What could be clearer? In introducing her annual report, chief inspector Amanda Spielman is emphatic: “There is and will be no ‘Ofsted curriculum’. What we will be interested in is the coherence, the sequencing and construction, the implementation of the curriculum, how it is being taught and how well children and young people are progressing in it.”
For the moment, let’s put aside the very real problems of gathering enough reliable evidence on these issues to back up judgements in short inspections lasting perhaps only one day or two.
Let’s assume that on the basis of evidence gathered inspectors judge that a school’s curriculum is incoherent or lacks coherence in certain respects. How valid would that be? Is there a consensus as to what constitutes “coherence” or will Ofsted’s custom and practice generate that consensus? A judgement of incoherence would invite the charge “So how could it be made more coherent?” Would inspectors duck that challenge or, if they met it, how could they avoid disclosing Ofsted’s own position on this crucial aspect of curriculum thinking that will affect curriculum policy and practice in schools?
“Sequencing” involves ordering the series of principles and concepts to be taught so that they build on one another in some sort of meaningful, hopefully progressive way. But again, is there an evidence-based consensus as to what constitutes an appropriate and worthwhile sequence or sequences in all the subjects currently taught, especially in the creative arts and humanities?
Almost certainly not at the moment…but again, will Ofsted’s policy and practice on inspections create one? A judgement of poor sequencing would invite the question: “What would constitute appropriate sequencing?” How would inspectors respond without declaring their own or Ofsted’s preferred model of sequencing? Or would inspectors simply walk away having delivered their summary judgement?
Who determines good curriculum design?
Although Ofsted’s own research has not yet provided detail on how schools construct their curricula, presumably they use one of a variety of models –perhaps even drawn from curriculum designs pre-national curriculum. What constitutes a well-constructed curriculum? Are the criteria for curriculum design clear and from where do they originate? Won’t criticism of schools’ curriculum designs imply a model or models in inspectors’ minds against which the school is tested and found wanting? Again, won’t such models gain wider currency given schools’ predisposition to meet what they see as Ofsted’s requirements?
Similar points apply to schools’ implementation of the curriculum – approved modes of implementation will gain currency on the basis of what Ofsted has judged to be good or appropriate in the early stages of the introduction of the new framework from next autumn.
It is true that the new framework will not detail schools’ curricula for them; in that sense, there will be no “Ofsted curriculum”. However, the judgements inspectors make and their answers to questions raised by schools will substantially inform future curriculum policy and practice. In that more limited sense, there will be at the very least “Ofsted curricula”. It would be naïve to think otherwise.
Colin Richards is a former staff inspector for the school curriculum at HM Inspectorate of Schools