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Amanda Spielman Could Be On To Some Genuine School Improvement – but Until the System Changes, Nothing Will

“Curriculum will become the latest stick with which to beat us”

  • Amanda Spielman Could Be On To Some Genuine School Improvement – but Until the System Changes, Nothing Will

In October, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman issued a commentary on research she ordered the organisation to carry out soon after taking up her post last year. The study is ongoing, but her focus, and clearly the flagship of her tenure, is curriculum. Handy for her, then, that the research already indicates that schools have “a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum.”

Without a hint of self-awareness about the pound shop, Lord of the Rings style of her commentary, Spielman goes on to say that “long ago,” we teachers were taught the theory of curriculum design, but that we have now, alas, lost this “competence”. This last synonym is used without any sense of irony, despite the fact that her analysis hinges upon the liberal use of the word ‘skills’ throughout the research findings - a sure sign of plain, system-wide imbecility.

In her world-view, the narrowing of the curriculum is in fact a good thing. It will help us, you see, get to grips with our new task in manageable, bite-sized chunks. And we will need help. And Ofsted will be there every step of the way.

Excuse me while I rejoice. There. That was quick.

Plus ça change…

Underpinning all this is, quite simply, the same old process of de-professionalisation we teachers have undergone for years. If they’re capable of thinking their way out of it, neither Ofsted nor the DfE are showing any sign of it. Perhaps, long ago, they might have known how, but they have lost that competence. Bless their little cotton socks.

What happens now, invariably, is that curriculum becomes the latest stick to beat us with. Inescapably, the DfE will pursue its addictive relationship with the data-gathering, assessment-led, top-down managerialism that supplies its only highs. Just as inevitably, Ofsted will find its raison d’être in judging schools to a set of criteria only a lucky elite will ever be able to satisfy, like the playground bully who knows no other way to purchase a sense of self-worth.

Most schools will be stuck in the middle – thugs to the left, junkies to the right – as they have been for so long, pulled between the pressure of performance measures on one side, and an incommensurate standards framework on the other. Some will learn to game the system’s new challenges, and others won’t be able to. Teachers will suffer.

It’ll last until the gaming becomes too obvious to hide, or a scandal hits, or the policy wonks get bored of their own mantras, maybe until a change of government or personnel. Then the words will change, but our de-professionalisation will continue. Teachers will leave.

Out with the old

Paradoxically, Amanda Spielman is right. Curriculum is the be-all and end-all of education. She has her finger on the trigger of the solution - but this may be as close as we come to it actually being pulled. It might actually be that the narrowest of national curriculums is indeed exactly what we need. To be rid of DfE interventionism! To return to our schools and communities to develop a curriculum for them! Imagine that!

But no. Amanda Spielman can’t deliver that. Not as long as her organisation espouses the same fundamental philosophy – that judgement is the driver of improvement. I’m saddened, because it seems she is already well aware of it herself. There is heartache in the following passage, at least as poignant as any Tolkien ever wrote:

“School leaders need to recognise how easy it is to focus on the performance of the school and lose sight of the pupil. I acknowledge that inspection may well have helped to tip this balance in the past.”

Amanda Spielman is working within the system to effect change. It is well-intentioned. Right, even. Yet the change that’s needed is nothing short of a new system. The age of deliverology, nudge and performativity must come to an end, or all we can look forward to is an eternal recurrence of the same. Only teacher empowerment and professionalisation can put curriculum back at the heart of our schools. If Ofsted wants to help achieve that, then they have a friend in me.

It’ll start with getting rid of categories.

Jean-Louis is a teacher of media, politics and citizenship. Flip the System UK: A Teachers’ Manifesto, which he co-edited with Lucy Rycroft-Smith, will be published by Routledge in January.

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