'Curriculum is important, but it isn't everything'

Ofsted's new framework will have a clear focus on curriculum. This is important, but it overlooks the messy reality of the classroom, says James Bowen

children in classroom, with hands raised

If you were asked to sum up the new Ofsted inspection framework in one word, surely that word would have to be “curriculum”.

We have heard repeatedly that from September there will be a clear shift in focus from pupil performance data to the “substance” of education – aka the curriculum. Ofsted has made it abundantly clear that it sees the curriculum as the single most important factor when it comes to judging the quality of education pupils receive in our schools.

In one sense, it is hard to take issue with this view. If your curriculum is badly planned, ill thought through and incoherent, it is highly unlikely that great learning will take place in your classrooms. 

If lessons truly are an unrelated hotchpotch of ideas and one year’s learning doesn’t build on the last, then it is inevitable that pupils will suffer. Equally, if pupils are simply fed a diet of test and exam preparation, we are doing them an enormous disservice.

Glaring floodlight

However, as is so often the case, I think we need to be careful not to allow the pendulum to swing too far in the opposite direction from where it currently rests. It won’t help to go from a position where inspectors show very little interest in curriculum design to one where they become almost obsessive about it, seeing absolutely everything through the lens of curriculum.

The fundamental problem is that, all too often in the past, when Ofsted have decided to shine a spotlight on a certain issue, it ends up becoming a glaring floodlight, which dazzles everyone in its path. 

My concern is that inspectors will start assuming that all roads lead back to curriculum design and that overly simple conclusions could be drawn. How long will it be before we see the following phrase appear in an Ofsted report: “Pupils don’t achieve as well as they could in [insert subject of your choice here], and this is because curriculum planning lacks coherence and sequencing.”

In previous frameworks, the very same problem might have been attributed to a lack of effective feedback or the absence of clear learning objectives in lessons. While poor curriculum design could be the issue, we must not fall into the trap of assuming that it must be the issue.

Messy reality

Again, I want to stress that I am not saying that curriculum doesn’t matter – of course it does. It’s positive that schools will be encouraged to look again at what they want their pupils to learn and whether the content is planned and structured in such a way to maximise the chances of learning taking place. I’ll take a focus on curriculum over an Excel spreadsheet every day of the week.

However, as anyone who has spent so much as a week teaching in a classroom will tell you, that is almost the easy part.

You could have the most coherent, well-sequenced, balanced curriculum in the world on paper, but there is no guarantee that pupils will learn anything as a result. The real skill of teaching is how you bring that structure and those ideas to life. Whether you can get the pupils interested, curious and enthused in the content being taught. Whether you can communicate those concepts clearly in a way that all pupils can understand. Whether you are able to spot misconceptions and then help pupils work through these.

We should not forget that the real challenge in teaching comes when the abstract planning on paper collides with the often messy reality of a classroom. When you’ve got 30 children all with different starting points. When you’ve got one child in your Year 1 class who is still struggling to read and others who are reading with ease. When you’ve got one child in the class who has been off sick for two weeks and so missed a big chunk of that curriculum content, two with significant learning difficulties, and another who is dealing with the fact that Daddy walked out of the house a week ago and hasn’t been seen since.

So, yes, let’s welcome a renewed focus on the substance of education. Let’s embrace the opportunity to think more deeply about the curriculum. But let’s not lose sight of where and how teachers really make a difference to the lives of the pupils they teach, and how complex that task can be.

James Bowen is director of policy at the NAHT headteachers' union and director of the NAHT Edge union for middle leaders

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