'Ofsted seems to think schools can be both a well-oiled exam factory and a version of Hogwarts'

One experienced teacher gently picks apart Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman's recent report on the curriculum

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Spielman writes: "It is certainly possible that this ambiguity and lack of shared understanding expose competing notions of what curriculum means across the sector. However, the most likely explanation is that this arises from a weak theoretical understanding of curriculum. This was confirmed by school leaders, who said that there was a time (long ago) when teachers were taught the theory that underpins curriculum planning. Over time, this competence across the sector ebbed away."

School leaders simply don't have time to sit around theorising about the theory behind a curriculum. In some cases, they don’t even have time to look at the imprint for each discreet subject in their school, let alone to swot up on the various intricacies of curriculum design within that subject. Of course, some of this dearth of time can be attributed to managing the lives of anywhere up to 1,000 children as well as perhaps 100 or more staff who look after them. But much of it can be attributed elsewhere: Ofsted and the DfE have been a drain on every teacher’s time for the last 20 years by introducing one new, often ill-advised, policy after another with a need to embed it quickly.

When Spielman says it was a “long time ago” that school leaders sat down and properly considered the curriculum, it was probably circa the advent of her own organisation. Ofsted's work has often made schools much more like the “exam factories” she rails against.

In a nutshell, Spielman draws the conclusion that the reason for children not making enough progress in school comes down to senior leadership teams failing to understand “curriculum” rather than the workload and stress created by the excessive accountability system her own organisation promotes and upholds. There is much more evidence that the latter has wreaked untold havoc – think insane staff turnover and absence rates and the demands on the average classroom teacher’s time of policy after policy that’s enforced paper filling on a grand scale. 

"A more recent phenomenon in secondary schools is a curriculum shift in key stage 3, particularly since the removal of key stage 3 Sats. We have previously raised concerns about teaching and progress in our report Key stage 3: the wasted years? Ten of the 23 secondary schools visited for this current survey were reducing key stage 3 to just a 2-year period of study."

The reason for schools banking on three-year GCSE courses isn't because they've suddenly forgotten that the curriculum is important. This trend started in the 1990s and early 2000s when Ofsted started to ruthlessly judge schools on their results; purely on attainment to begin with, now on a mixture of attainment and progress. If jobs are on the line, the temptation to teach children to an exam can be – and has been – overwhelming for many. While expecting school leaders to introduce some kind of Victorian version of a curriculum and have children reciting Latin under trees is romantic, the cold, hard reality is that some school leaders don't see this as "productive" or conducive to getting results. I can only sympathise with them – caught between creating a well-oiled exam factory and a version of Hogwarts.

Amanda Spielman seems to feel you can have both, and this kind of "knowledge-rich curriculum" can get the results, too. She could be right or wrong, but experiments in this respect are in their infancy. Furthermore, suggesting school leaders are making these curriculum decisions based on a lack of belief or understanding of “a better way” overlooks her own organisation's complicity in making them quiver over innovation and curriculum reform.

"It should also not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils. If a pupil gains valuable knowledge, for instance in history, but does not get a grade 4, they will still be better educated for having studied it."

Spielman's proclamation that it's better to have studied history and got a level 4 than to have chosen a so-called vocational route makes my skin crawl. This narrative is built on the presumption that the EBacc subjects are "better" or more valuable than the rest. This falls under the "knowing something is better than being able to create something" bracket.

This is an unfortunate view and one that not only runs counter to reality (art is challenging and has proven its importance) but also to the fact that the creative industries are worth about £85 billion to the UK economy, a fact brushed under the carpet to suit an agenda. Granted, Spielman references useless vocational courses as the problem behind the introduction of the EBacc, but she fails to point out that other, much more mainstream subjects, are being pushed out too. If I had a son or daughter who had a talent for art or design or drama or business or media, then I wouldn't take kindly to someone telling me that's it's better they take a different subject (which they may dislike) and fail it because Ofsted knows best.

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Ofsted's role in all that's gone wrong in this education system has been monumental. Their recent "myths" campaign, telling teachers where they have "misunderstood" the inspectorate, can't cover up the gross impediment Ofsted has been to schools in recent history. Ofsted is responsible; it is responsible for good school leaders losing their jobs and having breakdowns, responsible for young teachers feeling like they've failed before they've even started, responsible for facilitating the draconian accountability structures prevalent in some schools and responsible for turning a blind eye to leadership teams who embrace huge staff turnover as though it was a weekly Tesco food shop.

Ofsted is responsible for not levelling the playing field for schools in deprived areas, responsible for change after change to what marking and assessment should look like and responsible for its own grading system, which has come to represent so much that's wrong with our education system.

Sorry, Ofsted, but please take the plank from your own eye before you start to take the specks out of others.

Thomas Rogers is a teacher who runs rogershistory.com and tweets @RogersHistory

For more columns by Tom, view his back catalogue

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