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'Like meerkats, teachers are always on red alert'

But fear of Ofsted’s new focus on the curriculum shouldn’t fuel an explosion in workload, writes one head of English


But fear of Ofsted’s new focus on the curriculum shouldn’t fuel an explosion in workload, writes one head of English

The worst questions in the education world are usually prefaced by: “Is anyone ready for Ofsted…?”  

The image of a scream of panic that illustrated this week’s Tes article by Ed Dorrell might have been humorous, but subliminally it adds to the feelings of impending doom: if we’re not already worried then we ought to be. 

Is it time – depending on age and experience – to reach for the job vacancies columns or to check our current entitlement on the Teachers’ Pensions Agency website?

Like a meerkat colony, teachers have learned how to live in a state of constant red alert. Unsleeping, they take it in turns to keep a lookout for the next threat/ initiative. Across their networks flow hints passed on from the most recent inspections. Most leaders are too canny to expect a period of peace, even now that the majority of revised subject specifications are live.

The minute the panic button is pressed, systems click into overdrive and holidays are cancelled. This time, changes in the focus of inspection could hit subject leaders particularly hard – just when they are recovering from writing new schemes of work to accommodate radical specification change. 

The increasingly scientific approach to the curriculum has led to far greater emphasis on structure; and the search for coherence and continuity means that earlier key stages may be seen as preparation for high-stakes examinations. Materials from awarding organisations in the form of Year 7-9 progress tests may be determining what and how the subject is taught. 

Over-zealous scrutiny in-house is driven by the never-ending quest for higher results, which can result in subject leaders producing microscopically detailed schemes of work to satisfy third parties that all aspects of the subject are being covered and differentiated. Thus are created the equivalent of huge juggernauts being driven by an over-prescriptive curriculum. And juggernauts don’t have a very tight turning circle.

'Curriculum dumping'

Joe Nutt has recently drawn attention to “curriculum dumping”, whereby all the favourite causes espoused by politicians can clog up the curriculum with needs that schools cannot possibly fulfil.

So it is that many of our schemes of work are already overrun by cross-curricular themes and crisscrossed with differentiation, AGT and SEN strategies – not to mention study skills and soft skills. The effect is of a thick gauze overlay through which the subject matter is barely perceptible. 

But before we all go into overdrive, it might be worth looking at what Ofsted has already said.

Now might be a good time to refer to Amanda Spielman’s conference speech to Ark Academy last November, where she asked what “we” can do to give the curriculum its proper place.  Whilst there is some ambiguity about who “we” might be (does she mean the inspectorate or academies or the profession in general?), we ought to note the words “proper place”. Ms Spielman went on to say, "We won’t be creating an 'Ofsted-approved' curriculum for schools to follow," and that, "At a time of high teacher workload, it is more important than ever for schools to make informed choices about what they encourage teachers to do – and, even more importantly, what they ask them to stop doing."

We need to learn the lessons of the Workload Challenge reports. If we keep taking out different aspects of teaching and learning and ascribing greater importance to them, then we always run the risk of “gold-plating”. 

She has also indicated that Ofsted itself is having to adapt to the new focus on curriculum, which it is finding challenging. Ed Dorrell suggests that there is not sufficient expertise in-house for the regulator to operate effectively on curriculum inspection. This may be a timely criticism, but the problem is not insurmountable. 

In spite of the near-strangulatory impact of the accountability framework, schools have within them teachers like Alex Quigley who see beyond the regulations and the minutiae. A creative solution to the gap in expertise might be to introduce secondments to allow senior and subject leaders to develop their expertise further through seeing more systems in operation and witnessing how inspection judgements are formed. The Independent Schools Inspectorate has been using its senior leaders to good effect for years. Their experience strengthens the system and the education schools offer.

Many schools, local authorities and trusts will have been discussing their particular curriculum for years. The best involve their staff in working parties, setting up small action research projects and ensuring all are up to date with recent developments.

It is not at all likely that any school will have a fully finished, finite curriculum in place. The curriculum is always a work in progress. And so it should be. We live in a global internet-savvy society which requires flexibility. No one person or institution has all the answers. Most of us work in a specific context; the curriculum both serves that context and looks more widely for enrichment and further development or modification.

There is no shortage of ideas and debate out there in schools, no shortage of goodwill or enthusiasm for the right kind of change. Initiatives are always being launched but not always landed.

If we are at last to have a proper educational debate, then it needs to go well beyond compliance to the regulator and the exam specifications. We need to involve more teachers in the set-up as well as the delivery. Most of all, we need to build in reflection as we see what works, what needs modifying and what needs to be rejected.

In the meantime, my only hope is that Amanda Spielman and Sean Harford will be recording their myth-busting YouTube video telling senior leaders what Ofsted inspectors do and don’t want to see in terms of documentation so that middle leaders, in particular, can have a rest from rewriting their schemes of work. 

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in the south of England and a member of the post-16 committee of the National Association for the Teaching of English. The NATE is holding its 55th annual conference in Birmingham from 22-24 June.  

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