Ofsted wants to see your broad and rich curriculum

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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The Ofsted framework looks set to remain the same over the next two years, but inspection reports are already showing a change in focus by inspectors. As the new school year begins, we summarise some of the key concerns and lessons to be learnt from schools’ most recent reports

In 2019 we can look forward to a new inspection framework. The promise made in September 2015 for a moratorium has been honoured and, in fact, exceeded. We might have seen changes in September 2017 but now have another two years to wait. During this time, we are told, the service will be consulting and researching to establish what should be left alone and what must change.

The framework might be on hold but the inspection process for good schools isn’t. An Ofsted consultation proposed that some “good” schools should receive a Section 5 inspection instead of a short inspection and this could start from October 2017. Chief inspector Amanda Spielman has also been making her views known about the future direction of the service: “Rather than just intensifying the focus on data, Ofsted inspections must explore what is behind the data, asking how results have been achieved. Inspections, then, are about looking underneath the bonnet to be sure that a good quality education – one that genuinely meets pupils’ needs – is not being compromised.”

Ms Spielman is concerned that something rather unpleasant is lurking at the heart of our schools. The HMCI has been critical of school leaders who, she suggests, prioritise a narrow range of subjects at the expense of delivering a broad and rich curriculum. This concern about the content of the curriculum and the range of skills and experiences that children are now receiving is filtering into more recent inspection reports.

Curriculum concerns

The curriculum shouldn’t just busy itself with maths, English and science. Recent Ofsted reports draw attention to other subjects, usually unspecified, that are not receiving the same kind of treatment as the core ones. Most of the blame for this seems to be directed at the subject leaders who are accused of not tracking progress sufficiently and not having the skills necessary to monitor other teachers delivering their subject.

Schools can have an understandable tendency to allocate coordinating roles for English and maths to their strongest teachers. Where money is available for training it is more likely to be spent on these subject leaders than those of other subjects. It is therefore unsurprising if subject leaders for history and geography, for example, do not have the same level of monitoring and tracking skills as their colleagues.

Leadership is not absolved of blame, for this state of affairs. In some recent reports it is pointed out that school leaders should have better developed strategic plans for these subjects. These plans should set out the key skills, knowledge and understanding that pupils will learn and not just in English, maths and science. In one report, this criticism extends to planning of SMSC.

Progress in all subjects should be carefully assessed. There should be monitoring and tracking of pupils’ progress with action taken where problems emerge. School leaders are expected to ensure that middle leaders have the skills and knowledge to raise standards within their areas of responsibility – “to make sure that all groups of pupils make consistently outstanding progress across subjects”.

In some cases, subject leaders and teachers are criticised for not ensuring that English skills are applied well across subjects as well as in English. The use of English across the curriculum is flagged up in a few reports along with a failure to ensure good presentation, handwriting and spelling in other subject areas. Teachers must have high expectations of the quality and presentation of writing in all subjects.

Any school that is expecting an inspection should make sure that it has the means in place to demonstrate that the drive for standards in the basics has not meant an exodus of interest in other subjects. Most primary schools have always believed this to be important, now is the time to show it too.

The wider curriculum might be receiving more attention these days but it’s not on its own in being a recurring theme in some recent inspection reports. Of course, every school and its report is different but there are some factors that seem to get more than their fair share of coverage.


Concerns that the most able in our schools are not being sufficiently challenged is not a new comment in Ofsted reports, but it is surprising how many schools continue to have this as an area for improvement.

From requiring improvement schools to those that are outstanding, there seems to be difficulty with ensuring that the more able are pushed that little bit more. In some reports, a specific area of the curriculum is referred to where additional challenge is particularly lacking, usually it’s reading or writing.

Why are so many schools falling short? We can only speculate about the huge demands made on the class teacher in terms of special needs and the preparation of strategic groups for assessment purposes. This is not to criticise teachers but to draw attention to the impact of high accountability in relation to some groups of students.


Many inspection reports refer to a lack of consistency. Good practice in one year group or in one class isn’t reflected in others. Again, this is a common concern in some good schools as well as those that require improvement. In some cases it is fuelled by high staff turnover, difficulties with recruitment and perhaps a change of leader or status.

We know that the most important factor in a school is its teachers and that these teachers perform and behave differently. However, the requirement that they apply school procedures consistently is a key one and one that can be hard to guarantee. Reports refer to lack of consistency in standards of teaching, the progress of students, leadership of subject areas, and application of behaviour policies.


Sustaining high attendance levels is proving difficult for some schools. In some cases it’s a small group of families that they are struggling to work with. In other cases it is a more general difference in perception between parents and teachers of when it is acceptable for children to be absent.

Term-time holiday issues have not helped relationships. This is referred to in some reports: “Leaders have not ensured that parents sufficiently recognise the impact of absence, including term-time holidays.” Parents may indeed recognise it but have weighed it against the option of a holiday and found it lacking.

It is not only in relation to attendance that there is a feeling that the views of parents and teachers are perhaps coming adrift. In some reports there is reference to insufficient communication with parents and criticism that they are not fully involved in children’s education.

A positive note

It is a credit to primary schools, their leaders and teachers that so many reports contain such positive statements about the efforts of staff to do the very best for their students. The majority of reports viewed were of good schools where concerns about achievement, progress and behaviour had already been dealt with, and criticisms are relatively minor ones.

Many primary schools are still in a state of turbulence and are doing their utmost to recruit and retain the best staff, meet the changing assessment demands and please the inspectors.

Whatever criticisms the HMCI might make about the place where schools are, it shouldn’t be forgotten that it’s Ofsted who helped put them there.

Further information

School Inspection Handbook, Ofsted, September 2015 (Updated August 2016): http://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-i...

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