Ofsted signals focus on curriculum

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:

Chief inspector Amanda Spielman has praised the quality of the education system in Ofsted’s annual report, but with a new inspection framework looming the document also set out some clear priority areas...

Ofsted has praised the exceptional “dedication and commitment” of teachers and professionals working with children across England as its annual report confirmed that the vast majority of schools are rated good or outstanding.

In launching the report last month, chief inspector Amanda Spielman said that the quality of education and care provided to young people today is “better than ever” and reported evidence of “widespread good practice” and “continual improvement”.

Ofsted’s figures show that 94 per cent of early years providers and 90 per cent of primary schools (and 79 per cent of secondaries) are considered to be good or outstanding. However, the report also highlights a number of areas of concern...


The report identifies a group of 500 primary and 200 secondary schools that have not improved during their last two inspections, including around 130 (80 primary and 50 secondary) which have not been rated good or outstanding since 2005. It warns policy-makers that despite “considerable attention and investment from external agencies”, these schools have still struggled.

These schools share similar characteristics, including unstable leadership, high staff turnover and difficulty recruiting. Many have high proportions of pupils from deprived areas and above average SEND.
Ms Spielman said: “There is no doubt that the leadership challenge facing some schools is great. But progress is possible and we should all be wary of using the make-up of a school community as an excuse for underperformance.

“Schools with all ranges of children can and do succeed. Where this is difficult, what is needed is greater support and leadership from within the system. That means making sure the system has the capacity to provide this support.

“And this isn’t about just about incremental ‘interventions’ or ‘challenge’. Good schools teach a strong curriculum effectively, and they do it in an orderly and supportive environment: getting this right is the core job of any school.”

Ofsted has said it plans to undertake research into why some schools get trapped in cycles of underperformance.


The report warns about problems with capacity within the country’s best multi-academy trusts (MATs) to take on responsibility for tackling underperformance within the school-led system. It states that England’s best MATs are “spread too thinly”. It adds: “It is not clear that a small group of large, high-performing trusts has the capacity to provide all the help that is needed. There are senior leaders in our best large MATs who are leading the way and have a history of improving schools. However, they are very few in number. Many of these are coming under pressure from the weight of what they are expected to contribute to the education system.”

The early years

The report echoes Ofsted’s recent call for a more academic approach to the early years. Repeating findings from November’s Bold Beginnings report, the annual report says that there are weaknesses in using the Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage as a guide for children’s learning in Reception.
The claims and Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings recommendations have proved controversial among professionals.

The annual report states: “We found that schools that are best at preparing children for year 1 are going beyond the framework and setting more challenging expectations.” This includes, Ofsted says, schools where there is a particular emphasis on reading and maths in the EYFS.

The report adds: “We reviewed the practice in schools that achieved consistently high outcomes ... it was clear that they were, by necessity, departing from the EYFS and that the standards in the guidance were too low, particularly for mathematics. Leaders and staff in schools were increasing quite considerably their expectations for teaching reading, writing and mathematics. They told us that meeting the early learning goals did not get pupils to a level that was high enough to set them up for success in year 1.”

For more on this report and the reaction to its proposals, see our article here.

Teaching to the test

The annual report also carries a clear warning about schools that have developed a culture of teaching to the test. It states: “While tests are important and useful, they do not, and can never, reflect the entirety of what pupils need to learn. Exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round.”
Ofsted warns that its research into the curriculum has shown that the “depth and breadth of the curriculum is being eroded by some schools”.

The annual report adds: “These schools are focusing too much on their performance, measured in test results, and not the learning. A number of primary schools we visited are effectively suspending the curriculum during the course of year 6, sometimes as early as Christmas, to cram for SATs.

“What pupils need is balance, and one in which a broad curriculum leads to exam success, rather than a curriculum purely serving tests.”


The report says that children with SEND but who don’t have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) often have “a much poorer experience of the education system than their peers”. It means that EHCPs are becoming a “golden ticket”. Ofsted is concerned that in some areas children without an EHCP but in need of SEN support do not benefit “as consistently from a coordinated approach between education, health and care as those with a plan”.

The new framework

In 2018, Ofsted is to begin work on its new education inspection framework, which is due to be introduced in 2019. Ofsted has said this will “build on recent findings” and will have “a particular focus on the curriculum”. Data is expected to feature strongly, too (for more on this, see our analysis here).

Further information

Ofsted Annual Report 2016/17, December 2017: http://bit.ly/2BKR90f

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