Ofsted is right to want to see a high-quality primary curriculum. Primary schools are right to try to provide one. That’s clear enough.
But we also need to be honest. The large majority of primary schools will not be able to introduce the "high-quality provision" Ofsted describes in its new inspection framework. And they should not be expected to devote time, effort and worry in the year or more that Ofsted is graciously allowing them for preparation.
For me, the difficulty is encapsulated in three passages in the draft inspection framework:
Leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all learners the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.
The provider’s curriculum is coherently planned and sequenced.
Teachers have good knowledge of the subjects and courses they teach. Leaders provide effective support for those teaching outside their main areas of expertise.
For the most part, primary teachers are not subject specialists nor do they see themselves as such. Most do have areas of interest or expertise within the large number of subjects required by the national curriculum and do use this interest to good effect.
However good their professional preparation will have been, it won’t have prepared them to provide high-quality provision in every aspect of that curriculum. How could it in the time available? Good-quality CPD will have helped, but it won’t have been in the depth or scale needed to help them teach an “ambitious” curriculum giving all their children that “knowledge and cultural capital” Ofsted now demands.
Ofsted's new approach to curriculum
Ever since the introduction of the national curriculum and the mass of official guidance that followed, primary schools have not been expected by Ofsted to design their own “coherently planned and sequenced curriculum”. Most have been forced to be implementers of official diktats in the core subjects, not shapers or designers of the whole curriculum. They have been given detailed, sequenced prescriptions in maths and English but have been left largely to their own devices in other areas.
It’s a rare school that has had the necessary time, expertise or incentive to devise detailed sequential provision in all, or even most, foundation subjects.
Ofsted may be giving them some breathing space, but, even with this, how can the majority of schools meet the proposed new requirements without having the full range of subject expertise within their own staff?
The clue from Ofsted is in the word "adopt". Hopefully, schools will devise their bespoke curriculum in those areas where they have the relevant expertise but elsewhere they are likely to be tempted to depend very largely on commercially produced resources from publishers, multi-academy trusts, such as Ark or Inspiration Trust, or individual entrepreneurs.
Even then, schools may not have the time or expertise to adapt, rather than adopt, such materials to suit their unique circumstances, and therein lies the threat to high-quality provision. Wholesale adoption of supposedly sequenced schemes from a variety of sources is no guarantee of high-quality provision across the board, though it may satisfy Ofsted inspectors, who have limited curriculum expertise like the rest of us.
Designing a logically coherent, sequenced curriculum is problematic enough. Deploying staff to implement that ambitious “knowledge-capitalist” curriculum raises all sorts of other issues.
Teaching by specialists in every area of the curriculum is logistically impossible to organise and timetable while maths and English take up half or so of the available time.
The burden on class teachers teaching the whole curriculum could be eased, but not solved, through a variety of ploys. Class teachers with subject expertise or a strong subject interest could be deployed to teach that subject to the class of a colleague on a mutual exchange basis. Or they could be deployed as semi-specialists teaching two or more classes than their own. Part-time teachers, if they are available and if funds allow, could be employed to provide some specialist teaching but realistically only for one or two foundation subjects.
But would such ploys constitute what Ofsted describes as “effective support for those teaching outside their main areas of expertise” and would they ensure high quality? It’s doubtful.
Ofsted’s expectations cannot realistically be met. There needs to be compromise between the ideal of a knowledge-rich subject-centred curriculum and the reality of life in primary schools as currently staffed and funded.
The consultation on the education inspection framework has just concluded. If the last question on the consultation form had been, "Is this ‘high-quality’, ‘ambitious’ curriculum realistic in your context?”, the answer from the primary sector would have been overwhelmingly negative. But the question was never posed.
Colin Richards is a former primary school teacher and was a staff inspector for the school curriculum for HM Inspectorate before its replacement by Ofsted