Ofsted thinks the value of the curriculum is self-evident. But is it?

An evolutionary change? No, the regulator's new inspection framework is counter-revolutionary, insists Colin Richards

Colin Richards

Ofsted, curriculum, Colin Richards, new framework

Ofsted is consulting on its proposed inspection framework with a long-overdue emphasis on the curriculum.

If you are the head of a small primary school, you should be concerned about the workload awaiting you in terms of curriculum revision and development.

If you are head of an average-sized primary school or a small secondary, you should be anxious about how you and your staff will cope in the short-to-medium term.

If you consider yourself child-centred, you should be anxious that your professional identity is being threatened.

If you are a teacher in key stage 1 committed to early years principles, you should be concerned about how your practice might be judged in future.

Any framework has to be based on a number of assumptions. Inspectors “trained” on the new education inspection framework will have a not-so-hidden model in their minds as a default setting unless they challenge themselves or are challenged by other professionals to think differently.

So what are some of the major assumptions that the framework already makes about the curriculum?

Back to first principles

The first is the assumed worth of the current national curriculum or, in the case of academies, something close to it.

That the content of that curriculum is valuable and appropriate is taken as read by the constructors of the framework; it is not open to critical inspection. Those schools, especially at the primary stage, that have issues with the appropriateness or level of detail of the current national curriculum could well find their forthcoming inspection a difficult, frustrating or challenging process.

A second assumption is that the curriculum is best described as a collection of separate subjects. The framework places great stress on the extent to which “teachers have good subject knowledge” and their ability to “present subject matter clearly”. Nowhere is it acknowledged that the curriculum could be described and transacted in other terms: as broad areas, as knowledge domains, as areas of experience or whatever.

Nowhere is the possibility raised of interdisciplinary or, dare I say it, “integrated” work. Those who do not share inspectors’ default subject-centred model are likely to have difficulty convincing them of the value of their approaches.

A third assumption is that the curriculum is to be “delivered” from teachers to students through the transmission of knowledge and cultural capital – “the best that has been thought and said”.

The idea that the curriculum at any level could be co-constructed or even, on occasion, negotiated with students has formed no part of the thinking of the framework’s constructors. Schools that willingly find at least some curriculum time for students pursuing their own enquiries could find that practice questioned and adversely judged.

A fourth assumption is that the curriculum is to be delivered through whole-class teaching. Nowhere in the framework is the possibility raised of either group or individual work.

“Adaptive” class teaching (a vague term at best) is assumed to ensure that no students are ever “left behind”, as the class moves inexorably on from one unit of work to the next. Many would question that assumption and would concede that, however difficult, some form of in-class differentiation through group or individual work is necessary on occasion. They could well be criticised by default-mode inspectors for their “unnecessarily elaborate or differentiated approaches”.

Tellingly, the current Ofsted consultation does not ask for responses that either support or challenge those four assumptions. Like the four-point grading scale, they are “non-negotiable”. Their value is regarded as self-evident – but is it?

Unacknowledged controversy

Of course, some schools, perhaps the majority, may share all four of Ofsted’s assumptions. They may not find them at all problematic. The challenge for them is to go forward, planning, implementing and assessing a curriculum to be revised in light of Ofsted’s criteria for “quality of education” – a far-from-straightforward task given the contentious nature of “progression”, “sequencing”, “ambition” and other vague concepts embodied in those criteria.

The challenge for those not sharing one or other, or all of the four assumptions, is likely to be an existential one, with threats to their professional identity along with a very heavy workload in the short-to-medium term.

Unwittingly, or perhaps not, the Ofsted framework currently being consulted on embodies a model of curriculum that is far from value-free or uncontroversial. Some may see it as a positive representation of cultural capital; others as exemplifying back-to-the-Ark thinking.

While having personal sympathy with aspects of the default model, I believe that its controversial nature needs to be acknowledged, confronted and, if necessary, contested.

The chief inspector is wrong in claiming that the proposed inspection framework represents “evolution, not revolution”. Its default position could perhaps be best characterised as "counter-revolution” or even as “counter-reformation”.

Professor Colin Richards is a former staff inspector for the school curriculum at HM Inspectorate of Schools, and editor of its Curriculum Matters series

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Colin Richards

Former primary school teacher, university professor, old fashioned HMI

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