Be cautious of sweeping statements about topic-based learning

Ofsted is right to warn about the dangers of topic-based learning, but schools doing it well shouldn't dismiss it as a generalisation

James Bowen

Topic-based learning: be cautious of sweeping statements

Despite my reservations about some of Ofsted’s findings in its latest curriculum research, I think they have raised a really interesting and important issue when it comes to topic-based curriculum planning. 

This approach is certainly both popular and common in many primary schools. Whilst there are a range of reasons for why this is the case, it is usually motivated by a desire on behalf of schools and teachers to make the learning feel engaging, connected and relevant for their young pupils. I also think it is partly about primary schools trying to find a way to manage the sheer scale of content that they are still required to cover – but that is perhaps for another blog...

When it is well-planned and carefully thought through, cross-curricular, topic-based work can work well. In fact, some of Ofsted’s own inspectors have found exactly that. Take the most recent report of an "outstanding" infant and nursery school in Hertfordshire where inspectors found: “Learning is made exciting by linking subjects thoughtfully through topic themes…Topics link subjects creatively and support very well the pupils’ development of literacy and numeracy.” 

However, it’s also fair to say that when done badly, topic-based learning can become quite problematic, as Ofsted has found. Often this happens when the links between subjects become overly forced and therefore highly tenuous. In these situations it is all too easy to find ourselves focusing too much on the activity and to lose sight of the underpinning learning we want to see taking place.

Looking back, as a primary teacher I was certainly guilty on occasions of letting the learning get muddled in a vain attempt to shoe-horn various subjects into a single topic theme when frankly there was no obvious or useful link to make. 

With that in mind, I actually welcome Ofsted’s decision to highlight the potential dangers of topic-based learning, and think it could prompt some very useful, and potentially long overdue, conversations within many schools. 

My worry is that if we’re not extremely careful the research could be interpreted in too simplistic a manner (ie topic-based curriculum = bad; subject discrete curriculum = good).

What we (and I think Ofsted) don’t want to see is primary schools with well thought through, sensibly planned topic-based curriculums throwing them out of the window immediately simply because they hear that "Ofsted doesn’t like that sort of thing anymore". 

To take the example of the school I quoted above, it would be a crying shame if they felt the need to radically transform their curriculum purely on the back of this latest research study.

The problem with these things is that they often get easily misinterpreted and misrepresented in exactly that way. As Amanda Spielman herself has noted, often what is intended to be a nudge by Ofsted can inadvertently come across as a shove, as schools quickly and dutifully respond to what they think the inspectorate is looking for.

It will be critically important that individual inspectors do not take a simplistic view on this either. They must remain open-minded when it comes to how the curriculum is being planned and delivered in the schools they inspect. I worry that this research, which I assume is likely to inform inspector training, could lead some inspectors to enter schools with pre-determined views on curriculum design. If we’re not careful, this starts getting dangerously close to a preferred style of curriculum, which Ofsted has made clear it is keen to avoid.

If the research encourages schools to reflect on whether their approach to curriculum is genuinely supporting the learning of pupils and to critically evaluate their approach, then that surely has to be seen as a good thing. However, we should equally be prepared to guard against the proverbial nudge feeling like one almighty shove. 

James Bowen is the director of NAHT Edge 

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James Bowen

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