Yesterday saw the release of the latest phase of curriculum research by Ofsted. It’s fair to say that primary schools don’t fare too well in the inspectorate's analysis. In fact, according to Ofsted, only eight of the 33 primary schools visited scored highly for their curriculum, compared with 16 out of 29 secondary schools.
So what are we to conclude from this? Are secondary schools simply far better at curriculum design than primaries? I’m not convinced.
For me, these findings tell us as much about the nature of the current primary accountability system and the structural differences between primary and secondary schools as they do about expertise in curriculum design.
Let’s start with the issue of primary schools focusing on core subjects at the expense of foundation subjects. This hardly comes as a surprise. For years, primary schools have worked within an accountability framework that has encouraged, if not demanded them to do exactly that. I challenge anyone to find a school that has been put into special measures due to poor standards in art, music or design and technology.
In fairness to Ofsted, it has acknowledged this. In her commentary accompanying the research, chief inspector Amanda Spielman noted that “it is a truism that what gets measured gets done. English and maths are what gets measured in primary schools. It is hardly surprising, then, that they get the most lesson time and curricular attention from leaders.” She also accepted that the current approach to school inspection had played a key role in creating this very situation.
Don't penalise too hastily
I think it’s fair to say that the proposals to broaden the curriculum focus in the new inspection framework will be welcomed by most primary school leaders, although it is vital that Ofsted recognises that schools will need some time to respond to these new expectations. It would be unfair to be too quick to penalise those schools that had been simply playing by the rules that others had previously set for them.
It is equally important that Ofsted is mindful of some of the fundamental differences between how primary and secondary schools operate when making its judgements about the curriculum.
To illustrate this point, in a typical secondary school you are likely to find a head of department for each subject – someone who has a degree-level qualification in their area of specialism. Despite the current issues with recruitment and retention, most teachers in those departments also tend to be subject specialists.
Primary schools are very, very different in this regard. Primary teachers are expected to be akin to modern-day renaissance men and women, teaching algebra first thing, the concept of evolution after break and a gymnastics lesson in the afternoon.
In most primary schools, subject leaders will tend not to have a background in the subject they are leading. In some cases, teachers will be leading subjects that they themselves stopped studying midway through their own time at secondary school. Is it really reasonable or fair to expect them to be subject experts in the way that a secondary head of department is likely to be?
Due to their size, teachers in primaries tend to become subject leaders earlier in their career than their secondary colleagues. Becoming a head of department in a secondary school tends to be a formal promotion after a number of years of teaching; in the average primary school, teachers are given a subject to lead upon completion of their NQT year. In some cases training is available, but this is far from universal and the demise of local authorities' role has made this harder for many to access.
We also shouldn’t forget that in small primary schools it is not unusual to find teachers with multiple subject-leadership responsibilities, so the person leading music might well also be in charge of overseeing geography and history.
None of the above should be taken to imply that being a teacher or subject leader in a primary school is easier or harder than working in a secondary school, simply that there are some clear differences. It is important that Ofsted fully understands and considers these differences when making its curriculum judgements.
James Bowen is the director of NAHT Edge