Exclusive: Subjects other than English and maths barely feature in Ofsted reports

Tes findings highlight concerns about the ‘narrowing’ school curriculum
9th October 2017, 5:02am


Exclusive: Subjects other than English and maths barely feature in Ofsted reports


Subjects other than maths and English are barely mentioned in the key findings of Ofsted inspection reports, a Tes analysis has found.

Individual subjects such as history, geography and languages feature in only one in 20 Ofsted reports.

Tes looked at the number of times that individual subjects were mentioned in the key findings section of all existing Ofsted reports, using information available on the Watchsted database.


This revealed that, at secondary level, maths was mentioned in 57 per cent of reports, and English in 56 per cent.

Science also appeared relatively frequently: it was referenced in 21 per cent of reports, although fewer than 1 per cent of reports mentioned biology, chemistry or physics individually.

But languages appeared in only 6 per cent of reports. History, geography and music were all in fewer than 5 per cent of reports. Sport was mentioned in 8 per cent of reports.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this was “probably a sign of how accountability has narrowed our focus on the curriculum so much. Reading and writing and maths dominate so absolutely”.

He said Ofsted had recently been emphasising the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum, in which pupils’ academic choices are not driven by their schools’ concern about exam results.

“It will be interesting to see whether Ofsted starts looking at more subjects,” Mr Barton said. “Otherwise, it’ll be presiding over a narrowing of the curriculum that I think we’re going to look back on and regret bitterly.”


At primary level, very few other subjects other than English and maths merited more than a handful of mentions among the key findings of Ofsted reports.

References to science appeared in only 4 per cent of reports, and languages and RE in only 3 per cent. History and geography appeared even less frequently.

Ian Hartwright, a former Ofsted inspector who is now senior policy adviser at the NAHT headteachers’ union, said: “The inspection itself is only two days, or one day. I think the nature of inspections has focused quite narrowly on measurable data indicators.

“The nature of what the government says, and how it ranks schools in league tables - these things are driving schools, driving the curriculum.”

Inspectors prepare for school visits by setting up a series of hypotheses, based on the data they can see, he said, adding: “This tends to lead Ofsted down the track that the government selected. But Ofsted is an independent body - it has an opportunity to go down a different track if it wants.”

Maths and English

Ofsted reports of primary schools give slightly more priority to maths than to reading, writing and literacy.

Mathematics was mentioned in 74 per cent of reports. By contrast, reading was mentioned in 64 per cent of reports, and writing in 67 per cent.

Mick Connell, of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said that he would expect the opposite findings. 

“There’s a kind of primacy about the urgency of teaching children to read and write that even outdoes numeracy,” he said. “Certainly in the early primary years. And you’d then get a flare or spur of literacy when you came to Year 6.”

But, he added, for much of key stage 2, literacy may be subsumed within crosscurricular topic work. He therefore suggested that Ofsted may refer to literacy skills more tangentially, using terms such as “infer”, “analyse”, “discuss” and “think critically”.

“Those sorts of words don’t really have an equivalent in numeracy and maths,” Mr Connell said. “Because our subject, in primary in particular, is largely a skills-based curriculum, rather than a content-based curriculum.”

English, literacy and phonics were all mentioned significantly less often than reading and writing.

There was some acknowledgment of the broader curriculum. References to sport appear in 7 per cent of primary-school reports, and music in 5 per cent. 

‘Squeezed out’

Mr Barton said that the findings had big implications for social justice: “A government that talks about social justice is presiding over precisely the range of subjects that you might see in independent schools being squeezed out of state school.

“But those are precisely the children who need it the most.”

An Ofsted spokesperson said that Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector, has made it very clear that schools should be offering pupils a broad range of subjects. 

She added that the watchdog’s curriculum review, which will be published soon, will not only examine how well schools are doing this, but will also look at how future inspections can better reflect the quality of the curriculum on offer. 

“Competency in English and maths is essential for pupils to be able to learn well across a range of subjects, and for success in life beyond education,” she said. Understandably, all school inspection reports reflect how well these important core subjects are taught.

“However, Ofsted inspectors also focus on whether schools offer a broad and balanced curriculum. A variety of subjects and courses helps pupils acquire knowledge, understanding and skills in all aspects of their education, and helps prepare them for life after school.”

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