Our Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, launched a curriculum survey this year. As part of this research, I was given, along with other national leads, the opportunity to collect evidence on curricula in our subject areas. The evidence on the English curriculum, which I gathered, fed into HMCI’s recent commentary about the curriculum.
In her introduction to that commentary, the Chief Inspector reflected that the curriculum ‘sits at the very heart of education’. She said:
A good school achieves a careful balance. Balance is the constant challenge when schools plan. Time is limited. Therefore choices need to be made about what to do when, how much depth to pursue, which ideas to link together, what resources to draw on, which way to teach, and how to make sure all pupils are able to benefit as each new concept, construct or fact is taught.
As inspectors our conversations with school leaders need to be clear about what is meant by ‘curriculum’. Being able to pursue this in more depth has highlighted for me the many different approaches taken.
Meeting the challenges
So what did I find? I discovered that some secondary schools have reviewed their key stage 3 curriculum in the light of increased challenges at key stage 2. They have carefully considered the role of knowledge in the curriculum and the different purposes of assessment.
I also noticed that many primaries have upped their game. Texts that used to be the bread and butter of the key stage 3 curriculum are now taught in key stage 2: ‘Holes’, ‘Private Peaceful’ and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ are some.
At key stage 3, in some secondary schools, I saw English teaching place a great deal of focus on practising exam-style questions, and training pupils to meet GCSE assessment objectives. Some educationalists have questioned this approach and stressed the importance of understanding the validity and reliability of different approaches to assessment.
In other schools, the key stage 3 curriculum is helping pupils improve their literary expertise, while developing their own voices as writers. Approaches might include exploring with pupils how writers can play around with genre, for instance, how Gothic writers experimented with the conventions of Romanticism. I am sure English teachers, excited by language, creativity and meaning, could add other examples.
With so many possible choices, schools may find it difficult to decide what the focus should be. Schools should of course prepare pupils for the public examinations they sit, but the beauty of the national curriculum for English is that it has the flexibility to do this and much more.
Teachers using their expertise
The message I would send to teachers is to be audacious. I would encourage teachers to be brave and creative, to use your subject expertise to design curricula that will set pupils’ minds alight.
English teachers can inspire pupils and at the same time ensure that they are successful in exams. You can have your cake and eat it – you just need to use the right recipes.
As inspectors, we have to see the bigger picture. Sean Harford emphasised this in his last inspection update. He reiterated that data is ‘a signpost, not a destination for inspection’. And added that ‘ensuring that inspectors use data in valid and reliable ways was a main theme for our school inspectors’ conferences’.
The Chief Inspector repeated this message in her speech at the Wellington Festival of Education this summer. She said, ‘One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools’.
This is something we all believe.
It’s been a luxury to focus on the curriculum. I was also able to pick up on some of the threads which came out of the work I did on academic transition, published in Ofsted’s Annual Report 2015/16, in particular investigating how well key stage 3 builds on key stage 2.
I would like to say thank you to all the schools that have participated with such enthusiasm. And I look forward to seeing your schools in action, and pupils’ creativity when I next visit.