3.3.2 Schemes of Work

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you:

  • To understand and be able to define what a scheme of work is
  • To be able to place schemes of work in relationship to curriculum documentation and lesson plans in planning for learning terms
  • To be able to compile a scheme of work
  • To be able to consider the relationship between planning at course and session level
  • To identify that relationships exist between learning and course planning

1. What is a scheme of work?

At its most straightforward, a scheme of work is a document which summarises the content of a course of instruction, and which divides the course content into manageable portions for logical and organised teaching and assessment. Syllabus documentation may not always be arranged into a sequence which provides well for incremental learning, for a journey through the course materials in a way which makes sense to the teacher and the learners alike; part of the function of the scheme of work is to provide this structure. The scheme of work will also consider formative and summative assessment, and will build in appropriate time into the course design for related elements such as revision before final examination-based assessments.

Any scheme of work will need to take into consideration external limiting factors. For most courses, these will include the length of the course, the number of sessions per week, the length of those sessions, and calendar-related aspects such as timings of vacation periods and of examination and other fixed assessment dates. The challenge to the teacher in writing a scheme of work is to meaningfully and logically break down the curriculum content into an ordered sequence which will satisfy the logistical parameters into which the teaching is being delivered while offering the best learning experience to those studying the course being offered. 

A scheme of work for an entire course, particularly a programme of study which extends over two or more academic years, may be a departmental endeavour; either colleagues will collaborate in producing a single document, or the workload will be subdivided, with individuals being responsible for their teaching portion. That said, to some extent a scheme of work is a personal document, as it will inevitably reflect the approach and teaching style of the individual educator. In addition, those new to teaching may find more experienced colleagues' schemes of work somewhat less detailed, as there is a tendency to internalise aspects of one's teaching and planning style over time (Capel, Yeask, and Younie, 2016). A good scheme of work should operate on several levels at the same time: as a guide to the teacher to the sequence of lessons for a particular course; as an expression to the teacher and others of confidence in understanding and interpreting the curriculum from which the scheme of work has been derived; and as a commitment to the aims and objectives contained within the scheme of work and the relevant curriculum documentation (Musingafi et al, 2015).    

2. What must a scheme of work include?

Much like lesson plans, as discussed in the previous chapter, many institutions will have a standard scheme of work template which they expect their teaching staff to use. There is much sense in adopting such standardised formats because their familiarity makes them straightforward to complete when compared to bespoke offerings. Of the list below, sections 1 and 2 might be in a general information section on the first page, with sections 3 to 9 inclusive being presented in a session-by-session table format for ease of reference. The final point - section 10 - might be incorporated into a footer.

1. General course information. This opening section would contain items such as the title of the course, the level (and/or the awarding body if the course is certificated). This section might also usefully include the length of the course in weeks, the teaching location, the length of each class, plus any pertinent knowledge about the class being taught.

2. Aims, objectives, learning outcomes. Course-wide aims and objectives can be usefully summarised and/or referenced back to the syllabus guidance documentation. Where aims and objectives refer to specific elements of the course, then this can be noted too, so that it is clear which objective is being addressed in which sessions, for example.

3. Course content. The course content should be broken down into individual sessions. It is sensible to identify the sessions, either by week number, date of teaching or session number. It is useful to make reference here back to the syllabus documentation, so that it is clear where the scheme of work links to the course requirements. 

4. Learner activity. If the course content section itemises what the learners are being exposed to, and now it related to the wider syllabus, then this section indicates what the learners are doing activity-wise to demonstrate their engagement with that learning.     

5. Teaching and learning methods. Though the bulk of the detail will be in the itemised running order element of the lesson plan, an indication of the principal teaching and learning method/s being used in each session is useful. This is in part so that the scheme of work informs lesson plan writing, and so that the teacher can both vary the approaches being taken to the topic area under investigation in that week, and can also work to provide diverse and non-repetitive experiences for the learners.

6. Assessment methods. As with teaching and learning above, though the detail is in the lesson plan, a word or two on the key assessment tools being used in each session is useful at the scheme of work level of planning. Where there is an end-of-course assessment being worked towards, there should be an element of logical and progressive working towards those summative assessments evident from the scheme of work.

7. Homework/set texts. Where key reading is associated with a particular session's work, or where homework is set either in preparation for or as a subsequent activity to a develop the learning from a particular lesson, this should be indicated.

8. Resources. Where key, specific or perhaps even unusual resources are being employed in a particular session, note these on the scheme of work. This acts as an aide-memoire, as well as a note to others that there is a special resource requirement for this session.

9. Contextual learning opportunities. Where there are session connections to wider learning prospects, then these should be noted. Again, this provides a handy summary of the diversity of opportunities available in the scheme of work, and it also indicates how carefully the course has been planned.

10. Date of last revision. While core content may not change much over several years in a given teaching area at a particular level, curriculum guidelines and awarding body protocols are subject to frequent change. It is perhaps useful to indicate in the document itself when it was last updated.

The level of detail for each element may be mandated by the learning provider; in this case, is it wise to follow the institutional guidelines on detail. Where there is latitude given on detail, it may be wise, particularly for those relatively new to education, to err on the side of caution and make the scheme of work as detailed as they can. The detail will feed directly into lesson planning, so this is not extra effort so much as bringing work forwards slightly in time.

3. Why do we use schemes of work?

One reason why we use schemes of work is that they organise learning more effectively than syllabus content alone might indicate. Subject areas, or elements of wider topic areas, may not fall neatly into a single lesson-length. Some topics may require input over several individual lessons. Links between topics may need to be considered, as do the ways in which learning may need to be stepped up from foundational principles towards more-involved or detailed knowledge and understanding. The scheme of work allows a teacher to tailor the content specified by the syllabus to their strengths as educators, and perhaps also to the particular class groups being taught. A teacher is not merely a deliverer of educational content; it is within the role of the teacher to mould, shape, select and sequence the learning which they are providing, and the scheme of work provides a means of doing this.

A useful gift to learners at the beginning of any course is access to a copy of the scheme of work. This does not need to be the whole document; often a simple week-by-week breakdown of the topic areas under investigation is sufficient. However, this gives learners a roadmap to what they are to cover from the outset of the course, and can be referred back to later in the course so that learners might appreciate the distance that they have travelled in the subject area during this particular course. Though there may be a focus in the scheme of work, and in learners' minds also, of the subject-specific content of the course, there is a balance to be drawn between subject skills and knowledge, and the embedding of other skills. A well-conceived scheme of work will be able to provoke learners to address a variety of relevant wider learning -related approaches, as well as the intellectual skills which might support them, at an appropriate level and complexity of engagement.

Though a scheme of work is an outline of an entire course, that does not mean that it is meant to be wholly prescriptive and inflexible in terms of its operation. A scheme of work is a living document, and session order for example, can be altered mid-presentation if a revised version better fits with the learning styles prevalent with a particular class, or if unmissable new opportunities become available. It may be prudent to build sufficient leeway into the course at the scheme of work level to be able to incorporate moving sessions around, or substituting one topic due to be taught later in the course presentation for another, if circumstances make this a better option for the learners. A scheme does not have to be a one-document-fits-all classes piece of planning.

4. How does a scheme of work fit into a wider learning process?

As has been noted above, the scheme of work is derived from curriculum or syllabus documentation, and interprets it for the allied purposes of teaching and learning. A significant aspect of the function of the scheme of work is to organise and analyse the syllabus content, subdividing it into manageable chunks for session-by-session tuition. Lesson plans may then be written, taking this breakdown of session content into consideration.

The UK education standards inspectorate, Ofsted, has noted the link between poor planning and poorer educational experiences received by learners; this impacts not only on student satisfaction, but on attainment, and on engagement with education at subject and at whole-school levels (Ofsted, 2014). Among the specific issues observed by Ofsted are: overly-complicated planning which constricts creativity in teaching and learning; learning objectives which are focused on task completion rather than on genuine learning, or on understanding of the underlying principles being studied; illogical schemes of work; and schemes of work which do not advance students' learning, devoting too much time to student coursework completion within class time rather than the teacher using this contact time to have a direct positive effect on learners' educational experiences (Ofsted, 2014).

As with planning at the level of the individual lesson, the scheme of work should provoke feedback. The scheme of work is open to revision, not merely from presentation to presentation, but within and during the course also. Many reassessments will perhaps be relatively minor in nature, making shifts in emphasis or reallocating time to topic areas requiring more input than others, for example. Some, though, may need more substantial revision - these kinds of changes might be triggered by a change in teaching personnel, the use of different classrooms with different resources available, and updates to curriculum paperwork. The bulk of these will occur between presentations, and will usually be subject to a long lead time in respect of notice to make updates.

There is perhaps a temptation to consider devising and compiling a scheme of work as a subject and topic-oriented exercise, but it is just as important to think about how the subject will be delivered, and not to focus exclusively on the content and sequencing of each lesson within the broader planning document (Haynes, 2007). There is value also in considering the contexts in which learning takes place. Such considerations might include class composition, school-wide contexts, locally-available resources, the industrial and business networks in the area, and the geographic locality.


The scheme of work is a central planning tool, and the key mechanism by which a teacher organises and prepares for teaching and learning at the whole-course level. The scheme of work also demonstrates and evidences to oneself and others a thorough understanding of the syllabus aims and objectives, and from that, the approaches to teaching and learning which will be adopted throughout the delivery.


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Hertfordshire Grid for Learning (2016) Schemes of work. Available at: http://thegrid.org.uk/learning/maths/ks3-4-5/14-19_resources/sow/index.shtml (Accessed: 17 October 2016).

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Ofsted (2014) Teaching, learning and assessment in further education and skills: what works and why. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/379156/Teaching_2C_20learning_20and_20assessment_20in_20further_20education_20and_20skills_20_E2_80_93_20what_20works_20and_20why.pdf (Accessed: 17 October 2016).

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