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 curricula 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 curricula. 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.