Every school in the country will be aware of Ofsted's new focus on the curriculum – many of the staff within them will have filled in the consultation which closed last Friday.
Anything Amanda Spielman publishes will be the virtual bestsellers of the education world as everyone – from consultants to classroom practitioners – attempts to read between the lines and spot the inspectorate’s agenda.
And so accelerates the latest curriculum arms race, as schools attempt to build a convincing curriculum model that both works on the ground and receives the stamp of approval from Ofsted.
Amanda Spielman has said: "Knowledge and the capacity it provides to apply skills and deepen understanding are essential ingredients of successful curriculum design."
Explicit here in the wording “curriculum design” is the expectation of something systematic, structured, cohesive, cumulative, even aesthetic. Schools will have to cover all bases. I wouldn’t go so far as to adopt a MasterChef or Bake Off metaphor here, but the very term “essential ingredients” fosters a feeling that Ofsted has a very definite recipe. Which, no doubt, schools leaders will spend hours, days guessing and second-guessing.
Amanda Spielman is keen to ward off any accusations that inspection will increase workload. But just how sensitive is Ofsted to the impact of the consultation, published research and public pronouncements?
Openness about its thinking is all well and good but, unfortunately, detail in the research and consultation provided by the inspectorate will only result in more leaders revisiting, reworking and revising the current pedagogy within their institutions.
While re-evaluation of the curriculum is a vital stage in the development of any school, it’s all too easy to imagine the burden this will place on classroom teachers and middle leaders.
So, having made its intentions clear, the most useful thing for the inspectorate to do would be to pre-empt the excessive evidence-gathering. It should apply the principles of “intent, implementation and impact”, to its own processes to mitigate the unintended consequences of its new focus. It should do this well before September. If this does not happen, we may enter the worst-case scenario...
The most obvious source of excessive workload is the so-called “gold-plating” of processes intended to demonstrate compliance and, in the case of the most ambitious leaders of successful schools, to get ahead of the field. Subject heads could well be required to produce minutely-detailed candy-striped schemes of work, reminiscent of the earliest days of the national curriculum when new teachers were taught to incorporate colour-coded strands into their planning.
This new dawn in inspection could herald the return of the departmental handbook laying out the philosophy behind the subject implementation of the school’s offer so that the whole department can “share” (regurgitate) the school and subject rationale with visiting inspectors. At the moment, it’s only the memorisation of the school mission statement that is absolutely indispensable for such occasions.
Teachers might be expected to amass and catalogue banks of shiny resources to show how well their planning is substantiated and implemented. Tim Oates may continue to encourage the use of textbooks, but in these cash-strapped days, the efforts of individual teachers will be required to fill any gaps or voids in the school’s teaching materials.
Evidence of progress?
What more obvious way to demonstrate pupil progress than through student work? Filing cabinets which once stored GCSE coursework could be brought back into commission, bulked out with exemplars demonstrating an encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject. With inspectors spending longer on book-looks, schools are likely to apply deeper scrutiny of marked work. In the worst cases, carefully colour-coded marking would show how each piece minutely demonstrates knowledge and skills acquired and developed. That should cover both bases nicely for monitoring purposes…but it works totally against the principles laid out in the DfE’s marking working group.
Tracking could now follow strands of the curriculum, so complicating spreadsheets to show “progress” – whether Ofsted really wants to see them or not. Perhaps the school-generated levels which replaced the APPs will be re-written to reflect the new curriculum model.
The problem with the rhetoric of “evidence-based” – so prolific in politicians' and inspectors' discourse – and “essential ingredients” in Amanda Spielman’s blogs is that it more than invites evidence-collecting, with even more of the drudgery that has overloaded the profession so far.
When the independent workload reports were published by the DfE, the responsibility for ensuring that the burden was proportionate was a shared responsibility between the department, Ofsted, ministers, school leaders and teachers themselves.
It's in Ofsted's hands
As the teaching unions embark upon their annual conferences, what the classroom teacher and subject heads need is effective pre-emptive consideration of how the profession can ward off unnecessary burdens.
For Ofsted, there should be a requirement to map out the worst-case scenario for teachers in this new arms race. A bit of research for evidence-based solutions to possible side-effects would be a much-welcomed new departure for the inspectorate.
To maintain the trust of the profession – and to ensure that it is not inadvertently exacerbating the loss of new teachers – Ofsted needs to adopt a proactive role in highlighting counterproductive practice and recommending ways of making curriculum renewal sustainable for all.
Yvonne Williams is head of English and Drama at a secondary school in the south of England – the views stated here are her own