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Ofsted’s findings about the school curriculum

Few would doubt that the curriculum is an essential part of school life. Without this wealth of human knowledge, a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school.

If pupils don't get the benefit of a rich and deep curriculum then they will have learnt too little and made little progress.

Yet there has been a lack of reflection on the design, content and implementation of curriculums in recent years. That is why Ofsted’s current research programme, commissioned by HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, is so important.

We've put a lot of work into this research so far, and today’s commentary from Amanda reveals some of the preliminary findings.

Inspectors visited 40 schools to gather evidence for the first phase of our review and held focus groups for headteachers of outstanding schools across five regions. We also reviewed scores of inspection reports and school websites and distributed questionnaires to our Parents Panel.

So, what did we find? Firstly, that there is a lack of coherent debate and discussion about the curriculum.

There isn’t a shared understanding across the sector of what the key terms actually mean. And too often, the school curriculum is seen as the same as the school timetable.

Secondly, much of the language used to talk about the curriculum is ambiguous. The term ‘skills’ is liberally applied in many contexts, but it is very rarely clear whether it means specific subject skills, such as reading, or personal skills, such as being able to work in a team.

Amanda and I have repeatedly stressed the importance of schools having rich, deep curriculums. But our inspectors found that parents believed that preparing for tests was cutting into their child's learning time.

Why is this happening? Undoubtedly, some schools are teaching too much to the key stage 2 tests and not enough for learning in English and mathematics, and a few school leaders said managing change is also an issue. To cope with workload, they have pushed curriculum development further down their list of priorities.

However, this is a concern at both primary and secondary level. Leaders at 11 of the 14 primary schools we visited said that they carried out some form of preparation for key stage 2 SATs, which meant curtailing or postponing the teaching of other foundation subjects. SATs are important in reflecting how well schools are delivering the primary curriculum, and of course some level of preparation is sensible, but our research raises concerns about the intensity in some cases.

Meanwhile, 10 of the 23 secondary schools visited were reducing key stage 3 to just 2 years. This works well for some subjects, where concepts are revisited at deeper levels, but it doesn’t work for all subjects, especially those that pupils drop before GCSE. We, as inspectors, school leaders, teachers and parents, need to ask ourselves - are we happy to lose that year in the middle of secondary education?

All pupils benefit from a broad and rich curriculum. We've found that the curriculum for lower attaining pupils often reduces their ability to study EBacc subjects.

Overall, what we've found in this first phase of work is that there is a serious risk of the curriculum being denuded. Not by the tests or exams themselves, which are the best way we know of assessing knowledge and understanding, but by the approach some schools take to preparing pupils for them.

But on a more positive note, we have met many school leaders and teachers who are enthusiastic about revitalising the debate about what it means to develop and implement a great curriculum.

We'll have more to say about this late spring 2018, when we will publish more about the curriculum survey. In the meantime, I’d welcome your thoughts.

You can keep up-to-date with Ofsted news by signing up for email alerts. You can also follow Sean on Twitter and Ofsted on Twitter.


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  1. Comment by James Mook posted on

    Dear Sean,

    "Not by the tests or exams themselves, which are the best way we know of assessing knowledge and understanding, but by the approach some schools take to preparing pupils for them"

    Are you convinced that tests and exam are "the best way we know of assessing knowledge and understanding" or are they the most convenient?

  2. Comment by Ofsted external relations posted on

    Hi James, many thanks for your observation, which I have passed on.

  3. Comment by Steve Waters posted on

    I refer to the same statement as you, James.

    In my view, the summative tests and exams, particularly - but not exclusively - GCSE, are not '..the best way we know of assessing knowledge and understanding...' and this should not be accepted as a given, as Ofsted seem to be suggesting.

    I have a lifetime experience of teaching English, including as a senior leader. In that time, I have taught pupils following 100% coursework assessment and 50% coursework. In recent years, I have worked with teachers who are preparing students for summative exams. I believe that summative exams have led to an increase in stress, both for teachers and students, and rely too heavily on memory, rather than application of knowledge and understanding.

    I have always found it curious that the ultimate accolade of academic achievement is the PhD - based entirely on a research project and an oral assessment - but that we assess primary and secondary pupils via a timed exam.

    Many of my members in the 'Teach Well Alliance' ( refer to the stress they and their students are under as a result of this assessment system.

    If Ofsted wants to gather honest and open reviews about the school curriculum, it must question its own belief about how we assess pupils, since this largely determines the structure of the curriculum. The two are inextricably linked.

  4. Comment by Terry Pearson posted on

    “But our inspectors found that parents believed that preparing for tests was cutting into their child's learning time. Why is this happening?”

    Well maybe an inspection system that relies heavily on success in external tests/examinations has something to do with it. High-stakes inspection might just be encouraging schools to spend much time trying to attain high ‘pass-rates’.

  5. Comment by Sheila Tipton posted on

    I am so glad that the over emphasis on the pressure of SATs results is being passed to the children has been identified. As a manager of a nursery we have many siblings, a large number of them having attended our nursery, whose parents feed back to us the stress the SATs are causing. Why the children, of primary school age, even need to know they are being tested defeats me when the pieces of work they produce during the year can be used! If the children are being taught the knowledge they need, to fulfil the curriculum requirements, in an interesting an engaging way the tests should be able to be slotted into lessons. For example, children when doing English will have written work to do, towards the SAT time one of those pieces of written work should be taken for assessment, without the children's knowledge. A local school has just held a parents morning to help them support their children through the stress of SATS!!! SATs as far as I am concerned are there to test if the teachers have delivered the correct information and to identify if any child needs support. If results were used for this and not published to 'grade' schools the pressure would be off the head who pushes the staff, who feel they have to force children to produce good results, instead the results could be used for what all exams are for - identifying where help is required.
    Parents need to choose schools, not on test results , but on its community, learning environment, atmosphere, Ofsted report on leaning and development. Unless a parent knows the starting point for every child how do SATs result help them know if children in the school are making progress and so what is the use of publishing them for parents?
    Let's get back to allowing teachers to know their children best, knowing the best way to deliver information in a fun way and trust their judgements rather than put everyone through a stressful process that does not seem to help anyone.

  6. Comment by Sophie posted on

    The curriculum is narrowed because of the pressure put on schools to achieve floor standards in SATs tests. Schools are teaching maths and English at the expense of other subjects as Ofsted and league tables focus on the results of these tests alone.

    I'm sure all teachers would love to be able to spend more time on other areas of the curriculum, as would the children. However, the change needs to start with Ofsted and the dfe. No more high stakes testing, trust the teachers to assess the children.

    A fairer Ofsted system is needed, where schools who have a high percentage of pupil premium children or EAL children, for example, are measured fairly from their starting points. Not by the outcome of a test. Which is not a fair assessment of the children and doesn't pay tribute to the teachers who work tirelessly to help the children grow into happy adults.

  7. Comment by John Edwards posted on

    The focus on curriculum is timely and appropriate. It is, or should be, the driver of what happens in schools - especially if defined as 'all the learning experiences which happen in a school context'; i.e. both formal and informal curriculums.
    However, the exhortation to inspectors, that we should criticise schools for focussing too narrowly on assessment at the expense of learning time, is at best naive, and at worst, unjust. School leaders are rational and intelligent people. They respond to the criteria by which they know they and their schools will be judged. To criticise them for prioritising the outcomes of assessment (KS2 tests, GCSEs, Progress 8, Attainment 8), and by doing so, expect them to change their priorities, simply doesn't make sense. If this focus of priorities and energies is wrong, then the answer is not to criticise schools: it is to change the criteria against which they will be measured. Can they do this? No. Can Ofsted inspectors? No. Can government? Yes.

  8. Comment by Andrew posted on

    Dear Sean,
    I don't believe that it is the tests and exams that are the real issue as most Schools use summarise assessment as a way to inform next-steps in learning. The problem is two-fold;
    1) the publication of data, forcing schools to "compete"
    2 The value placed, by the DfE and Ofsted inspection teams, on data.

    With these two factors, can you honestly expect schools to not focus on getting higher 'pass' rates? That's the currency of 'success. Until this changes, the issue of reducing the curriculum will always exist (even if Ofsted do now focus on the broader curriculum). All very sad .

  9. Comment by Simon Green posted on

    Whilst it was really interesting to read this article, and whilst it is also very gratifying that the government (via Ofsted) is taking this seriously, there are fundamentals aspects of the accountability culture that drive teacher and school leader behaviours to narrow the curriculum.

    Most leaders believe the nationally reported data-sets are a very strong influence on an Ofsted Inspection grading. This leads them to focus on the subjects of maths and English.
    In itself this is not a problem. However, rather than having an acceptable standard of literacy and numeracy, we compare schools to national performance. This has the effect of creating an "arms-race." If other schools are delivering narrower curriculums and getting better Pupil Outcomes in tests then any school leader who fails to do the same is at risk of falling behind the national standard.
    "I have to narrow my curriculum because they narrow their curriculums; becomes the inevitable conclusion that even the best intentioned head is drawn to conclude if a school is to maintain its standing in the race to always be in-line-with-or-above-national.

    I feel that a radical rethink of school accountability and a change to the definition of an acceptable standard of literacy and numeracy is required to truly address this.

  10. Comment by Reuben posted on

    As a trainee teacher, this is the discourse that causes me to despair about my degree!

    What use is teaching a child anything, if all that shall come of it is assigning them a grade and tacitly implying that this is all they are worth?

    I fear for the generation of children- some of whom are my own peers- who have given up on the concept of education because they were stuffed full of mathematical, scientific, and linguistic knowledge, and their own interests and passions were never engaged with.

    Is the aim of the school system to produce a divided generation of civilians, half of whom believe that their education taught them nothing and have rejected the notion of learning entirely, and the remainder chosen to be a higher class of society based solely on the merit of their own "academic" excellence?

    Or is it to create a generation of musicians, artists, mathematicians, scientists, polymaths, technicians, linguists and all sorts of other professions?

    We live in a time where pupils can access more culture, knowledge, and learning than ever before. If we changed our goals of- and expectations for- education, we could see a future of students who have grasped and taken advantage of their own interests.

    The question we must ask ourselves is this- what learning does our current system offer an incentive for?