The place of subjects and skills in the curriculum


The relationship between subjects and skills and their place in the curriculum is at the heart of the debate over what 21st century education should look like. Bill Watkin introduces two articles from two schools outlining their different approaches.

Following the problems surrounding the GCSE results in 2012, and the secretary of state’s introduction, in September, of the proposed reforms to key stage 4 qualifications, the focus has been understandably on assessment and accountability, rather than on pedagogy and curriculum.

However, should we not be exploring what we teach young people, how we teach them and what for, before we decide how we test what has been learned?

It is critical that we establish an assessment framework that is rigorous and challenging, and that will inevitably entail reform. But it is even more vital that we get teaching and learning right, if we are to see ever-improving standards and if we are to remain globally competitive.

This month, the proposals for reforming A levels, first leaked in November, were confirmed in a letter from the secretary of state to the exams watchdog Ofqual. Again, it is assessment reform that is leading the political way. Again, the tail is wagging the dog. It is with considerations about pedagogy that we must begin.

In a major national research and reform project, called Redesigning Schooling, SSAT is seeking to ensure that practising experts, leading academics and successful school leaders have opportunities to come together to contribute to shaping education in the years to come. This is the opportunity for the professionals to lead the debate and for change to be based on evidence, research and practice.

Redesigning Schooling will bring schools together in national symposia, regional school-based workshops and online debate. Later in the year, the insights, views and solutions developed by all contributors and participants will be published in a work that will focus on the four key pillars of education: curriculum, teaching and learning, assessment and qualifications, and intelligent accountability.

Here, two different and successful schools each offer a case study in which they explore their distinctive curriculum thinking and describe their aspirations for the highest quality and the best learning experiences for their students. 

Dr Jo Saxton and Daisy Christodoulou from The Curriculum Centre at Pimlico Academy in London summarise their innovative, subject-based Future Curriculum, while Lesley James, director of business development at the RSA, writes about the experiences and the principles of the competence-based curriculum at the RSA Academy in the West Midlands.

A subject-based approach

By Jo Saxton and Daisy Christodoulou, Pimlico Academy, London

At Pimlico Academy, with the help and support of The Curriculum Centre, a new content-rich curriculum has been designed and implemented at key stage 3. 

Among the innovations included within Pimlico’s “Future” Curriculum are compulsory narrative history (delivered through three 50-minute lessons per week), with content beginning at the earliest civilisations of the Ancient Near East; grammar taught discretely in English, and rhetoric studied through the speeches of Sir Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King, among others. 

Science is taught separately as physics, chemistry and biology. Connections between subjects are made explicit for teachers and their pupils through a comprehensive sequence, and a London curriculum extends what pupils have learned in discrete subject lessons through the lens of London.

How the Future Curriculum works

The Future curriculum is organised by subjects. This is not because we believe that all the knowledge in the world can be tidily grouped into subject disciplines; of course that is not true. This is because subjects are an efficient and effective way of organising and sequencing the important knowledge we want our pupils to learn. There are several reasons why subjects are so effective: here are just two of them.

First, thinking skills are subject-specific. We want our pupils to become excellent critical-thinkers and problem-solvers. However, we recognise that you cannot teach these skills in the abstract. These skills are different depending on the type of knowledge you are using. 

For example, you can be good at analysing a historical problem and bad at analysing a mathematical problem. Doing lots of historical analysis will not improve your mathematical analysis. Thinking skills depend on domain knowledge. By teaching subjects, we ensure that important domain knowledge, and the important skills that are intertwined with it, are not omitted.

Second, our working memories are limited. We can only hold a few brand new concepts in our working memory at any one time. This is why maths problems that require several steps are so difficult to do in your head, because you have to work out the answer to one bit, hold the answer in your head, work out the second bit and then go back and combine it with the first bit.

Subjects accept this limitation because they allow us to focus solely on one aspect of knowledge without any distractions. They isolate one particular part of a problem and allow the pupil to achieve mastery in it. 

For me, the strength of the Future Curriculum is in the clear way it sequences knowledge and allows all pupils to completely understand a topic before moving on. 

For example, the Future English Curriculum consists of one discrete grammar lesson a week. In my experience of a project-based approach, grammar was integrated into the rest of the curriculum. 

Very often, I would only end up teaching the grammar that the rest of the project required; that is, I would be ignoring the internal logic of grammatical knowledge for the sake of a project on something else. 

So I might teach adjectives, for example, but I would teach them before I had taught nouns, meaning that pupils weren’t able to achieve the deep understanding of adjectives I wanted. 

After all, how could they know that an adjective adds extra information to a noun if they did not know what a noun was? Instead, I would end up teaching them that adjectives were describing words, which isn’t precise and leads to lots of common misconceptions. For example, pupils would assume that some adverbs and verbs are adjectives.

I find that pupils across the ability spectrum really enjoy learning facts they have never encountered before, and they also enjoy the chance to thoroughly master something.

Recently, I observed a grammar lesson taught by a colleague on verb conjugation. At the end, one year 7 pupil said to me that: “It was really interesting to find out that ‘to be’ and ‘am’ are part of the same word, because I use them all the time but I didn’t know that before.”

After a term of history, another year 7 pupil told me that he had enjoyed finding out about Mesopotamian cuneiform and Egyptian hieroglyphics because before that he did not realise that there were so many different ways of writing; he had thought that everyone used the same alphabet.

This approach does not mean that links are not made between subjects. They are, but they are made when they are appropriate. They are not shoe-horned in for the sake of it.

For example, in term 1 of history pupils learn about the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. In term 3 of English, pupils learn about myths and legends. The English lessons on myths and legends begin with pupils recapping what they learnt about the Epic of Gilgamesh in their history lessons. There are similar links throughout the curriculum. 

The knowledge that pupils are expected to learn in each lesson is clearly set out, and they are tested on it frequently using multiple-choice tests. Their termly assessment points consist of multiple-choice tests and extended written answers. 

The two complement each other: the more secure the pupils’ knowledge, the more sophisticated their written responses. 

For more information, visit The Curriculum Centre’s website at

A competence-based curriculum

By Lesley James, The RSA Academy, Tipton

From the outset, I have been determined that this article should not be designed to set one curriculum model against another. I have no desire to bring back memories from 12 years ago when the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) published its report Opening Minds: Education for the 21st century.

Following publication, the RSA was the subject of some fairly vitriolic (and inaccurate) reporting that it was advocating a content-free curriculum; that the RSA was advocating abolishing all subjects and their content. 

Not surprisingly, I have no wish to resurrect that discussion. It was not true 12 years ago and it is not true now. Imagine my horror, when I discovered that this self-same discussion, far from being long buried, is still alive and well and thriving on Twitter! 

So what is all the fuss about? Being somewhat “long in the tooth” has its advantages and enables me to recall the years either side of the millennium when, as head of education at RSA, I was engaged in a fascinating debate about the purpose of education and what a school’s curriculum should look like. 

Fast-forward to 2013 and the RSA Academy is now in its fifth year and its curriculum is still based on the RSA’s Opening Minds competences. The competences have been reviewed and streamlined and there are now 20 of them; still organised into five domains: Citizenship, Learning, Information, People and Situations. I would argue now, as I argued then, that there is significant value in students learning how to work effectively in complex teams; how to manage their own time; how to research effectively; how to cope with risk – and disappointment. These are some of the competences (the complete list is on the RSA website). 

But it isn’t a question of competences or subjects – not either/or; but rather, both/and. At the RSA Academy, students develop these competences explicitly from year 7 to when they leave in year 13. Key stage 5 is focused on the International Baccalaureate, thus giving continuity via the IB’s Learner Profile which sits very comfortably beside our competences. The key stage 4 curriculum is made up of the usual core and option subjects but the lessons also have a competence objective.

As a business studies teacher it was really helpful last term to have a focus on entrepreneurship as students devised an idea for a business and then wrote their Business Plan. This term their competence focus is on creativity as they develop their branding and marketing ideas for their business. As the students are revisiting competences that they are already familiar with, a higher level of skill is expected compared with key stage 3. 

Key stage 3 is where the competences are introduced to the students and where they begin their learning journey through them. The academy has a faculty structure rather than a departmental one because we wanted the students to understand and value the links between subjects rather than always thinking of subjects as separate from each other. So the links between maths, science and technology (MST) are explored; as are the links between arts, humanities, sport and leisure (AHSL). Our third faculty explores the links between language and communication.

What does this mean in practice?

It means that last term (term 2 for us as we have a five-term year), in AHSL, our year 8 students spent four weeks learning about Brazil – its geography, its history, its music, its art and its culture. This culminated in a wonderful exhibition and series of performances. Our key stage 3 takes a sophisticated thematic approach to the curriculum where the competences are the initial focus and learning objective. The content from several subjects is then skilfully blended to make a dynamic and engaging scheme of work. The competence for the work on Brazil was “diversity”. This is one of the competences for citizenship – diversity: students understand and value social, cultural and community diversity in both national and global contexts.

In addition to the competences giving students a very useful set of tools that they can use throughout life, they help to give a rationale to what students are learning. They also transcend the boundaries of age.

IB history students were developing their understanding of the citizenship competence of morals and ethics (an understanding of ethics and values, how they inform personal behaviour and reflect on their application in everyday situations) when they engaged in a high-level debate about the original boundaries drawn between Palestine and Israel, the subsequent wars and continuing disputes. 

Are the competences effective? 

The RSA Academy is in an area of the West Midlands which is not known for its high aspirations and expectations of education. Nor does it traditionally send large numbers of students to university. But this is exactly what is beginning to happen. 

We have a healthy cohort of “RSA Academy alumni” who are now enjoying university life. And what is very interesting is one of their reflections – that they were far better equipped for university than many of their peer group. Why? Because they had developed many competences, including: how to research, how to cope with change, how to manage their own time. 

These students said that they had settled into university really quickly and well. They felt confident that they could cope well with the intellectual and emotional pressures placed on them. 

Am I saying that no other school helps its students to develop these competences? Of course not. But my experience of working with the competences means that I am confident that the competences have to be explicit. They have to be in the foreground of learning in order to be most effective. That is what the competence-based curriculum is all about. For more details, visit


  • Bill Watkin is operational director at SSAT.

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