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Curriculum development – Why Ofsted shouldn’t get the final say

Abstract illustration of besuited figure choosing between four possible directions, representing curriculum development

Pleasing Ofsted doesn’t have to be to the deciding factor in school leaders’ decision-making, says Adrian Lyons…

Adrian Lyons
by Adrian Lyons
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I was commissioned to write this article on the same weekend that Schools Week carried a piece titled ‘Ofsted’s top priority must be to get its own house in order’.

Regular readers will know that I agree with the sentiment. Indeed, I found myself nodding much of the time as I read. And then exclaimed out loud ‘No!’… The statement to which I took exception was:

Where new priorities are identified, government needs to resist reaching too quickly for the accountability lever. Likewise, campaigning groups should think twice before calling for it.

Micromanaging curriculum development

Sadly, we’ve established a culture whereby many school leaders will determine their curriculum in order to meet the preferences and prejudices of the Chief Inspector. Since January 2017, Ofsted has sought to micromanage curriculum development. (By this I mean the whole of what goes on in school, not just National Curriculum subjects). Ofsted does not prioritise careers, financial capability, citizenship and enterprise. Therefore, not many school leaders prioritise them either.

Yet even within this supposed straitjacket of accountability, many school leaders are courageous enough to try and provide a curriculum that meets the needs of their students, rather than the regulator.

One example might be ‘enterprise education’. This is defined by Ofsted as developing the employability skills of young people, and improving their understanding of:

  • the economy
  • enterprise
  • finance
  • the structure of business organisations

In its 2016 ‘Getting Ready for Work’ report, Ofsted found that ‘The extent to which schools used their curriculum to prepare pupils for the world of work was largely dependent on whether school leaders considered it to be a priority.

I led the Ofsted project leading up to the ‘Getting Ready for Work’ report. This meant I was able to personally witness the report’s observation that:

In the schools where there was limited focus on enterprise learning, school leaders told inspectors that they see themselves as accountable for outcomes narrowly focused around examinations. The development of enterprise was often seen as potentially distracting from delivering improvements around examination results.

Unaffordable luxuries

Anyone who has heard me present over the last six years will have witnessed my party piece. I cite an example of two schools located quite near to each other. They were both ‘comprehensives’. However, one was a high attaining girls’ school in an affluent area, while the other was a relatively low attaining mixed school in a more disadvantaged area.

In one, the headteacher told me he had just dispensed with his careers lead. It was ‘a luxury we couldn’t afford’.

In the other, the governors had told the headteacher that the school had to prioritise careers and preparation for work. That was even if that meant making cutbacks elsewhere in the curriculum.

Audiences are always surprised to learn that the governors prioritising work preparation were at the high attaining girls’ school.

Narrow indicators

Consider also financial education. Despite being on the National Curriculum, this is a focus of neither Ofsted, nor the exam league tables.

All 11- to 16-year-olds should now be receiving financial education. Yet the IfS University College Young Persons’ Money Index shows that the majority of 15- to 18-year-olds still receive very little, if any financial education at school, or from further education providers.

According to Olly Newton, executive director at the Edge Foundation, “The current inspection and accountability regime, with its focus on exam results and a narrow range of indicators, is constraining innovation.

“In line with the Times Education Commission, which called for a ‘balanced scorecard’, we believe schools should be reporting on a broader basket of indicators, including wellbeing, inclusion and extracurricular opportunities.

It was therefore good to hear Sir Martyn Oliver – the HMCI designate set to succeed the outgoing Amanda Spielman – remark at his Education Select Committee pre-appointment hearing that Ofsted should focus on ‘Checking that children are safe and receive a high-quality education’.

A return to such principles would, at the very least, give leaders more confidence to innovate.

Adrian Lyons was one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors between 2005 and 2021. He now works with MATs, teacher training providers and LAs to support education. Find out more at

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