The battle to take back control of the curriculum

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With the momentum growing behind evidence and research-based teaching practice, arguments to give back control of the curriculum to the profession are becoming louder – led, perhaps surprisingly, by Ofsted’s chief inspector...

Opinion is often divided on the balance we should strike between the classroom experience and the theoretical preparation that is needed for a teaching career.

What should the ratio be and how much emphasis should be given to each crucial aspect – subject knowledge, classroom practice and educational theory?

A recent commentary by Ofsted’s chief inspector Amanda Spielman suggests that we may currently have the balance wrong.

Following Ofsted’s recent research into the primary and secondary curricula, she suggests that across the sector there is a weak theoretical understanding of the curriculum. She refers to discussions Ofsted has had with headteachers who have indicated that curriculum-planning skills are only strong in those teachers trained some time ago.

According to Ms Spielman, there is a reduced understanding of the curriculum in the current workforce and it is unlikely that many current training programmes will plug the gap.

In recent years, there has been a huge expansion of school-based initial teacher education. Educational theory, such as the principles and purpose of curriculum design, is not usually high on the agenda.

The Chartered College of Teaching also believes that a refocusing on curriculum design is overdue. It states: “The general consensus here at the college is that the training and development opportunities for primary teachers in relation to the curriculum are rather limited. This is a topic which the Cambridge Primary Review wrote extensively on and concurred with the argument that teachers need more support and training on curriculum development.”

A legacy of didacticism

Treating teachers as technicians rather than professionals is nothing new. The literacy and numeracy strategies brought the dictating of curriculum content and methodology to new levels.

The QCA schemes of work were offered as a bible to follow and, looking back, what is perhaps surprising was the subservience of the profession to their introduction.

The detailed exemplification materials made the assumption that they were known to work better and more effectively than other approaches. They were an “off the peg” solution to lesson-planning and although they were not compulsory, it took a resolute and confident school to refuse.

Ofsted too was viewed to be complicit in the narrowing of the pedagogical variations that teachers could apply. The concept of the Ofsted “tick list” of non-negotiables in your classroom became a strait-jacket for many inspirational and imaginative teachers. Now, the inspection agency seems determined to disassociate themselves from any allegations of trying to tell teachers what to do.

Teacher professionalism

School standards minister Nick Gibb announced at the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools (FASNA) autumn conference that Ofsted had withdrawn from dictating the teaching style expected: “Now teachers are free to pursue and debate the most effective teaching methods,” he told us.

However, this is not entirely the case. Political intervention in the nuts and bolts of education is clearly present when it comes to learning to read. The approach to be taken is even included in the relatively minimalist Teachers’ Standards: “If teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics.”

If this requirement should be overlooked, the phonics test will soon catch up with you, if not an Ofsted inspector. No wriggle room for teachers’ professional judgement is allowed here.

Research and theory

However, this aside, the increasing signposting of teachers to educational research is an indication of intent that they should be given back their professional judgement.

For example, the government-funded Education Endowment Fund materials have become a key guide for all current and aspiring teachers and their leaders.

The concept is simple. There is research out there which tells us what works and what doesn’t work and it’s time we used it. For years, the conclusions of educational research were largely confined to the academic community – no longer.

However, understanding and applying educational research is not as simple as weighing cost against impact. Individual context makes a major difference to the success of any initiative and it could be argued that the information supplied does not provide sufficient guidance or detail when it comes to application in other contexts.


More schools than ever have the opportunity to design their own curriculum. What Ms Spielman highlighted in her speech, however, is that they might not have the capacity to do so.

The implication is that teachers are not coming into the profession with the knowledge to enable them to engage in the complex matter of curriculum construction. To do so requires a broad knowledge, not just of a subject specialism but also of principles around educational theory.

For example, the 22nd IMPACT pamphlet states: “Teachers need educational theory because they must understand what they are doing and why they are doing it, and must be able to think intelligently about how to do it better.”

IMPACT pamphlets are written by leading philosophers of education across a number of different universities. This particular edition argues that teachers need to be aware of the pedagogic choices that are available to them and have insight into the debate about values, aims, curricula, pedagogy, resources and assessment.

There is no agreement about the aims of education or the nature and purpose of assessment, and yet it is often presented as though there is. As such, the authors of the 22nd pamphlet suggest that universities should have a key role in the process of introducing teachers to:

  • Conceptual knowledge – understanding the debates and knowing how the concepts are interpreted and become policy in education.
  • Empirical research – making informed judgements based upon research.
  • Ethical basis of the profession – aligning their own beliefs with the ethical code of the profession.
  • An understanding of the history and philosophy of education.

The pamphlet is a product of universities and it isn’t surprising that they should uphold the importance of keeping universities as a key partner in the teacher training process. However, it seems that the point is now out for discussion, the pendulum has swung too far – teachers need time, space and the professional community in which to formulate their own views and approaches.

The ethical basis for the profession is perhaps under scrutiny too. Ms Spielman’s recent speeches have a hard message for school leaders – some of them are more concerned with the profile of their school than with the best interests of their pupils; school leaders need the confidence to do the right thing for its own sake.

Ms Spielman’s recent speeches – the latest being delivered in February to the Church of England Foundation for Educational Leadership – may have focused on the issue of curriculum development, but at their heart lies the broader issue of whether teachers are being equipped with the understanding necessary to engage in this task.

It is a strange quirk of fate that Ofsted, the body often blamed for the narrowing of the curriculum, should be on the front-line in recommending that teachers are empowered to take back ownership again.

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