Designing a new curriculum – blog 1 of 3 in my curriculum series

Using broad strands to tie together a rich knowledge curriculum and avoid making links for links sake.

A toolkit for curriculum design in Primary Schools.

Historically we went link mad when creating topics, and what we now called ‘horizontal links’ eventually tied up our curriculum in knots. Now I fear we will do the same with vertical links and create another unwieldy beast that will need to be rescued from well-meaning complexity.

In order to create our own coherent school curriculums, we need clarity and tools. This blog is about the journey I am currently on as curriculum lead in my primary school and will hopefully give food for thought to others who are on the same journey.

Trying to establish what we already had.

To start our journey, we met as a whole school, with teachers, teaching assistants, and governors all discussing the idea of a 3D knowledge-led curriculum. The main focus of this meeting was that we wanted to create a bespoke curriculum for our school and our children that fulfilled the NC2014 requirements but also reflected our school ethos and values. So, we wrote down everything that children should know about Newton Abbot, Devon, the South West, the UK, and the World. This was the cultural capital that we felt that children at the school should have when they left us and would help them understand their place in the world. The list will never be finished and we will never be able to cover everything, however some things really jumped out. Such as, William of Orange landed at Brixham, and was declared King of the United Kingdom in Newton Abbot! Yet this was not a major focus of study in the school!

So, what was this ‘cultural capital’ we had captured. We had all read about it and were very pleased to have a big list of it. But what was it? To be honest I wasn’t really sure. Were these the ‘vertical links’ or where they the ‘horizontal ones’? After some thought, a few more educational conferences and the odd glass of wine I started to see cultural capital as the ‘subject matter’ of the curriculum. These were the things that we would look at from the academic viewpoint of each subject.  They would be different in each school and the choices about which to include would significantly impact the character and ethos of our school.

Finding the subject specific links that existed in our current curriculum. It all got a bit complicated.

Now that I was happy that I had a hold on what we had already captured I wanted to look at the ‘vertical links’ that already existed in our curriculum. I was determined not to throw out all the fabulous work that we were already doing, so we created a shared document for each subject (below) and asked teachers and subject leaders to write down where they thought they were addressing subject specific concepts. The process was useful because as a staff we were discussing ‘vertical links’ and subject specific concepts that we felt could be carried through the whole school. We were starting to look at the curriculum in a new way, but it was not clear where to go from a document like this. We had a long list for each subject and added even more links as we went on. It quickly became clear that there was too much to map and maintain clarity. You couldn’t map out where every concept was going to be revisited and maintain real clarity and purpose. It was already starting to seem complex and, in my experience, complex things become fragile and don’t last.

The process was also useful because as we added concepts and links it became clear that we had some strong links and areas where the links were weaker. This led to an important question about what the links should be. I noticed that some ‘subject matter’ off our cultural capital started leaking in as a concept – e.g. local rivers or the Beatles. We were getting confused about what vertical links were and why we were trying to find them.


So, using the ‘curriculum as a boxset’ analogy I looked again at this vertical link mapping process. The vertical links were the undercurrents running through the series. They should be big themes that drew us deeper into otherwise shallow characters. Love. Betrayal. Conflict. Change.  Yes, there are many, many concepts that we revisit within a subject but they are all part of larger strands, so it was these strands I went looking for.

Don’t ignore the National Curriculum!

I looked for links across the internet, on websites of academic associations ánd other schools, but kept stumbling across NC2014. In the end I gave up and read it again, and there they were in black and white – not always clear to see, and easier to pull out having read all the other ideas. Strands.

In History, I found that there were 6 useful themes that seemed to be commonly used by historians and that seemed useful strands through which to make sense of our history studies. They also seemed to fit the NC 2014 aims well. I have summarised this in the following table which shows the strand, how it fits NC14 and what smaller concepts we would expect to see in teaching sequences/lessons that are addressing this strand.

Make your strands really clear – really, really clear!

You will also see where, after listening to Clare Sealy again at CurriculumED2019, I decided to rename the strands to make it really clear what we were trying to teach. If we were at all unsure, we would start getting confused when planning at a later stage. It took me ages to get to this point and I was wanted staff to really get what these vertical strands were and how they differed from each other.So now I had momentum again and so, with NC2014 in hand, I merrily went off to come up with strands for Geography and History before meeting with SLT.


Defining our terms.

As I mentioned above, with some progress made, I was due to discuss my progress with SLT and this focussed my mind on what terminology we were using. I have listed what I came up with below.

Cultural Capital – This is the subject matter that we value because we feel it gives children valuable knowledge of their local, regional, national and global identity. Cultural capital, and the National Curriculum will dictate what our topics are.

Topics – We will still have topics but they will be shorter and they won’t involve every subject. A topic may last a week or may last a month. It will last as long as the subject matter is still being used for meaningful learning. I really value topics because they encourage the re-use of the same subject matter which is an efficient way of organising high-quality resources. Topics involve horizontal links between subjects – but the link is the subject matter not some tenuous idea.

Horizontal links – I think these can be really powerful if the link is made by finding powerful subject matter. Powerful subject matter is something that is rich in learning potential when looked at from the viewpoint of various subjects. Read more about this in my blog on Knowledge-efficient curriculum planning.

Vertical Links – These are the subject-specific concepts that are revisited throughout a pupil’s studies from Foundation to KS5 and beyond. There are tens of these in every subject.

Vertical Strands – These are broader vertical links – that group the vertical links into more easily mappable and plannable narratives that can be revisited and built upon over time. These are the underlying themes of the boxset. They are the different lenses we can look through when looking at subject matter from the viewpoint of one particular academic subject.

Schema – These exist in each pupil’s head. They are their developing understanding of the world as seen through the lenses (subject strands) of each subject.

Facts – These are facts that a pupil needs to learn in order to access a lesson or lessons.

Knowledge – the building up of detailed schema by revisiting vertical strands in a subject and seeing how new facts add to their understanding the strand, deepening their experience.

A diagram of how I see 3D curriculum

My meeting with my colleagues was imminent and I was conscious I would have to clearly explain the curriculum that I could see in my mind. At this point a spent a long time reflecting on the structure of a 3D curriculum and decided to draw it so I could be clear what it was we were creating. I have tried to illustrate how the curriculum is made of a set of narratives about our world as seen from the viewpoint of each academic subject. You can see these vertical strands clearly in the diagram. I then wanted to show how powerful knowledge would still create meaningful horizontal links with the curriculum creating mini topics along the way.

vertical and horizontal links with words

diagram key

Powerful subject matter/cultural capital making mini topics

The important difference here is that the central subject matter is not the focus of the teaching. The teaching should focus on understanding and interpreting this nugget of our wonderful world through the viewpoint of each subject. And within that subject there are a variety of strands that act as lenses to view the subject matter. You may use the study of the subject matter to increase pupils understanding of just one strand or multiple strands.

Powerful subject matter

Where does spaced retrieval practise fit in the curriculum narrative? Where do we use knowledge organisers?

As I zoomed in on one unit of work, I started to think of the ‘curriculum as a boxset’ analogy. This unit of work was a season in the boxset. So, in my mind, the pupil hasn’t seen the program for a while – this is where spaced retrieval practice allows pupils to hold onto the subject knowledge and understanding they have gained before this unit. Just before they start the new unit of work, they should get a knowledge organiser to preteach them some facts to reduce cognitive load when starting the unit and give them a way in. Once the unit begins, like all good boxsets, we need to remind the children what they studied before and revisit some elements if need be. Clare Sealy calls this ‘the Previously’ like you get at the start of an episode of Game of Thrones – “Previously on Game of Thrones”. Good spaced retrieval practice should mean that they still remember a fair bit of what came before. Then we tell them the main facts from the unit – we set the scene. We then use these facts in more complex ways to gain greater understanding of the subject matter from the viewpoint of the academic discipline – in this case History. We end with a task that allows the pupils to show their deepening understanding. We then add the new knowledge to their spaced retrieval practice

Unit of work zoom in

The next hurdle: Mapping subjects timelines throughout the school for mixed age classes.

Having created the strands for History and Geography, I decided to see if I could use the history strands to map out our History curriculum narrative. Our school has Reception, Year 1/2 , Year 3/4 and Year 5/6 classes with a curriculum on a 2 year rolling programme.

I now wanted to focus on the pupil’s experience of our curriculum. Essentially, we have two curriculums – one experienced by pupils who start in Year A and one by pupils who start in Year B. The challenge was to see if our curriculum could deliver a coherent journey for our Year A starters and our Year B starters.

So, I created an excel document and started putting in what we were studying in each term for History.

blog excel pic

The approach seemed to work well so I moved on to create some broad Geography strands and then mapped these out and even tried using them to re-plan an existing Year 3/4 teaching sequence.

teaching sequence

Creating strands with for all of our subjects.

Then SLT sat down, which in our school, means that all team leaders were present and we started to think about which strands were our main focus in each topic.

We decided to focus on History, Geography, Science, Art and DT to begin with. We came up with a title for each strand with a subtitle to give more information. They are mostly very similar to NC2014 as, I mentioned earlier, the strands are very visible in NC2014 so there is no point reinventing the wheel. The hard work will be linking the narrative through our curriculum


Famous people

Learning about the people who have changed our world.



Learning how beliefs and understanding of our world have been accepted or resisted.

Concepts: religion, belief, philosophies, developments in science and technology, the development of the arts.



Learning about the battle for resources – from a human perspective.

Concepts: Farming, agriculture, trade, industry, business



Learning about how people live together and how this has changed over time

Concepts: Women in society, family, kinship, division in society, racial and ethnic differences


Learning how people have run their communities

Concepts: Empire, crime and punishment, revolution, EU, UN, Nation states, democracy, monarchy, tyranny, voting, councils, parish, county, MP, Mayor, school council


Learning how we have been and continue to be interconnected with our planet

Concepts: invention, environment, climate change, disease, population growth, industrialisation, settlement, migration



Locational Knowledge

Learning where things are

Concepts: continents, oceans, countries, UK, seas, Europe, North America, South America, UK cities, latitude, longitude, latitude, longitude, Equator, Northern Hemisphere, Southern Hemisphere, the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, Arctic and Antarctic Circle, the Prime/Greenwich Meridian and time zones

Place knowledge

Learning about the human and physical characteristics of a place

Concepts: contrasting places, similarities, differences, UK, European country, North or South America

Human processes

How we use the landscape

Concepts: city, town, village, factory, farm, house, office, port, harbour, shop, types of settlement, land use, trade links, distribution of energy, distribution of food, distribution of minerals, distribution of water.

Physical processes

Naming features and knowing how they were made

Concepts: beach, cliff, coast, forest, hill, mountain, sea, ocean, rivers, soil, valley, vegetation, season, weather, climate zones, biomes, vegetation belts, volcanoes and earthquakes, water cycle

Geographical skills

How we explore our world

Concepts: atlas, globes, digital mapping, aerial photograph, compass directions, map, symbols, landmarks, grid references, key, sketch maps




How things are made and how they change

Concepts: properties of materials, rocks, fossils, soils, solids, liquids, gases, states of matter, evaporation, condensation, precipitation, hardness, solubility, transparency, conductivity, dissolving, solution, mixtures, filtering, sieving, reversible changes


The study of living things

Concepts: identify common plants and animals, alive, dead, structure of flowering plants, structure of common animals, parts of the human body, seed and bulbs, what plants need to survive and grow, reproduction, what animals need to survive, exercise, healthy eating, classification of living things, habitats, food chains, environments, life cycles, evolution, fossils, adaptation


The nature and properties of matter and energy

Concepts: seasons, weather, light, shadows, forces, magnetism, sound, electricity, circuit,  conductors, insulators, heat, temperature; Earth, Sun and Moon; day and night, gravity, air resistance, water resistance, friction, levers, pulleys, gears, reflection, light source

Working Scientifically

How to conduct scientific investigations

Concepts: observing, using equipment, identifying, classifying, gathering data, recording data, comparative tests, fair tests, systematic observations, diagrams, keys, bar charts, tables, conclusions, predictions, questions, scientific evidence, variables, measurements, causal relationships

Advances in Science

How science and scientists change our world

Concepts: The enlightenment, The Royal Society, Darwin, Einstein, Newton, Curie


Where are the skills?

We are not proposing a knowledge only curriculum. We just believe that the knowledge is a better way of mapping a coherent and practically attainable pathway through our curriculum. When we started re-planning some teaching sequences to start testing the Subject Strands above it just started making a whole load of sense. We looked at our Year 5/6 Greece History study and quickly saw that the main focus would be on the Cultural and Political strands – so a clear emphasis would make planning what to teach much more straightforward. In the Year 3/4 Egypt study we could see that we would probably focus on the Environmental Strand and the Social Strand because they had slaves. Obviously, knowledge from all strands will creep in, but having strands that are you main focus keep the planning focussed and mean that the children will add some clearly defined knowledge and understanding to the narrative of the subject

Knowledge Efficient teaching sequences

So, at the time of writing, that is where we are at this point in time. The next blog in the series will be about how we got on creating our linked overviews and creating coherent narratives for our Year A and Year B children. I will also blog in more detail about our knowledge-efficient teaching sequences where we make the most of our understanding of

  • Working memory
  • Skills
  • Cognitive load
  • Spaced repetition
  • Interleaving
  • Pre-teaching
  • Sharing powerful subject matter
  • Use of Edtech

I am happy to share our overviews or any other documents if people want to sue them as starting points.




















4 thoughts on “Designing a new curriculum – blog 1 of 3 in my curriculum series

  1. Hi, this has been very useful. We have used a similar approach, but you are clearly further on in your journey. I would love to see your overviews and see how these compare to ours. Many thanks.


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