Much has been made of Ofsted’s encouragement of a "virtuous curriculum" and its recent conversion to accepting that schools must offer far more than a focus on GCSE results. There is no one who would disagree with that.
However, as is so often the case, the zeal with which this shift is being pursued is in danger of hurting the pupils who need a good education most.
Our trusts, which together educate 61,000 pupils in 80 schools across London and the North of England, have achieved consistently superb outcomes for our most disadvantaged pupils. Along with great GCSE and A-level results, our pupils are developing the skills, habits and lifelong love of learning they need to break intergenerational poverty and buck the national trend of declining social mobility.
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Ofsted focus on curriculum
Across the country, most pupils who have faced disadvantage in their early years begin primary school well behind the other children in their classroom. And, from there, the gap just widens and widens. But great teachers in our trusts are helping disadvantaged and working-class children to attend elite universities and secure competitive apprenticeships and jobs. As educators, when our pupils reach outcomes like this, we see it as a job well done.
One of the ways in which our trusts have delivered these results has been by covering the key stage 3 curriculum in two years and then giving pupils a three-year run at their GCSEs. For pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds – and remember, this is a group with negative Progress 8 across England – the extra year helps to compensate for everything else they have missed out on.
Yes, it means they do not study all national curriculum subjects in Year 9. But the consequence of dropping one or two subjects a year early is that they are more likely to pass their other subjects in Year 11 with decent grades and win a college place or be employable.
In short, does studying some extra geography or art or music, for example, in Year 9 outweigh the benefit of passing other GCSE subjects with good grades later on when it will make a difference to their life chances and enable them to climb the economic ladder? Pupils study the full curriculum for the first two years of secondary school and most of it for the third.
But the reality is that when children from disadvantaged backgrounds come to make college and job applications, they are judged to the same standards as everyone else; so in the end what matters is not what they studied in Year 9 but where they end up.
As the pendulum has swung towards a virtuous curriculum, and because of the "three years good, two years bad" way this is being interpreted and implemented by inspectors on the ground, schools like ours are being impeded from giving our most disadvantaged pupils the extra support they need.
Ofsted tells us it has no fixed view on the length of the key stages and we accept that the new framework is well-intentioned. But is it reasonable to expect an inspector with no current experience of teaching the latest national curriculum in, say, RE to judge whether coverage in two years in one school with lessons of a certain length and one set of teachers is less effective than coverage elsewhere over three years with lessons of another length and a different set of teachers?
Better GCSE results for disadvantaged students
Our experience on the ground with this new framework indicates it is not. Even if inspectors can make this fine granulated judgement consistently accurately, why should not covering some subjects in depth in Year 9 be perceived as problematic if overall outcomes in a broad range of subjects are high and students can make a success of their lives because of this?
The "good" inspection report of Harris Academy St John’s Wood was published last week. The key reason it was not judged "outstanding" is that “the curriculum is narrowed in Year 9”. Yet inspectors found the sixth form to be outstanding. The report says that, “unsurprisingly, almost all students go on to higher education, many to top universities, including disadvantaged students”. The report also says pupils achieve very well in their GCSEs, and that leaders expect nothing less than excellent and this is what they get. So was this school judged on its curriculum and education provided, which results in great outcomes for pupils, or simply the length of its key stage 3?
In this "transitional" year of the new Ofsted framework, the school was able to be judged "good" but from next year it appears that the maximum it could hope for is "requires improvement". Many schools will fall into line with what inspectors want to see, even though this is not always in the best interests of the pupils we educate.
And similar issues apply in primary, too.
The CEO of the academy trust in charge of Akroydon Primary Academy in Halifax is appealing against a "requires improvement" judgement in which he says the school’s remarkable improvement in Sats – from just 25 per cent of pupils reaching expected standards to 70 per cent – was used as a stick to beat it with.
Here we have a situation where Ofsted is not only dictating what is taught, it is dictating how long it is taught for, too. And the consequence of requiring primaries to do every subject every week will be that schools spend less time teaching pupils how to read and write with standards in these core areas falling. And, of course, this will hit pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds the hardest, into adulthood.
Social elites complain about "exam hoops" but helping pupils to pass their examinations is not the same as "teaching to the test". If we were teaching to the test, we would not be seeing our pupils choosing to remain in education and thriving not only in sixth form but also university.
And the reality is that children from tough backgrounds need the credentials that exam grades give to help them get on in life.
Nobody ever obtains a job or wins a university place because they have taken a virtuous curriculum. They do it because of qualifications passed. And if they don’t have these qualifications, nobody will be interested in what curriculum they studied and failed to master.
Ofsted’s intentions, we are sure, are well-meaning. But, as ever, the unintended consequences are at risk of harming those who the inspectorate wants to help. Here’s hoping that common sense prevails.
Sir Dan Moynihan is CEO of the Harris Federation. Martyn Oliver is CEO of Outwood Grange Academies Trust