Professor Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:
The departure of Michael Gove and the not entirely unrelated issue of the Trojan Horse affair have left a number of important, unresolved and contentious curriculum issues. Ofsted’s latest school inspection handbook, issued last week, attempts to address some of these, but does so in a way that reflects both Gove’s incoherent legacy and the longer-term inadequacy of our thinking on the curriculum in state schools.
In his determination to “free” his academies and free schools, Gove allowed them to opt out of the misnamed national curriculum as long as the curriculum they provide is broad and balanced. Part of that strategy involves ensuring that Ofsted does not include the curriculum as one of the main focuses of school inspection. As a result, detailed judgements about the quality of the curriculum do not feature prominently – or, often, do not feature at all – in school inspection reports apart from anodyne, “coarse-grained” references to a broad and balanced curriculum and to spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Yet it was the fine-grain of the curriculum, the content of lessons, assemblies and other activities, and the values permeating them, that proved to be at the heart of the Trojan Horse affair. This crucially important dimension was missed by inspectors in those Birmingham schools as, initially, they myopically pursued the flawed, almost “curriculum-free” inspection framework. Gove has left Ofsted with the unenviable task of picking up the pieces and trying to reassemble a consensus as to how to inspect the curriculum.
Reflecting Gove’s legacy and aware of the government’s desire to protect academies’ freedoms, the latest handbook fails to feature the school curriculum as a major, detailed focus, but smuggles it in under leadership and management where inspectors are asked to consider “how well leadership and management ensure that the curriculum is broad and balanced, complies with legislation and provides a wide range of subjects, preparing pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life in modern Britain”. Desperately trying to protect, or at least not criticise the curricular freedoms of academies and free schools, it adds that, “inspectors should not expect to see a particular range of subjects but should be alert to any unexplained narrowness in the breadth of curriculum being offered by the school”.
This formulation is wide open to interpretation…and misinterpretation. “Breadth” and “balance” are value-laden terms, but the handbook does not acknowledge that fact. To be meaningful, the first of these terms requires political and professional consensus over the criteria by which the breadth or otherwise of schools’ curricula can be judged. Thirty years ago, HMI attempted to forge such a consensus by arguing that primary and secondary schools should involve all children in nine areas of experience and learning throughout the age-range of 5 to 16. Placed in alphabetical order to emphasise that all were essential to a child’s education, these were aesthetic and creative; human and social; linguistic and literary; mathematical; moral; physical; scientific; spiritual and technological. These were not seen as timetabled subjects or areas, but as together constituting a planning and analytical tool that schools, teachers and inspectors might use to assess current or proposed curriculums.
Thirty years on, if inspectors’ comments on breadth are to have any meaning and carry any conviction, they ideally need to be underpinned by a parallel professional consensus. Revisiting, and where necessary revising, those areas of learning and experience (or similar concepts) would be a first step to establishing this. A second step would involve characterising those areas or concepts in sufficient (but not exhaustive) detail for them to form an explicit focus for inspection on which sound judgments about breadth offered by a particular school can be founded. If such a curriculum consensus proves impossible to achieve, then Ofsted would need to establish it its own view, to inspect a school in relation to those criteria and to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum inspected, while acknowledging the school’s own view of the curriculum it provides.
If “breadth” is problematic, “balance” is even more so, yet the new inspection handbook does not recognise this. Even more than breadth, balance is in the “eye of the beholder” or, more accurately, in the mind of the observer. It involves giving due weight, appropriate consideration and suitable attention to the various components of a school’s curriculum. Those involve judgments of value that are unlikely to be – probably cannot ever be – settled by any professional consensus. Perhaps the only reasonable requirement on inspectors would be to report the school’s view of curriculum balance and to indicate whether or not the inspection team concurs with that view.
Ofsted is not legally responsible for the illogicality and arbitrary nature of current curriculum policy. However, its latest guidance neither reinstates the centrality of the curriculum to the educational process, nor does it acknowledge, let alone address, the value-judgements involved in inspecting the curriculum. In some ways, perhaps, the guidance might be seen as a holding measure while the more fundamental review and reform of Ofsted takes place. If so, the sections on the curriculum will require revisiting as part of that much-needed process.