'How will Ofsted inspect a school's curriculum?'

One former Ofsted inspector explains how he thinks the watchdog should approach the new focus on the curriculum

Ofsted's annual report has been published today

For many years the curriculum has not been a major focus of attention in school inspections. The chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has now belatedly recognised that deficiency, and is promising to put the curriculum at the core, or the heart, of the inspection process. Recently her organisation has produced a working definition to guide its thinking and development work – none too clear in its tortured phraseology or obscure meaning:

  • The curriculum is a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage;
  • for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative within an institutional context; and
  • for evaluating what knowledge and skills pupils have gained against expectations.

This raises more questions than it answers. What is meant by "structure", "narrative" and "institutional context"? What is the relationship between curriculum and assessment or between evaluation and assessment? Why is there no reference to skills and attitudes? It is all very vague. When will the implications of this working definition, with its many weasel words, be spelled out in more detail? Will it encompass the wide variety of current interpretations of the curriculum or will it favour one version such as "deep learning" and/or "a deep body of knowledge" (whatever they are)?

Ofsted: inspecting curriculum

That still leaves open the issue of how to inspect something as complex, value-laden and contentious as a school’s curriculum, however it is defined. There are three possibilities.

A minimalist approach would be reasonably straightforward. State schools would have to implement the national curriculum unless they are academies or free schools. Inspections would be able to judge whether the programmes of study in the national curriculum are indeed being taught. They would be able to judge whether pupils are showing evidence of knowledge, understanding and competence in the various subject areas and would form a view on whether the curriculum meets the kind of general criteria ("breadth", "balance", etc.) referred to in official documents. In the case of academies and free schools, inspections would only have to judge how far their curricula meet those general criteria.

Beyond that minimal sense of compliance with legal requirements, the inspection of the curriculum becomes much more problematic, especially as Spielman has ruled out an approved Ofsted model of the curriculum. Curricula can be designed, implemented and evaluated in markedly different ways. To use Ofsted’s terms, their "structures", "narratives" and "contexts" can be very different. Their ways of assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of the curriculum can vary widely.

How then, given that variety, would inspections have to be designed to be fair to the curriculum in all schools in all contexts? One way would be to judge a school’s curriculum in its own terms. What is the school aiming to do and achieve through its curriculum? How far are these expectations being realised? Where are the strengths and weaknesses in how its curriculum is operating? Here there would be no attempt to compare one school’s curriculum with another’s or with any externally-imposed framework. The key question would be: is the curriculum delivering on the school’s intentions? If it is not, what might the school do to bring its practice more in line with its intentions or how might it reframe its intentions as to be more in line with its practice?

Unchartered territory for Ofsted  

However, there could be a third and more demanding sense to the inspection of the curriculum – including but going beyond the first two. This would involve questioning the appropriateness and worthwhileness of the curriculum provided, irrespective of how faithfully or efficiently it was being implemented in its own terms. This would be a far more contentious matter involving more subjective interpretation by the inspection team and more in the way of value judgements. The key issue would be: is the curriculum good enough? If not, how could it be improved? Therein lies much more scope for controversy and confrontation. For Ofsted, this would be uncharted territory.

Very recently Ed Dorrell raised the issues of what constitutes “good” curriculum design and of how Ofsted can validly compare and contrast curricula from school to school. But Ofsted would not have to grasp the nettle of "good" curriculum design, nor the dangerous complexities involved in comparisons if it was to confine itself to the first two senses of curriculum inspection outlined here.

However, it would have to confront those value issues if it was to pursue the third approach. Then, indeed, it would face value-laden dragons in uncharted waters.

Professor Colin Richards was formerly HM Inspectorate’s staff inspector for the school curriculum

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