Schools have inadvertently merged the concepts of testing and curriculum, so that they now mean the same things, the Ofsted chief inspector has said.
Ms Spielman chose to review the curriculum as her first priority as chief inspector. Her comments on the curriculum, published this morning, reveal her “striking” conclusion that there is: “little debate or reflection about the curriculum in most schools”.
The research commissioned by Ofsted found that, in many cases, preparing for tests was cutting into children’s learning time.
“Exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round,” she said.
Q: Which pupils are most affected?
A: When working with lower-achieving pupils in particular, she said, schools tended to narrow the curriculum down to subjects that would count towards league-table scores, at the expense of those subjects that might provide broader knowledge.
Q: And which subjects are most affected by this focus on tests?
A: She criticised schools that reduced key stage 3 to two rather than three years, so as to focus on GCSE courses.
“This inevitably means that a considerable number of pupils will be experiencing only two years of study before dropping, for example, history or geography or a language, possibly never to study these subjects again,” she said. “And for most children, the end of key stage 3 is the last time they will take art, music, drama or design and technology.”
Q: Why has this happened?
A: “It seems unlikely that any school has prioritised testing over the curriculum as a deliberate choice,” she said. “It is likely that, in some quarters, testing has come inadvertently to mean the curriculum in its entirety.
“If it is true that curriculum knowledge has weakened across the sector over time, it would explain why there has been a merging of the concepts of testing and the curriculum.”
Q: Is this only a problem for secondary schools?
A: No. Ms Spielman said that an excessive focus on key stage 2 testing was cutting into pupils’ learning time in primary. Around half of the 163 parents questioned by Ofsted believed that test preparation had reduced the teaching time available for other foundation subjects, or for reading for pleasure.
Q: And what did she say about cross-curricular skills?
A: Many schools, she said, focused on teaching “skills”, without defining what those skills were.
“The idea of ‘skills’ was liberally used in many contexts,” she said. “Very rarely was it clear whether the meaning was subject-specific, for example reading skills... “There were many other examples of terms where the meaning was woolly, such as 'progression', 'enrichment', 'questioning' and 'repetition'.”
Q: What could help improve curriculum planning?
A: “School leaders and inspectors discussed the timetable in each school,” she said. “The timetable is important. It is, however, not the curriculum. “Apart from the timetable, there was an absence of other tangible reference points to get to grips with the complex business of curriculum planning. It was evident from these conversations that took place between inspectors and school leaders that there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum.”
In particular, primary-school leaders said that they were finding it increasingly difficult to recruit staff who could design a curriculum. Some headteachers told Ofsted that teacher training was currently too focused on teaching to English and maths tests.
Q: What happens now?
A: This is the first phase of her curriculum review and included research visits to 40 schools, as well as a review of inspection reports, and discussions with headteachers and parents.
The findings issued today are preliminary and have only “begun to scratch the surface of this complex area”.
The full findings will be published in late spring 2018.