Curriculum Modelling: Cycle Design

The pandemic period has brought a number of things into focus for school leaders. One I have been asked most about over the past few months is what is going on in curriculum modelling cycle design. Within the secondary curriculum modelling understanding there is the characteristic of a number of organised sessions over a defined number of days into which we plan for the learning experiences to be scheduled with specialist staff. 

In many schools the curriculum model is delivered over 5 or 10 days with a fixed number of sessions included, the cycle. The number of sessions depend on a how many are planned for each day, this may be as few as 3 and as many as 6 or more. The number of these sessions determines how we describe the curriculum delivery. The more the sessions, the shorter the sessions tend to be and the more specific they tend to be in description and intent, the fewer the defined sessions per day the longer the learning experiences which leads to more programme led intent, staff needing to be more flexible and the experiences can allow for a deeper development with each session. Shorter sessions seem to favour subjects where there is a need for repeated touchpoints within a cycle to build learning e.g. in languages. Longer sessions favour subjects that need more time to deliver, typically practical subjects e.g. physical education and design technology.


Cycle climate creation

The number of sessions planned  within a cycle can have a real impact on the feel or climate of the school and will be influenced by a number of other characteristics including the design of the school building (more on that another time.) In the analysis I have done of cycle design and the school day the characteristics of school day design that I observe are shown in figure 1 below. In no way is moving to the right or left better, the question to ask is: “what are you trying to achieve?” We have seen schools in this period post pandemic moving to the left to achieve richer deeper experiences, and also learning from the pandemic experience in trying to do less different disciplines within a day. Where others are moving to the right to be able to do more in the ‘catch-up’ frame of mind. The issue is whether there is purpose in being fluid or agile. Can we achieve a result that is effective in the moment and return to an establish practice later, or not where they are seen to embed well in the climate of an organisation.

Figure 1: Cycle design implications

Cycle Characteristics

I am not able to cover every permutation of cycle here, but I will consider the most typical overall examples. I have seen others collate versions of what schools are doing by way of sharing model diagrams. I have commented in other posts about the need to review others practice with care as a simple diagram does not reflect the many influences that drive the climate of each organisation and the context it work within. Below, in Figure 2, I have covered what I am seeing more of in schools at the moment. Sessions per day ranging from 2 to 8, i.e. very long to very short sessions, again no judgement on the merits of each other than to say the more sessions the more movement around the building other than where they are used to achieve different lengths by grouping multiple elements to give more variation, i.e. double/triple sessions for practical subjects. The long sessions (rarely less than 3 per day) cause an issue in the number of variations available for the planned curriculum. 14 subjects reflected in Figure 3 below mean that a 15 period week does not allow much flexibility for variation and core subject emphasis. This leads to the longer cycle consideration, typically cycles over 10 days or two weeks have been typical. The consideration of longer cycle has come in to the conversation over recent months with schools seriously considering 3 week or 15 day cycles. This has some merit although needs to be structured carefully. Note the Figure 3, 45 period cycle, 15 per week over 3 weeks. It does fit well with schools who use carousels as the 36/39 week year is better divided equally.

The highlighted cells in Figure 2 are there to emphasise the most common cycle designs. Typically curriculum models are attempting to achieve a number of permutations for specialist staff to deliver the breadth of the national curriculum. Typically 14 disciplines taught in a mutually exclusive framework, although attempting to make connections through planning, the success of this is variable. The patterns however, sit in a cycle pattern most typically that provide 30 – 50 experiences over the cycle. Referring to the characteristics from Figure 1 the lower number provide longer, potentially deeper experiences, the higher the number provide more touch points of shorter potentially shallower experiences. Managing the characteristics of these is the realm of high quality teaching and learning and curriculum leadership professionals. Broadly, each curriculum model element seeks to provide 2.5 – 3.5% of the curriculum time and so the decisions made about how many lessons each element needs to attract are for you to determine. Figure 3 gives some typical examples, by they will vary based on your context, the prior learning of your learners and the staff profile your organisation enjoys. The key characteristic I hear from leaders is about the continuum, “how do we provide a regular, rhythm of learning without imbalance across the weeks in 10 or 15 day cycles so that learners dont experience large gaols between experiences. Here the one example I would give is the school who ran a 50 period 10 day cycle pre-pandemic who have moved to a 30 period 10 day cycle which has allowed for deeper experiences, let movement time and maintains a balance of subjects across the cycle.

Figure 2: Cycle characteristics

Cycle Delivery Patterns

An issue to consider in the delivery of patterns is the dynamics of your staff profile and the delivery of the planned elements. I have suggested above that there is a dynamic in schools that planned more sessions within the cycle to create a structure led delivery climate. This is characterised by the learners moving around the building to go to specific lessons. Where there is less movement the changes and interlinking of curriculum is created by the teacher in designing the programme to suit the learners needs and the requirements of the curriculum, nationally driven or otherwise. Figure 3 below gives a feel for how the proportionality can change across different Key Stage 3 structures which will be reflected in the proportions of staff required to teach the subjects. Changing this needs to be done with careful planning. 

A point to note in the diagram below is the RS (Religious Studies) and PSHCE (Personal, Social, Health and Careers Education). Some schools are looking to merge the delivery of these programmes to achieve their presence on a curriculum model, as said above by asking staff to planned a programme that delivers both elements rather than learners moving around the building looking to go to a RS session and then to a PSHCE session.

I have already referred to the characteristics that will impact your decisions about how much time each element attracts. Variation is inevitable, my constant conversation is about delivering a rhythm across the curriculum that builds the learning and does not create the noise of disruption that can be so difficult to overcome.

I have added a typical distribution analysis in Figure 4 for Key Stage 4 including the delivery hours across the key stage to compare with GLH allocated to each GSCE or Technical Award programme. They vary according to the cycle design, not that the 45 period is distributed as long lessons over a 3 week cycle as previously described.

Figure 3: Proportionality of delivery
Figure 4: Typical proportions of delivery at Key Stage 4 including GLH estimate
Fig 5.1: 4 period Day
Fig 5.2: 5 period Day
Fig 5.3: 6 period Day

The characteristic that follows is related not to lesson timing but to the break and lunch opportunities. Social distancing and capacity of school canteen facilities has raised al sorts of practical concerns that have seen the greatest shift in attitudes to the cycle design. I have spent many years undoing the ‘split lunch’ idea where many headteachers disliked the disruption to learning it created. However, this is the major talking point in organising schools currently. How can we have movable time to allow learners to have break and lunch at different times or at least reduce the number of learners out of classrooms at any one time? Figures 5.1,5.2 and 5.3 above show samples of the planning work (the blue elements show positions for registration and lunch.) This is work I have been working on with a number of schools within the different day structures. The 3, 4, 5 and 6 period days with the movable patterns of lessons and breaks to provide space and facility for viable teaching and staffing of lessons alongside the practical delivery of out of lesson time.


Clearly there is no one answer and the context that you are working in will determine many of the decisions you make. The structures shown above are not exhaustive but are the most typical and provide a basis for the styles of delivery that you might have in mind.

  • I detect a more purposeful evaluation of the intent rather than a reliance on “what we did on my previous school.” The desire to design the school experience for better effect is a good development to have come out of this most difficult experience.
  • In addition to the notes given above I have been asked about how to embed the reduction of the cycle to allow for staff training and development or to develop wellbeing time for staff and students. Clearly this is achievable and can be operated simply by considering a 48/50, 24/25, 28/30 cycle if that is what you feel is significantly important in your context. I have seen some schools where they achieve something similar by reducing the lesson length on the day where children “finish early” (secondary and primary schools included.) However, a characteristic that I would suggest is often missed in this type of design is the rhythm the professional teacher develops when embedded within a school, the variation of lesson length in this context can create more unsettled classrooms as staff and pupils are constantly “watching the clock.” From experience I would advise to be careful with this model.
  • The “split lunch” and “variable breaks” characteristic is with us to stay, I believe. The characteristic of learners respecting other classrooms and having less people out of class together has has an advantageous impact on the mix of learners in the playground. 
  • Considering longer cycles is something I did not expect to be considered but again developing the greater purpose about the intent of our curriculum model design it was inevitable for school leaders to begin to consider it as a way forward. It is not for all but certainly worth developing.
  • I have not touched upon the longer school day, specifically because this article is about how we order the structure. Clearly you may decide to institute longer days than the standard 300 minutes and simply add time and sessions. This will not impact anything I have said other than the contractual hours of teachers and support staff and the related costs and implications of that.  It will also impact other matters of school life beyond the classroom including your admin staff contracts, and travel contracts if you use public or private transport systems to name just two and so requires a level of consultation that is worth considering very carefully before you jump in.

Please feel free to contact me if you need help in shaping your curriculum, contact us by email here.