'Ofsted needs to take responsibility for the narrow, dry curriculum that puts our children off school'

12th October 2017 at 17:09
Curriculum and assessment
Amanda Spielman may have realised that the curriculum desperately needs to change, but she still points the finger of blame at teachers and schools, writes Nancy Gedge

I’ve been a teacher a long time, since 1994 in fact. Over the years, I have been witness to the things that Amanda Spielman, new Ofsted chief, spoke of in her speech yesterday. A speech that I finally found time to read in the evening, while I was supposed to be watching TV. Such was my irritation that I now find myself cranking up the laptop on the train as I whoosh through the early morning countryside on my way to work.

You see, what annoys me is not that the chief inspector has noticed that the curriculum (you know, the one that has cost so much money over the years), for a lot of children, is not the thing that we all hoped it would be.

It is not a "treasure house of riches" (that’s a quote from the foreword of the latest iteration), but a narrow, dry diet. In my view – and I am sure I am not alone in this – the curriculum is not opening up new opportunities and new ideas, or widening horizons. It is not, dare I say it, fun for its own sake, or even interesting. No, instead, the curriculum puts children off education and makes school the very last place that they want to be.

For seven years, ever since I stepped away from domesticity and back into my professional life, I have been aware that my expertise in music, in history, in design and technology, in curriculum planning, is not valued. It might help you get a job if you happen to get an old-fashioned headteacher reading your application. But otherwise, you're in trouble. After all, what we mostly teach is maths and English, and what do you know about that?

Teachers have known about this for a while; this story of narrowing and dryness, of maths and English in the morning and again in the afternoon, of a lack of access to the arts, to PE, to DT. I notice children, my own included, enjoying these fading subjects to such a degree that they skip off to school in the morning because looking at their timetable, today is their favourite day (and you can concentrate and multiply this effect for children with SEND – the "lower attaining" – let’s call it what it is). Yes, teachers have known about this for a while, but now parents, politicians, journalists and even inspectors have got wind of what's happening to the curriculum.

I’ve written about it lots of times before, such is my consternation. Here’s a description of my daughter’s recent experience.

But this is not why I am irritated, annoyed enough to sit here typing, worried that my fellow travellers might spill their coffee on my new computer. Working for an educational charity with a national voice, the Driver Youth Trust, I have the opportunity (unlike many of my former colleagues) to escape the powerless trap and feel, at least, as if I am doing something about it.

I am cross because of the apportioning of blame. In her speech, the chief inspector doesn’t just draw a picture and reassure the profession that she is going to do something about it – that would be a welcome pronouncement. She refuses to take, for the organisation she heads, one jot of responsibility. Instead, she points the finger of blame at teachers and schools.

Now, I know that schools aren’t perfect. They are human institutions made up of human people, just like me, who make mistakes, just like I do. But I do know this: the actions they take on the curriculum are driven not by the demands of the curriculum itself, but by fear. The fear of the punitive accountability that is enacted through our inspection system in the name of making schools better. The fear, to put it even more plainly, of Ofsted. 

And here’s the thing. Here’s the thing that hurts me: when, as the parent of a disabled child, you really need your school to be accountable to you, in the interests of your child, they aren’t.

Nancy Gedge is a consultant teacher for the charity the Driver Youth Trust, working with school and teachers on SEND. She is the Tes SEND specialist, and author of Inclusion for Primary Teachers

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