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How can we organise the personal development curriculum?

In this final blog in this series, I’m going to offer my own working definition for personal development and describe my approach to organising and delivering PD in my school.

Over the last few blogs I’ve hopefully gone some way to established that:

  • PD is important and worthy of being given significant time and thought by school leaders

  • The domain of PD (all the different things we should and must teach within this area) is enormous and difficult to neatly organise

  • Ofsted’s framework for this area encourages us to think deeply about the curriculum for PD both in terms of what we choose to teach and how we implement this

As such, in this blog I’m going to describe my approach to developing a personal development curriculum (PDC) and why I think this is an important activity for schools to engage in.

Forwarding a definition of personal development

I think it’s important, when seeking to define a curriculum, that we have an agreed definition of what the ‘subject’ we’re building that curriculum for is. This is useful practically, in that it helps us to explain what we’re doing to students and staff, and conceptually, in that it helps us to focus our curriculum choices.

Needless to say, there is no ‘right’ definition of PD and whatever definition we choose will rightly be rooted in a school’s specific values, rhetoric and common language. However, I like the below:

Personal Development is the development of knowledge, skills, dispositions and habits which will promote and support our students in leading healthy, happy and fulfilling adult lives.

There’s a few things in this definition that I find useful:

  • It indicates that PD is not just the accumulation of knowledge (in the sense of understanding facts and information) but foregrounds this element

  • It includes dispositions (ways of thinking) and habits (ways of acting) and reminds us that PD is about developing positive change in these areas (although this change may naturally not manifest until maturity)

  • It gives a broad and I’d argue universally agreeable objective for PD education: healthy, happy and fulfilling adult lives.

  • I like to include fulfilling because it links closely to the careers and citizenship elements of the curriculum and prompts conversations with students about how to get the most out of this one life that we get.

  • I also like the inclusion of ‘adult’ lives explicitly to remind us all that what we’re doing is unlikely to pay off immediately, but that what we’re equipping students with are the knowledge and skills that they will hopefully choose to take advantage of once they reach maturity. We should be under no illusions that a school serving a disadvantaged intake provide an inadequate PD curriculum just because students there are more likely to make bad choices than those at the leafy grammar down the road. This isn’t to say schools don’t have agency, but schools can only rarely work miracles and only in tandem with the wider family and community.

Organising the curriculum

From a leadership perspective, I find it helpful to think about PD in terms of two areas: what we’re going to teach (what Ofsted, and therefore most schools, now refer to as ‘intent’) and how we’re going to teach it (now widely known as ‘implementation’).

Although this sometimes sounds like the tail is wagging the dog, and strategic organisation is being driven by the desire to adopt pleasingly alliterative Ofsted buzzwords, I’d argue it’s self-evident that this is a useful way to approach curriculum planning.

Setting out intent in personal development

A few key principles should underpin the process of deciding the intent of a school’s PD curriculum:

  • Is it right for this school and these pupils? Consider contextual factors like the prevalence of gangs in an area, or knife crime, or park-bench binge drinking, or grooming. Take advantage of the experts in you school and local community and value their input.

  • Is it accessible for these pupils? Do the majority of the students in your school join with the kind of literacy (and cultural literacy) required to interpret the kinds of things you want to teach them about? There are serious barriers to starting Year 7 off on ‘the history of democracy’ if their understanding of history is weak.

  • Is it coherent? Does the curriculum you’ve designed flow logically and build as a progression model? Would your PD curriculum withstand the same level of scrutiny as your English curriculum, in terms of leaders’ ability to justify decisions and explain how the curriculum facilitates progress?

  • Is it at the heart of what we do? There’s little point in building a wonderful PD curriculum if nobody on SLT gives a damn about it. Are ad hoc assemblies likely to undermine or contradict your curriculum? Is curriculum time you thought you had likely to be whipped away for intervention with a week’s notice? If this sounds like your school, then the PD lead has a fight on their hands but there are definitely the tools at their disposal to win it!

Alongside these general principles, and I’ve intimated this above, the PD curriculum deserves the same kind of high-level curriculum thinking as any other curriculum. Think about the kinds of ‘curriculum questions’ that may be asked of ‘mainstream’ subjects:

  • Does the curriculum flow logically?

  • Does the curriculum spiral progressively?

  • Does the curriculum include opportunities for pupils to retrieve things they’ve previously learned?

  • Does the curriculum pivot around powerful knowledge which will in turn help students to engage with more challenging and complex content?


The point I’m making here is that it’s not good enough to just throw together a list of stuff from the DFE RSE guidance, tack on a few topics from the Citizenship national curriculum, throw it in a list for tutors and call this PD. ‘Coverage’ does not mean teaching, and the PD curriculum deserves to be taught with all the love and care and passion and rigour and thoughtfulness as any other part of the curriculum.

So what’s my model for intent? If you read my previous blogs you may have seen my Ofsted handbook PD brainstorm.

I decided early on that I wanted to simplify PD as much as possible, but also wanted a model that would encourage and help me to ensure that my curriculum met its statutory obligations. I didn’t do anything revolutionary – indeed, structurally my curriculum reflects what the vast majority of schools do I imagine. I decided to develop five strands or pillars:

  • PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic)

  • RSE (Relationships and Sex Education)

  • SMSC (Social, Moral, Spiritual and Cultural)

  • CCL (Citizenship and Civic Literacy)

  • CEIAG (Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance)

See, nothing new!

I then spent a few days categorising everything I could find that was statutory, semi-statutory, recommended, best-practice or otherwise (and certainly national curriculum!) into these five strands, and ended up with a long list beneath each heading.

I then audited those lists for importance: I pulled out the things I thought were crucial concepts, and the things I thought the students in my school needed to know about most of all given our context. I also started cutting things that I felt were repetitive, or in some cases over the top.

Finally, I categorised all this stuff (which at this point was as far as possible all specific knowledge, be is substantive or procedural) into topics. For example I ended up with topics like:

Family relationships:

  1. the importance of family life

  2. different types of families

  3. different types of family relationships including marriage and their legal status

  4. roles and responsibilities of parents

  5. the impacts of separation and divorce

  6. bereavement

Which our Year 7s are doing this term, incidentally, in their PSHE sessions.

I ended up with 61 topics more or less evenly distributed across my themes. And to be honest, I’m pretty happy with it! It’s right for the students in front of us at our school (although will need to change and update in future I’m sure) and provides a really robust body of knowledge which I am confident, if taught well, will provide our students with the knowledge, skills, dispositions and habits to promote and support them in leading healthy, happy and fulfilling adult lives.

However, a curriculum is only as good as its implementation.

(Note: I did go through a process of carefully sequencing this curriculum, but the truth is that this is utterly dependent on your implementation model so I will address this a little below)

Planning for implementation in personal development

As with intent, the key principle underpinning planning for implementation of PD is the same: is this implementation plan right for your school?

However, implementation planning is also likely to face the kind of practical realities that curriculum planning need not. For example, as a PD lead you will likely need to consider questions like:

  • How much curriculum time do I have to deliver our intended curriculum?

  • Who will be teaching our curriculum?

  • How frequently will students be learning our curriculum?

  • What other pressures will be competing with our curriculum for time?

  • How likely are our implementation plans to change (how embedded are our delivery mechanisms?)

The models adopted for implementing the PD curriculum are incredibly varied. However, we can categorise most into:

  • Tutor time sessions (regular, short sessions in which non-specialists teach PD)

  • Timetabled lessons (regular, longer sessions in which specialists and/or non-specialists teach PD)

  • Drop-down or ‘themed’ days (extended periods of time in which students are withdrawn from other lessons to do PD related learning)

  • Cross-curricular PD (a model in which PD content is delivered in other lessons as part of those subjects’ curriculum time)

In many cases, schools will adopt a mixture of these methods. I will probably blog in the future about each of these in detail, but in the interests of relative brevity I will just say that as a general principle I think that dedicated curriculum time is always best, but can be wisely complemented by other strategies to ensure really robust implementation and avoid some of the pit-falls of, say, a non-specialist tutor being responsible for implementing the entire PD curriculum for a particular tutor group.

My own model, which is working brilliantly so far, is as below:

  • Tutor time: Three dedicated PD lessons are delivered through tutor time by tutors. I have categorised these into ‘PSHE’ (covering the PSHE and RSE themes of my curriculum), ‘Citizenship’ (covering the SMSC and CCL themes of my curriculum) and ‘PDC’ or ‘Personal Development and Careers’ through which time we deliver our CEIAG curriculum but also a range of other school programmes including a wider ‘award’ scheme (somewhat like a custom DofE) which is designed to develop character.

  • Assemblies: Once per week, an assembly which is explicitly linked to our PD curriculum is delivered by staff and/or students.

  • Drop down ‘themed’ days: Once per term, the whole school is taken off-timetable for deeper PD related learning. These days provide opportunities to engage in bigger projects and workshops, invite guest speakers in, run events that wouldn’t fit in a normal school day, redeploy specialist staff to ensure that particular topics are taught by the right people etc.

This model has a lot going on – there’s essentially three parallel strands interwoven which means a lot of plates must be kept spinning. Moreover, sequencing is challenging. I’ll hopefully address this more in another blog, but my general approach here is to ensure that the taught tutor time curriculum is really coherently sequenced, and then ensure that the rest of the curriculum implementation complements, reinforces and revisits these themes.

Concluding thoughts (for now):

I realise as I write this all in one place for the first time that there’s a huge amount else to share! Some of the other issues and challenges worth discussing here include:

  • the organisation of monitoring, evaluation and review for personal development

  • how I design the curriculum materials that are taught through these various strands of implementation

  • how to get the best out of non-specialist staff teaching PD

  • how we build in character and skills development throughout this curriculum (given that I’ve given it no explicit place in the curriculum model)

Hopefully all of these things will come in time. For now, the key thing to take away here is what I started with: the personal development of our students really matters, and they deserve a fantastic, thoughtful curriculum which will develop them throughout their time in school. The only way we do this is through careful strategic leadership of this curriculum (and this can come from classroom teachers as much as from SLT) and we must always resist any push to side-line the personal development curriculum, redirect resources or treat it as anything other than an important core subject within our wider whole-school curriculum in its own right.

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