Curriculum: the big picture

Education - Northern Ireland Curriculum

Now into a sixth year since its full implementation, the is firmly established. agendaNi outlines its journey to becoming a curriculum for the 21st century.

Curriculum is a complex concept with a host of attributable definitions. In a modern sense the word curriculum usually alludes to the prescribed subjects or learning processes available within a school context. Within the education system, globally, there is an ongoing debate regarding optimal curriculum structure. There are two broad frameworks: the intrinsic and the extrinsic. Content-focused curricula place greater emphasis on the inherent fundamental values of each subject. Meanwhile, the skill-based design is often geared towards employment and economic necessity.

In the North, the Curriculum has experienced a continuous process of reimagining since its introduction in 1991, as legislated for by the Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989. In its initial manifestation the Northern Ireland Curriculum was, in practice, found to be too content-heavy and lacked emphasis on emotional, social, cultural and moral development. It underwent its first revision in 1996 and placed greater significance on addressing sensitive history and the more explicit inclusion of extrinsic values. By 1999, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) was authorised to undertake a radical review of the statutory elements of the Curriculum. Over the course of five years, a process of research, review and consultation was conducted and a new fundamentally altered statutory curriculum unveiled. The ‘big picture’ Curriculum was phased in over three years beginning in September 2007.


The initial Northern Ireland Curriculum faced significant critique. Research suggested that teachers felt it was too content heavy and failed to appropriately address cross-curricular links between subjects. A key lesson taken forward by those behind curriculum development was to ensure that the pace at which radical reform was to be implemented was appropriate. In other words, there was a recognition that teachers should not be overwhelmed by new demands.
The substantial social upheaval and societal changes of the 1990s also forced a re-evaluation of curriculum values. Technological developments have rendered the intrinsic value of knowledge retention less important than it once was. Information is easily accessible, however, a focus on the development of the analytical skills required to decipher and utilise it is now more pertinent than ever.

Furthermore, a curriculum cohort report conducted by the National Foundation for Educational Research produced evidence indicating that young people were unenthused by the initial curriculum. This stemmed from an inability to identify a relevant link between school life and the working world. A ‘culture of compliance without engagement’ was prevalent. Through increased emphasis on ‘the real world’ the Curriculum has attempted to improve student motivation to learn.

According to CCEA, the consultation processes established an agreed definition for the role of education. That is, to assist young people in becoming “full participants in society; active contributors to the economy and custodians of the environment for future generations”. The skills required to ensure this success became the core impetus of the Key Stage 3 Curriculum.

Employers also expressed increasing demand for young people to receive enhanced preparation for the world of work. Consequently, the cross-curricular skills and capabilities of problem solving, self-management and working with others occupy a crucial position on the current Curriculum.

That is not to say that the first statutory Northern Ireland Curriculum failed to have a positive influence. Its introduction in 1991, amidst a backdrop of violent conflict, succeeded in placing a critical analysis of Irish history at its core.

Curriculum: the big picture


The Revised Northern Ireland Curriculum was developed to “empower young people to develop their potential and to make informed and responsible decisions throughout their lives as an individual, a contributor to society and a contributor to the economy and the environment”. It is intended to assist young people in actively utilising the skills, knowledge, values and attitudes that they obtain through the process of learning. The Curriculum is intended to promote learning experiences which are relevant, enjoyable, cross-curricular, enquiry based and diverse.

The process of reviewing the Curriculum was not without challenge. At the time, many subject specialists voiced their apprehension in relation to subject integrity. Curriculum development was forced to walk a tightrope to ensure that the Curriculum coherently addressed thematic approaches, skill development and relevance without conceding ground on subject knowledge and skills. Traditional subjects retained their position, though the statutory requirements of detailed content were scaled back in order to facilitate the inclusion of new subjects such as citizenship and learning for life and work.

As such, the revised Northern Ireland Curriculum replaced detailed programmes of study with a skills framework which enables schools and individual teachers to tailor learning within an agreed entitlement. The Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 and the subsequent Entitlement Framework legislation provides for a broad based curriculum from Foundation Stage to Key Stage Four. Less prescriptive, the legislation requires that the Curriculum “promotes the spiritual, emotional, moral, cultural, intellectual and physical development of pupils at the school and thereby of society; and prepares such pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life by equipping them with appropriate knowledge, understanding and skills”.

The current Curriculum is “now almost devoid of statutory requirements relating to subject content”. In theory this ensures much sought after flexibility for educators to tailor topics to the specific needs of their students. In reality, however, many schools have opted to merely adapt traditional topics to fit within new requirements. Twenty years of experience in these areas rendered this the path of least resistance. As such, another gap has emerged between the Curriculum as intended and the Curriculum as practised. Overall, a considerable question remains as to whether or not the Northern Ireland Curriculum has broadly succeeded in reaching its full potential.

Show More
Back to top button