It's on! Ofsted vs the GCSE exam machine

In switching focus from exams to curriculum, Ofsted fails to appreciate the reality for teachers, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

Ofsted inspections: The new Ofsted inspection regime seems to be at odds with the pressure of high-stakes exams, says Mark Enser

The first swathe of inspections under Ofsted’s new framework has taken place, and social media is awash with reports from teachers who have undergone the new “deep dive” into different subject areas. 

In this “dive”, an inspector will look into one subject area to explore the curriculum and the thinking that has gone into it, as well as how it is implemented in the classroom and revealed through the work of the pupils. 

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Two related questions keep on coming up in reports from these deep dives, and both are causing some concern: “why are you teaching this?” and “how do pupils make progress in your subject?”

Ofsted targets curriculum

One problem with these questions is that the curriculum has been dominated by the exam specifications. These specifications are increasingly bulging with content and simply getting through it before the exam feels like enough of a chore without deeper curriculum thinking going into it. 

Unfortunately, Ofsted seems to be quite clear that “it’s on the exam” isn’t a good enough answer.

This feels a little unfair given the high stakes that these exams have for schools, teachers and their pupils. Recently the CEOs of two large multi-academy trusts seemed to argue that ensuring that pupils gained qualifications was a key function of schools and that Ofsted’s focus on curriculum was a distraction from this. 

However, this seems to be allowing the tail to wag the dog. Qualification should reflect what has been learned, it shouldn’t define it. The exam specifications do not constitute a curriculum. 

The roots of the word "curriculum" lie in the route of a race, a journey from A to B.

Going nowhere

The exam specifications for many subjects don’t take pupils on a journey, they hold them in place, they go nowhere. Take the geography specification as an example.

This is divided into a number of different topics, which could be picked out and studied in any order. They could look at coastal landscapes first or urban challenges. The content of one has no link to the content of the other (at least not as presented in the specification). 

This creates the problem with Ofsted’s second question, “How do pupils make progress in your subject?” If we just follow the exam specification, they make progress within each topic, they know more about coasts or urban challenges, but they don’t go any further in getting better at the subject itself. 

They finish one topic and then start again with another. They don’t get much better at the discipline of geography as they have few opportunities to develop disciplinary thinking (the way an expert in a subject thinks about this subject so as to do this subject and create new knowledge in it). They are just accumulating more fragments of the discipline. 

Smash the specification

The problem we have then is this: pupils need to cover the content of the specification. However, the specification doesn’t itself give us a curriculum, as it doesn’t allow pupils to make wider progress in the subject.

The solution is not an easy one, especially in a culture of crushing workload and high accountability. It is to smash the specification and put the pieces together in a way that allow pupils to make progress by increasing the complexity. Pupils need the opportunity to use what comes before. 

For example, to cover the AQA Geography specification, pupils could study urban challenges and then later study changes to the UK’s economy (as it is presented in the specification).

But might it not make more sense though for them to study how the UK’s economy has changed so that they can then understand how this has created those urban challenges? 

They might also first need to study the hazards created by climate change so that they can understand how urban areas might need to respond to these threats. This would also build on previous work on the challenges of resource management so that they have the language to discuss how cities may need to transition to a post-oil economy. 

We can now see how progress looks in our subject: it involves being able to answer complex questions like “how will urban areas have to respond to a changing world?”.

This is a geographical question that involves applying what they have learned from across the discipline. Being able to answer such questions is clear evidence of the impact of a well-implemented curriculum intent (to neatly hit every Ofsted buzzword in a single sentence). 

I would argue that the reformed GCSE exam specifications do a great job of prescribing challenging content for pupils to get to grips with, but it needs individual teachers to bring this alive by turning it into a true curriculum that takes pupils on a journey into the subject itself. 

This will only happen if teachers are given the time to think deeply about their subjects and work together to create such a curriculum that comes alive. Until then, we can expect a growing frustration with the tension created between Ofsted’s desire to see such a curriculum and the reality on the ground. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College. He is the author of Teach Like Nobody’s Watching and tweets @EnserMark 

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