Ofsted move ‘could favour knowledge curriculum’

There is a danger that schools will think there is a preferred curriculum model, warns Ofsted expert adviser

Ofsted is preparing a revised school inspection framework

There is a danger that Ofsted’s new focus on the curriculum in inspections will lead to schools favouring a "knowledge-based" approach, according to one of its own expert advisers.

Ofsted's new inspection framework, which is expected to be introduced in September next year, will place greater importance on the decisions that schools make about the curriculum they deliver.

The inspectorate has rejected claims that it will favour a knowledge-based curriculum in its new inspections of schools.

However, one of its own advisers has said there is a danger that the changes could lead to schools thinking that a knowledge-rich approach is the preferred model.  

Professor Samantha Twiselton, the director of Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “I do worry that there might be a model about what a good curriculum looks like. That is not how Ofsted are talking about it, but I think there is a danger.

“There is a danger that people will think the curriculum has to look the way it does in certain schools.”

Professor Twiselton, who is the head of one of the major teacher training providers in the North of England, sits on a curriculum advisory panel for Ofsted.

Is Ofsted biased on curriculum?

The inspectorate's work on its new framework has led to accusations that it is biased towards a knowledge-based curriculum.

As part of its research into curriculum design, Ofsted inspectors visited 23 schools earlier this year. Of these, a third were described by Ofsted as having a knowledge-led curriculum, half were said to be knowledge-engaged and a smaller group were skills-led. 

A blog for the NEU teaching union also raised concerns that two of the 23 schools visited by Ofsted were run by Inspiration Trust –  a chain set up by education minister Lord Agnew that favours a knowledge-rich approach.

Prof Twiselton said: “It can be presented in some of the discussions on curriculum that it's knowledge or it's skills, but you have got to be able to apply the knowledge you learn and that is where skills come in. So it is hard to have skills without knowledge. 

“If people have only thought about skills as a generic set of things for pupils to learn, then I would agree that this probably won’t make an effective curriculum. But I am also concerned if we are just focused on knowledge and we just stuff information into these children’s heads –  when everything we know about how learning happens is that you have got to be able to apply it in multiple contexts.

“I think there is a danger that the current focus on the curriculum could be interpreted that you need knowledge without skills.”

However Ofsted has insisted it does not have a preferred model of curriculum

A spokesman said: "There will be no preferred Ofsted curriculum. It is important that schools have autonomy to choose their own curriculum. If leaders are able to show that they have thought carefully about building a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure and sequencing, and implemented it effectively, then inspectors will assess that curriculum favourably."

Ofsted is set to consult on its new inspection framework next year.

Its plans have been described as a crackdown on "exam factory" schools by placing less emphasis on results and giving more weight to what is taught in schools and why.

Professor Twiselton told Tes that the changes will also impact on the way teachers are trained.

“It's clear that the curriculum is going to be a big aspect of the new framework," she added.

“Hopefully it will impact on teacher training in a good way but it will be a challenge as well. We need to be preparing teachers who are able to think about the design principles of a good curriculum and I think we would argue that we do that already.

"Teachers will need to ask themselves, ‘How do you sequence learning in the most effective way over a period of time that is longer than a term?'”

But Professor Twiselton also questioned how this will actually work in schools.

She added: “The challenge will be, how do they practice that? How do they apply that as part of their training because some of that is quite dictated now depending on what school they are in.

"I think that will be a challenge for multi-academy trusts as well because the inspection is at school level. You can’t just say, 'I am head of English but actually the curriculum comes from the trust.'”

Ofsted has previously said that it does not favour a knowledge-rich curriculum.

A spokesperson told Tes last month that it had identified strengths in all of the curriculum approaches it looked at and does not favour one over the other.

They added: “We identified more schools as being in the knowledge-engaged category than at either end of the spectrum. Some in the knowledge-engaged group also placed a slightly greater emphasis on skills than knowledge.”

However, critics of Ofsted’s plans, such as Russell Hobby, chief executive of Teach First, have suggested that the inspectorate cannot assess a school’s curriculum without having a prejudged idea of what a good curriculum is.

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