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From cocoon to curriculum: Ofsted's new approach

John Dunford reflects on the inspectorate's approach to the curriculum over the years, and offers some words of warning…

Ofsted framework, John Dunford, Ofsted

John Dunford reflects on the inspectorate's approach to the curriculum over the years, and offers some words of warning…

The new Ofsted framework has the potential to be era-defining. It looks likely to provide schools with an incentive they have lacked for 30 years, to plan their curriculum and change how school leaders think of school leadership. 

Throughout recent decades of educational centralism, too many schools have jumped through the hoops created for them by the government and “delivered” a national curriculum, spending too long on the immediate demands of national tests. And not thinking about what the pupils should be learning. 

No health minister would dream of telling surgeons how to take out an appendix, nor would a defence minister show troops how to fight a battle. But teachers have taken that level of detail from the government and allowed ministers to dictate what – and even how – we teach. “Delivery” should be for midwives and postmen, not for educators. 

There has not been silence on curriculum issues, of course. Plenty of people and organisations have queued up to demand schools teach a broader, better-balanced curriculum, for example, the Confederation of British Industry.

Former CBI director-general John Cridland said a little while ago: “Employers sought school leavers who did not just possess a clutch of examination passes, but were rounded and grounded. Emphasis on exams and league tables has produced a conveyor belt rather than what I would want education to be: an escalator.” The current CBI vice chairman, Paul Drechsler, has frequently spoken in similar terms. 

The Social Mobility Commission has put the same argument from the viewpoint of the needs of disadvantaged young people: “Preparing students for all aspects of life, not just exams – supporting the development of character and other non-cognitive aspects of personality that underpin learning…It is not a question of either/or. Schools need to be doing both.” 

Government education ministers should be encouraging this approach to the school curriculum, not creating a mass of detail for schools to “follow”, with Ofsted inspecting the faithfulness of schools to this prescription. 

Look out, not up

It is about time school leaders and teachers stopped looking up to the government and Ofsted to be told what to do, and looked out to the enormous amount of evidence and the minority of schools that have modelled the idea of a more fully rounded education. Stop looking up and start looking out. 

So, if done right, the 2019 Ofsted framework, which claims that it won’t challenge the content of curricula, only that it will question whether it has been thought about and that it contains rational planning, ought to enable schools to do the curriculum thinking that many have not felt able to do since 1988.

The move could have a profound and beneficial effect on what young people learn in school; after all, there is a growing evidence-based consensus that curriculum thinking is central to making school systems great. It could be a wonderful intervention. 

Lessons from history

But before we get carried away, it is worth taking a moment to look back to see how school inspectors in the past have assessed and affected curricula. There are many lessons to learn from the inspectorate’s history, even before Ofsted was brought into life by John Major. 

From payment-by-results in the 1860s, when teachers only got paid if they followed successfully the diktats of inspectors, to the genesis of the national curriculum, the footprints of the inspectorate have been all over school curricula for more than 150 years. 

At some points in our educational history, the inspectorate has acted as a restricting force on the school curriculum, and at others, an enabler. 

For more than 50 years from 1872, Her Majesty’s Inspectors (HMIs) – as they were simply called for well over a century – had the power to approve primary school timetables, which could only be changed with permission. The 1904 Regulations for Secondary Schools extended the inspectorate’s detailed control of the primary curriculum to secondary schools. It stated: "Not less than four-and-a-half hours per week must be allocated to English, geography and history, not less than three-and-a-half hours to a foreign language, and not less than seven-and-a-half hours to science and mathematics."

Let that sink in for a moment: heads and teachers in 2018 complain of how little freedom they have from outside interference, but their early 20th century forbears would laugh hollowly at these complaints. 

What followed, however, in the mid-part of the last century was that the bar swung back to a period of enormous independence for schools over what, how and when they taught. So much so that in his notorious 1976 Ruskin College speech, prime minister Jim Callaghan famously referred to the school curriculum as a “secret garden”. It will come as little surprise that this intervention was heavily influenced by HMIs, frustrated that they couldn’t tell schools what to do. 

While political headwinds meant that the Ruskin speech really didn’t amount to much until the 1980s, when Tory education secretaries Keith Joseph and Ken Baker took the ball and ran with it, its repercussions are still being felt. 

During this period of transition, the inspectorate was heavily involved with curriculum development and based its ideas on the principle that every child should have a broad, balanced, relevant and coherent curriculum. It produced 16 Curriculum Matters booklets – universally known as “raspberry ripples” for their red and pink covers – which formed the bridge between national discussions about a core curriculum in the early 1980s and the national curriculum in 1988. 

The thinking in these documents is as pertinent today as in the 1980s. For example, this from HMI: “A school’s curriculum consists of all those activities designed to promote the intellectual, personal, social and physical development of its pupils. It includes the formal programme of lessons, but also the informal programme of extracurricular activities, as well as all those features that produce the school’s ethos, such as the quality of relationships, equality of opportunity, the values exemplified in the way the school…is organised and managed.” 

The nine areas of experience on which to construct a broad and balanced education were listed as: aesthetic and creative, human and social, linguistic and literary, mathematical, moral, physical, scientific, social and technological. Cross-curricular themes were also included. 

Simmering tensions 

As a relatively new head, this was the model I used to renew the curriculum at Durham Johnston Comprehensive School. It was an exciting time to be a school leader and, if Ofsted in 2019 could stimulate this depth of thinking about curriculum development, it would do much to redress the damage of the past 30 years of government overdirection of the curriculum. 

However, when the national curriculum and national tests were introduced after the 1988 Education Reform Act, senior chief inspector Eric Bolton issued a prescient warning that the testing could lead to a narrowing of the school curriculum, which was confirmed by an Ofsted report 12 years later. Indeed, one could argue that it led to a narrowing of thinking about curriculum, too. 

And so it is to be welcomed that Amanda Spielman intends to reverse this lengthy trend and place new emphasis on this important but oft-forgotten area. 

But equally, we cannot forget that with Ofsted inspecting an area so subjective will always come serious tension – especially because there will always be a temptation to be prescriptive. 

In the 1980s, for example, non-traditional schools, such as Madeley Court in Telford and Cranford Community School in Hounslow, were victims of the inspectorate’s largely traditional approach to the curriculum. Anne Jones, the headteacher of Cranford, wrote about this tension: “In the inspection of my school in 1984 by 29 delightful, intelligent inspectors, I was constantly caught between the traditional and the transitional. There was a sense in which they seemed to be counting caterpillar legs, whereas we were trying to produce butterflies. They caught us at the chrysalis stage.” 

My own experience of having 20 HMIs at Durham Johnston for a whole week – a challenging experience on every aspect of the school – had some of the same tensions. Where our curriculum coincided with their views, it was praised; where it didn’t, we were criticised.

This is what inspectors will have to avoid when visiting schools under the new framework. The experience of schools will depend on how individual inspectors interpret their instructions and training. If inspectors with no first-hand school experience of curriculum development – and there will be many – resort to prescription, schools will soon be scrabbling to implement a perceived Ofsted line. Reports from schools recently inspected, however, suggest that inspectors are following the chief inspector’s non-prescriptive line, seeking evidence of well-thought-through and implemented curriculum development. 

As Ofsted begins to collect and publish evidence of good curriculum planning in schools, the chief inspector and her colleagues will have the opportunity to be a force for good, in the finest tradition of HMI, disseminating best practice and inspiring schools to individual and collective effort in providing a richer curriculum for their learners. 

Some of the best curriculum work of inspectors has indeed been inspiring. 

The inspectorate’s touch

In the 1960s, freewheeling HMIs, such as Robin Tanner in art and Edith Biggs in maths, were inspirational in their in-service training courses and influence on the school curriculum. And in an eloquent section of the HMCI Annual Report, Ofsted chief inspector David Bell, in charge from 2002 until 2005, wrote of his own school experience of a rounded education in a comprehensive school; of the value of education beyond the merely instrumental; and of the need for young people “to make things, to experience the finest music, to read a wide range of books…which goes to the heart of what it is to be educated”.

This should be the ambition for every school: a curriculum that represents a fully rounded education for every learner. As the chair of the campaigning group Whole Education until recently, I have long encouraged school leaders to ask the question: “What is the body of knowledge that a child needs to be work-ready, life-ready and ready for further learning?” As Ofsted is finding, some schools are doing this, building a knowledge- and skills-based curriculum in different ways. 

For many school leaders and governors, curriculum development remains a challenge. But if, without being prescriptive, Ofsted’s new framework can inspire schools to do high-quality curriculum development, it will be making a hugely positive contribution to the long tradition of inspectors’ engagement with the school curriculum. 

History teaches us that the inspectorate’s touch must be enabling, not prescriptive; light, but not too light. It’s a tricky line to walk. 

John Dunford is author of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools since 1944: Standard bearers or turbulent priests?


In this week's Tes magazine, Sir Kevan Collins, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, examines the research behind Ofsted's draft inspection framework. He asks: is it an accurate representation of what we know about teaching and learning?

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