculum within today’s shrinking budgets? Experts Julia Harnden and Suzanne O’Farrell advise

Schools have traditionally designed their curriculum according to their vision, context and the needs of their pupils. In these straitened times, however, the question of funding has risen to the top of that list: what can each school afford? That, of course, boils down to how many teachers they can employ within the constraints of shrinking budgets.

This is an incredibly challenging situation. It means striving for a curriculum which is rich and relevant, and which meets the diverse needs and interests of pupils, while also ensuring that it is affordable and sustainable.

Schools will want to retain a good breadth and range of subject choices. If the choice of subjects is too restrictive pupils will become disengaged. They will also want to ensure that their curriculum gives their pupils clear pathways to further and higher education courses and their future careers.

These objectives have to be achieved within reduced budgets, ensuring that staff time is used as efficiently as possible, and that as much resource as possible is directed towards achieving great outcomes for their pupils.

Some key considerations

The stark reality is that it is very likely there will have to be compromises and that it will not be possible to offer pupils the flexibility over the range and choice of subjects that would be ideal. Schools may have no alternative but to reduce the number of options they provide and increase class sizes. Some key considerations are:

  • What funding levels are realistically expected over the next three to five years? How many teachers can the school afford now and over that period? Even if staffing levels remain the same, costs will, of course, rise each year as a result of performance-related pay progression and any cost-of-living increase.
  • How many teachers will be needed to deliver the curriculum that the school is planning over the next three to five years? What will be the average class size? What pupil-to-teacher ratio can the school afford?
  • As new GCSEs and A levels are introduced, new books and teaching materials will be needed, as well as training for teachers, putting further pressure on budgets. This must all be taken into account when costing the curriculum.
  • Additional resources may be needed to support pupils who do not have English as a first language and students with additional educational needs.
  • The pupil population nationally is growing but per-pupil funding lags one year behind the current number on the school roll, and the implications of this need to be considered.

Making resources stretch further

It is important to start planning the curriculum and staffing for the next two to three years as early in the academic year as possible, so that there is enough time to advertise and recruit for posts which need to be filled, and deal with any other issues which arise. Planning well in advance will also give schools time to explore opportunities to make resources stretch further. These include the following:

  • Schools within multi-academy trusts and federations may be able to share resources and plan collaboratively so that they can collectively offer a broad range of subjects. For example, schools within a trust in close proximity to each other may share professional learning on subject-specific pedagogy. They may be able to facilitate the timetabling of small-uptake subjects at GCSE, such as a second modern foreign language, or they may be able to share support staff across schools.
  • If changing the curriculum, consider retraining staff or developing their second subject through professional learning, or appointing NQTs in advance. This approach may give schools more flexibility when designing and timetabling a curriculum, and utilises teachers to their full potential, making for greater financial efficiency.
  • Smaller schools may be able to give themselves more flexibility and breadth in their curriculum by teaching year 9 and 10 together or year 10 and 11 together. This approach may make the uptake of smaller subjects more cost-effective as there would be two year groups of students in one class.
  • Schools with sixth forms are increasingly reducing the number of A levels offered from four to three now that A levels and the AS levels are decoupled. They are supplementing three A levels with valuable enrichment options, such as the Extended Project Qualification, which is valued by universities as excellent preparation for higher education and is a cost-effective qualification to deliver.
  • Sixth forms may be more sustainable if year 12 and 13 students are taught in mixed-age groups. Subjects in which there is a small uptake may not require as many teacher-led lessons, and more timetabled independent work could be allocated.

It is vital that all senior team members and finance directors understand the key costs and how they relate to the design of the curriculum, so that its full implications, both now and in the future, are understood and taken into account by all members of the school’s senior team.
The curriculum must meet the needs of pupils and be financially sustainable.

Evaluating the impact

It is, however, important not to lose sight of the fact that the curriculum and resulting qualifications must serve pupils for the rest of their lives. It is recommended that schools evaluate the impact of their curriculum against the following questions:

  • In what way does it exemplify the school’s vision and values?
  • Does the governing body support the rationale for the design of the curriculum?
  • Does the curriculum enable all groups of pupils to progress? How can this be shown?
  • Is the curriculum too narrow in any key stage or for any group of pupils?
  • If the curriculum is affordable this year, will it still be affordable in the following years?

Ofsted is interested in the breadth, balance, suitability and challenge of your curriculum for groups of pupils, and how well it serves them in terms of progression, relevant qualifications, and their personal development.

Inspectors will consider how literacy and numeracy are developed across the school’s curriculum.

They are also interested in the impact of careers education, advice and guidance on pupil choices and how well pupils are prepared for life in modern Britain.

Pressing the case for improved funding

The design of each school’s curriculum is unique and reflects its ethos, vision and values. It has to equip pupils for living and working in a contemporary society which is characterised by uncertainty, rapid change, globalisation and technological innovation.

Unfortunately, the huge pressures on school funding make it much more difficult to deliver a curriculum which delivers all these objectives. Hopefully, the steps outlined in this article will provide some help to schools in managing this major challenge.

Meanwhile, ASCL continues to press the case for improved school funding to the government at every available opportunity.

  • Julia Harnden is a funding specialist, and Suzanne O’Farrell a curriculum specialist, with the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

Further information

ASCL is running a course Getting it right: Curriculum, staffing, budget on January 18 in Sheffield and March 23 in Birmingham. For further information, email


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