The curriculum in England's schools “started to suffer” because of academisation, a top Ofsted official has said.
Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national director of education, said today that the inspectorate “missed a trick” because it was slow to respond to schools having “the freedoms to do different stuff” after they became academies.
He said this was part of a “double whammy” to the curriculum, with cuts to Ofsted’s budget also forcing the inspectorate to rely more on performance data.
During a speech on the curriculum this morning, he also said that pedagogy involving group work was "probably harder" for schools to do than direct instruction.
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Mr Harford was speaking at the CurriculumEd conference in Lichfield, Staffordshire. “Back in the day, as a school prior to academisation, you had to teach the national curriculum,” he said.
Ofsted 'missed a trick' on curriculum
“This was not something that was a ‘you could do it or not’, and I think at that point the inspectorate kind of thought, ‘[The curriculum is] all sorted out now, we don’t really need to think about that too much.’
“But we missed a trick, because as academisation came in over that period and as the freedoms to do different stuff came about, we were slow to respond to that.
“Many people would see [academisation] as a widening of opportunities for schools; some might see it as a disintegration of structure,” he said. “However you see that process, the reality was the curriculum started to suffer, and it started to suffer in a number of ways.”
Mr Harford said the curriculum had been hit by a “double whammy”, with budget cuts at Ofsted also creating an over-dependence on performance data for accountability.
“Our budget, our resourcing went down over a period of eight, nine years, by a half. We were doing as many inspections, if not more actually, but with half the resource," he said.
“So naturally what happened was we started using the data more smartly… the inspections started reflecting more the data, rather than being a complementary counter-balance.”
Mr Harford said this had become a particular problem at primary level.
“Because [performance measures] are so narrow in primary, people just focused in on those, and, as a consequence, much of the rest of the curriculum started to be denuded," he said. "We weren’t picking up on this, we were slow to pick that up.”
Group work 'harder to do' than direct instruction
During his speech, Mr Harford talked about Ofsted's new inspection framework, which some people have suggested will be biased towards "traditionalist" pedagogy like direct instruction, rather than "progressive" approaches like group work.
Mr Harford said that Ofsted's research had found that both direct instruction and group work approaches "can be effective" if "you do them right".
However, he said that group work was "probably harder to do" than direct instruction.
“In group work, it’s just harder to set up, but the research is clear – you have to teach children stuff to start with, so they take that into the discussion within the group work… to be able to discuss and talk and develop things.
"And the youngsters in that have to have clear roles, and they have to have a clear goal to keep them on task, otherwise they go off task.
"All of those things can be done, and it can be successful. The issue is it’s probably harder to do one than [direct instruction]."
He said Ofsted would take a neutral approach during its inspections. "We’ll just see what we see, and we look at how effective it is over time," he said.