Using research-based evidence to inspire our new curriculum

As the winter months start to recede, the education community is faced with the reality that so far this year, teaching and learning continues to be dominated, in a wide variety of ways, by Covid. The prevalence of the Omicron variant has resulted in a high incidence of teacher and student absences and many learners have again had to engage in online learning as they recover and isolate at home.

The Oxford Smart Curriculum was developed during the pandemic, with an eye to addressing the issues it has surfaced, as well as looking beyond Covid: to the educational needs posed more generally by a fast-changing world. The six overarching pillars of this curriculum are designed to address the key themes in the educational landscape that we know matter to schools: delivering coherence in learning and assessment; ensuring academic attainment and progress; preparing learners for successful – if uncertain – futures; promoting equity, diversity and inclusion; and also, critically, protecting wellbeing and stimulating awe and wonder in learning.

Over the past ten months, since we launched the Oxford Smart Curriculum direction paper, a series of research reports have examined the impact of Covid on education. These highlight the effects of school absences on learning gaps and wellbeing and they also explore how schools are responding to the range of challenges that they now face. Many make recommendations about how schools might be supported to work towards a better future.

Across all reports, one prominent theme is the disproportionate effect of Covid on disadvantaged pupils. In a very recent 2022 study, the Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp revealed that almost a third of state schools report that over 10% of their isolating pupils still lack devices for remote learning, while in the most deprived state schools, this rises to a staggering 48%.

More broadly, in its 2022 report on Disadvantage Gaps in England, EPI has highlighted that for persistently disadvantaged pupils, there has been no substantive progress in closing the learning gap over the last decade. For the 16-19 age group, the grade gap actually widened in 2020, with those from disadvantaged backgrounds falling on average 3.1 grades behind their peers over their best three qualifications (compared to 2.9 in 2019).

One key pillar of the Oxford Smart Curriculum, High Expectations, supports teachers to promote, as far as possible, early and continued intervention to address the attainment gap for learners who are affected by social and economic disadvantage. The notion of Learner Identity works alongside this to promote the opening up of rich subject worlds to every learner, regardless of background, through recognising and giving voice to each of one’s own unique cultural capital. In this way, students are supported to understand how the curriculum can be relevant to themselves and to their communities, as well as to the wider society.

An NFER report from September 2021, examining the impact of Covid-19 on schools serving deprived communities, shows that a typical recovery strategy is to modify the curriculum: for example, to blend literacy and numeracy into other subjects, so as to boost these elements of learning. This is entirely compatible with the Oxford Smart Curriculum Pillar, Coherence, which promotes the teaching and learning of easily transferable skills (including English language skills) in the context of different subject areas. 

This commitment to Coherence includes continuity at transition, which is particularly important in light of Ofsted’s research, Education Recovery in Schools, which shows that students are entering secondary school with lower starting points than previous intakes.

In a December 2021 report, Ofsted also draws attention to the fact that many schools are deploying regular informal assessments to build a picture of what pupils do and do not know in the aftermath of school closures and teachers are using this feedback to inform their curriculum planning. This dynamic process of adapting teaching in response to feedback is reflected in the Oxford Smart Curriculum pillar, Responsive Teaching and Learning, which involves the focused and purposeful use of feedback and data to inform teaching decisions.

Another recurring theme in recent research (highlighted particularly in the NFER report) is the deterioration in pupils’ wellbeing and mental health as a result of the pandemic. Together with many others, we support the call for schools to gain access to specialist support, but alongside this, we believe that there is a role for curriculum to play. Through valuing each pupil’s cultural capital, and helping to build their Learner identity, as described above, schools can be powerful agents in building motivation and self-esteem.

The pillar of Metacognition supports learners to become self-aware, to recognise when they are learning well, and reflect on why this is so. It also encourages them to adapt their learning strategies where necessary and to regulate their emotions while learning. This is another crucial component of helping students to build resilience and enhance their wellbeing.

In the face of lost learning, decreased wellbeing and a growing attainment gap, the Oxford Smart Curriculum pillar of Awe and Wonder allows space for teachers to exercise freedom in the way that they deliver the curriculum, to teach in creative ways, with scope to improvise. It also aims to help schools to build and strengthen a learning culture where challenges are embraced and failure is recognised as a natural part of the learning process.

We are proud to have developed a curriculum that balances the need to address shortfalls and problems alongside a positive and inspiring vision for the future. As we launch our complete Oxford Smart Curriculum Service, starting with KS3 Science, we invite all schools and the wider education community to find out more and enter into dialogue with us, to help us develop it into a living, breathing, dynamic, responsive and continuously inspiring service.

Find out more about the Oxford Smart Curriculum Service at

Amie Hewish is Head of STEM and Curriculum in the Education Division at Oxford University Press