Ofsted chief: ‘We have not placed enough emphasis on the curriculum’

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Inspection can play a key role in providing a “more rounded picture of the curriculum” being taught in schools, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman has said.

A new inspection framework is due to be implemented from September 2019 and it is expected to include a strong focus on schools’ curriculum approaches – challenging school leaders to justify their curriculum decisions.

Ofsted has been conducting research into curriculum models and as part of phase two of this research visited 23 “good” or “outstanding” schools known to be “particularly invested in curriculum design”.

In an online commentary last week, Ms Spielman, reporting on the initial results of these visits, said that they saw three broad approaches to curriculum design:

  • Knowledge-led: the mastery of a body of subject-specific knowledge. Skills are considered to be a by-product of this.
  • Knowledge-engaged: less reliant on curriculum theory, but with a strong focus on knowledge, intertwined with skills.
  • Skills-led: designed around skills and learning behaviours as explicit intentions.

Ms Spielman says that they saw strengths and weaknesses in each approach. One key element, she explains, is local context.

She writes: “Nearly all the curriculum experts we spoke to considered their local context and pupil needs when building their curriculum. These were clearly expressed, particularly when schools were in competition with selective grammar schools, in areas with large refugee, asylum seeker or migrant populations, and where high levels of deprivation existed.

“The experts tended to talk about giving their pupils the knowledge or skills that were lacking from their home environments as a core principle for their curriculum and tailored their approach accordingly.”

However, she warns against conflating the curriculum with exam preparation: “In a few of the knowledge-engaged and skills-led schools, the curriculum was being conflated with preparation for exams,” she continued.

“It was disappointing, for example, to be told by leaders that ‘reasoning skills’ in a subject were the ‘five things you need to know to answer an exam question’ or that ‘the teaching of facts was unnecessary’ … this suggests that inspecting the ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ of curriculum will be important in the new framework.”

Ms Spielman emphasises that Ofsted would not be advocating one approach above another: “Without doubt, schools need to have a strong relationship with knowledge, particularly around what they want their pupils to know and know how to do. However, school leaders should recognise and understand that this does not mean that the curriculum should be formed from isolated chunks of knowledge, identified as necessary for passing a test.

“A rich web of knowledge is what provides the capacity for pupils to learn even more and develop their understanding.”

In a speech in June, Ms Spielman rejected fears that the new framework would result in the creation of an Ofsted-approved curriculum model. However, school leaders would be asked to justify their curriculum decisions, she said.

In her commentary, she adds: “We need to assess a school’s curriculum in a way that is valid, fair and reliable, and that recognises the importance of schools’ autonomy to choose their own curriculum approaches. Schools taking radically different approaches to the curriculum must be able to be judged consistently.

“For our part, it is clear that as an inspectorate we have not placed enough emphasis on the curriculum. For a long time, our inspections have looked hardest at outcomes, placing too much weight on test and exam results when we consider the overall effectiveness of schools. This has increased the pressure on school leaders, teachers and pupils alike to deliver test scores above all else.

“Through our recent inspections and research, we have found that focusing on test and exam results can often leave little time or energy to think hard about the curriculum and how pupils should progress through it.

“We need to ensure that when it comes to assessing schools’ performance, we, as an inspectorate, play a role that complements performance data, not one that intensifies it. This time next year, Ofsted will begin inspecting early years providers, schools and further education providers under a new framework. It is my aim that the new framework places much more emphasis than the current one on the substance of education: the curriculum.”

  • HMCI commentary: curriculum and the new education inspection framework, Ofsted, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2DnsNvy
  • More details emerge ahead of new inspection framework, SecEd, June 2018: http://bit.ly/2Q13xwp

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