An Inspector Writes

Q: We are not sure our school can teach the full national curriculum at key stage 2. What does this mean in relation to our forthcoming inspection?

A: Many primary teachers may be anxious not just about their knowledge and skills across 10 subjects, but about the emphasis on subjects, rather than the "whole curriculum" in the Office for Standards in Education's framework for inspection.

This focus upon subjects raises important issues about the nature and form of inspection reports. It may well be that the real tension lies not so much between OFSTED and schools as between the expectations of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the obligations of OFSTED.

The Dearing "solution" insists that all nine subjects and RE should be taught across all key stages, albeit in a slimmed-down form. Initial inspection evidence suggests that OFSTED will find itself identifying many schools as failing to meet national curriculum requirements in perhaps two, or even more subjects.

To what extent are initially positive judgments about, say, the leadership, management and efficiency of a school modified when inspectors realise that curriculum requirements in technology, geography and IT are not being met? What picture emerges of teachers in a key stage who are seen to demonstrate "shortcomings" in, say, three out of ten subjects? Indeed, can judgments made about teachers' competence, often by inspectors with exclusively secondary experience, and on the basis of isolated subjects, really encompass teaching quality? And how will parents react to schools that are perceived as being inadequate in some subjects?

It is now clear that OFSTED is aware of the "subjects" dilemma. In its recent guidance on interpretation of the Inspection Framework, it advised inspectors that where "a subject" was not being taught at the time of the inspection, standards could be evaluated by reference to a "sufficient sample" of pupils' work together with other available evidence. It suggests that "inspectors will expect to see teaching in the core subjects and whatever else the school does as part of its normal programme".

Such "concessions" could have implications reaching far beyond this. Is OFSTED merely accepting that primary schools, as distinct from secondaries, are occasionally unlikely to teach all 10 subjects in any single week, or is it tacitly accepting that many primary schools cannot, in fact, deliver what has been legally defined as children's educational entitlement?

Can inspectors really make valid judgments about the quality of learning on the basis of work alone, without direct acquaintance with the children responsible for it and the circumstances in which they achieved it? Will schools be tempted to "hide" subjects where they feel most fallible, thereby marginalising them further.

Might we reach a stage where schools can offer a "best seven out of ten subjects," and risk primaries being labelled as less likely than secondaries to provide a full curriculum. Is there a possibility that the inspection process, in the end, might contribute to the negotiating away of the national curriculum?

Bill Laar is a registered inspector. Write to him co The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London E1 9XY.

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