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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.

More content by Dominic Wyse, Yana Manyukhina, Dominic Wyse and Yana Manyukhina