Dominic Wyse & Yana Manyukhina

What next for curriculum?

Dominic Wyse & Yana Manyukhina UCL Institute of Education Wednesday 10 April 2019

People are talking about curriculum again. Not just literacy and maths, but the whole curriculum. What’s more, there seems to be a real appetite for these discussions: organisations as diverse as Ofsted, the CBI, BERA, schools and university education departments, are thinking about curriculum. But what type of curriculum is best: ‘knowledge-based’, ‘skills-oriented’, or ‘learner-centred’?

‘What type of curriculum is best: “knowledge-based”, “skills-oriented”, or “learner-centred”?’

We were commissioned to do some work as part of the review of Ireland’s national curriculum for primary schools. In particular, we were asked to investigate the place of knowledge in the curriculum. The research included a comparison of the curricula of four jurisdictions internationally, selected according to three criteria.

  1. Jurisdictions in which English is at least one of the dominant languages, including national curriculum texts available digitally in English.
  2. Significant levels of ethnic diversity.
  3. High scoring in PISA outcomes (OECD, 2018).

The jurisdictions and the curriculum documents used as the data for content and discourse analyses were as follows.

  • Australia: 1. The Australian Curriculum: Learning Areas; 2. The Australian Curriculum: General Capabilities; 3. The Australian Curriculum: Cross-Curriculum Priorities.
  • Canada (Ontario): The Ontario curriculum subject guides.
  • Hong-Kong: The Basic Education Curriculum Guide.
  • England: The National Curriculum in England: Framework Document.

Our research analysed the ways in which knowledge was positioned in these curriculum texts in relation to other elements such as skills, values and attitudes. As a result, we identified three types of curricula.

  • Knowledge-based (e.g. England): Knowledge is the dominant organisational emphasis across the curriculum as a whole.
  • Skills-oriented (e.g. Australia and Ontario): skills are an important consideration, particularly in relation to applying knowledge, which remains an important element.
  • Learner-oriented (e.g. Hong Kong): the dominant organising emphasis is on the learner, including whole-person development and lifelong learning. This was accompanied by an explicit recognition that a bias towards an emphasis on knowledge is undesirable.

The fact that all three curriculum models have been used in countries whose PISA results are strong means that, on the basis of these data, policymakers could make an evidence-based claim that a learner-centred curriculum is appropriate. We have just published a paper in the Curriculum Journal that builds on our research by exploring learner agency in relation to the curriculum (Manyukhina & Wyse, 2019).

In England, the national inspectorate, Ofsted, is now requiring schools to think about curriculum models. Amanda Spielman (2018) outlined three models in her blog post. Table 1 compares models with ours.

Table 1: A comparison of curriculum models (Manyukhina & Wyse vs Spielman)

Of considerable concern is the fact that the learner-centred curriculum model is not even a consideration in Ofsted’s recent work on curriculum; had curriculum researchers in the UK been consulted, we doubt that this omission would have been made. Here are some suggestions of people who could have contributed (and apologies to any I’ve left out): Ruth Dann, Carmel Gallagher, Christopher Hanley, Louise Hayward, Mary James, David Leat, Kay Livingston, Ian Menter, Andrew Pollard, Mark Priestley and Kevin Smith. And, for a wider international perspective, there are the 50 eminent authors of the chapters in the SAGE Handbook of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment (Wyse, Hayward & Pandya [Eds.], 2016), who give more food for thought.

The renewed emphasis on curriculum in schools is long overdue, and is welcome and necessary. However, there is also an imperative to look critically at England’s national curriculum. It is time to start a new and different process of national curriculum development in England. We have much to learn from our neighbours in Ireland (on both sides of the border), Scotland and Wales – their more inclusive processes of curriculum development, for example.

The assessment-led and knowledge-based approach that has typified England has not been fit for purpose. Instead of knowledge, powerful or otherwise, it is time to focus more on empowering learners.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Learner agency and the curriculum: a critical realist perspective’ by Yana Manyukhina and Dominic Wyse, which is published in the Curriculum Journal and has been made free-to-view for a time-limited period, courtesy of the journal’s publisher, Routledge.


Manyukhina, Y. & Wyse, D. (2019). Learner agency and the curriculum: a critical realist perspective. The Curriculum Journal . Advance online publication.

Spielman, A. (2018, September 18). HMCI commentary: curriculum and the new education inspection framework [blog post]. Retrieved from

Wyse, D., Hayward, L., & Pandya, J. (Eds.) (2016). SAGE Handbook of Curriculum, Pedagogy and Assessment. London: SAGE.

Yana Manyukhina is research associate at the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0–11 years). Her area of expertise cuts across the sociology of identity, the sociology of morality, the philosophy of critical realism, and qualitative methodologies. Yana’s work to date contributes to unlocking the potential of critical realism to advance understanding of the real causes of social processes and phenomena. Her first book, published in the Routledge Critical Realism Series, is a critical realist account of ethical consumption, relating the underlying processes of personal change to the wider social contexts. She is now exploring the potential of critical realism to provide a new level of sensitivity in explaining educational processes and outcomes.

Dominic Wyse is professor of early childhood and primary education at the University College London (UCL), Institute of Education (IOE), and head of the Department of Learning and Leadership. Dominic will be president of the British Educational Research Association (BERA) from late 2019 to 2021. He is a fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences (AcSS), and of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). Prior to his current role at the IOE as head of academic department learning and leadership, Dominic was faculty director of research, consultancy and knowledge transfer, in the Faculty of Children and Learning. Dominic has significant experience in music that began with his undergraduate studies at the Royal Academy of Music. Before joining the IOE, Dominic was a senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He was also appointed as the first director of music-making at Churchill College, Cambridge, where he was a fellow and director of studies for education. In the past Dominic was a reader at Liverpool John Moores University, and a teacher with experience working in London, Bradford and Huddersfield in the infant and junior phases.