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Can Ofsted Judge Curriculums?

The new framework will involve judging what schools teach, but can this realistically be done with any sort of impartiality, asks Clare Sealy...

  • Can Ofsted Judge Curriculums?

Inspection frameworks come and go, each one with a particular emphasis that sends schools into a frenzy of activity as they try to ensure they can tick the right boxes.

The long heralded September 2019 framework will emphasise the quality of the curriculum on offer; the substance of education the school provides.

This shift is deliberately intended to reduce the significance that data plays in the overall inspection judgement. Data will still form part of the picture when inspectors judge the quality of education schools offer, but it will no longer lead the dance.

HMCI Amanda Spielman is keenly aware of the way the long-held emphasis on data has warped priorities. In primary schools, this has sometimes led to schools over-emphasising English and maths at the expense of the wider curriculum.

The new framework intends to challenge this head on. Instead of worrying about good data, schools should worry about providing a good education – the idea being that if schools do this, the data will look after itself.

This all sounds rather refreshing until we ask ourselves what a good education actually involves. This is a highly contested area, arousing strong passions. How on earth can Ofsted judge this with any hope of impartiality?

Having data front and centre had many flaws – many of them pernicious – but at least there was some semblance of knowing where the goal posts lay. Teachers are rightly worried that their inspection outcome might hinge precariously upon the ideological stance of their inspector.

However, Ofsted is well aware of this problem. In her commentary back in September, Spielman recognised the importance of schools’ autonomy to choose their own curriculum approaches without partiality.

Judgements would need to be valid, reliable, fair and consistent. There are, however, some important caveats.

Some ‘intents’ are clearly frowned upon; this is not a case of anything goes. Ofsted is clearly not partial to curriculums with a very narrow focus on English and maths.

Children will be expected to have rich opportunities across many subjects; no mere tokenistic nods to art or music, no more Cinderella subjects.

Where cross-curricular teaching leads to specific subject content being diluted out of existence, schools should expect criticism. British values will remain vital; schools will not be free to teach absolutely anything.

Most schools will celebrate this (though may be quaking at the thought of being called to account for the quality of their geography provision).

It is not that schools don’t agree that all subjects should be taught well, it’s just that given Ofsted’s previous priorities, almost all the thought, money and training has gone to the data-yielding subjects.

The rest may be rather undernourished and in urgent need of some TLC.

What is more contentious is that both Ofsted and the DfE have been talking a lot about the importance of knowledge in curriculum design.

This has led to speculation that despite the talk of schools’ autonomy and freedom to choose their own curriculums, school that do not choose to go down the knowledge-led route will be at an unfair disadvantage.

However, Spielman’s commentary goes to some length to disabuse us of this notion. She outlines three different approaches: the knowledge-led, the knowledge-engaged and the skills-led, explicitly stating that Ofsted insists it is making no value judgement about these categories.

Yes, knowledge is spoken about with reverence as an essential ingredient of successful curriculum design, not instead of skills, but as the vital precursor of them. Skills are the ‘know-how’ in applying the ‘known’. But the official line is that Ofsted is impartial as to which approach schools chose to adopt. 

Well, that’s the plan. What worries me the most is not that an inspector might be unduly pro- or anti-knowledge or skills, but that some inspectors misinterpret a rich curriculum with whizz-bang events and projects, where pupil engagement, rather than the careful development of knowledge and skills, is the main driver.

Spectacular events, unless clearly contributing to the careful building of knowledge and skills, are not a proxy for a rich curriculum. I am also concerned that since a few inspectors still seem rather wedded to the framework before last, some may find it hard to move away from putting data centre stage.

Ofsted will need to ensure its inspectors receive excellent training to navigate what is for many unfamiliar territory. So while I welcome the intent behind the new framework, I have questions about its implementation and reservations about its impact.

Clare Sealy is a primary headteacher in Bethnal Green, London. You can find her at primarytimery.com and on Twitter at @claresealy.

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