The primary curriculum: 'Where has Ofsted been all this time?'

11th October 2017 at 13:23
A former senior Ofsted inspector is delighted that the inspectorate has woken up to its own impact on the curriculum in the primary phase – but worries that it’s too little, too late

As an HMI who advised on the introduction of the national curriculum and later its implementation in primary schools, I find today’s commentary on the curriculum from Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman jaw-dropping. Where has Ofsted been all these years? Why does it take a research programme to reveal what everyone knows and – in the case of the primary curriculum – has known for years and years and years? How is it that Ofsted present their findings as if they were new in some way? It’s as if the author has been in a time-warp for 30 years and has returned to schools to find what are, to her, astonishing developments.

As far as primary education is concerned, the commentary is right but far too late – and naïve, to boot.

Of course, as the report points out, the primary curriculum has narrowed and is still narrowing in a large majority of schools (not in "some", as it indicates) as a consequence of too great a focus on preparing for key stage 2 tests. Of course, Ofsted has played a major part (not "may have helped") in that process. Those messages need to be stated, but they needed to be stated long ago – before so many primary-aged children became test-fodder and were denied their broad curriculum entitlement.

What is missing from the commentary is a genuine mea culpa from an inspection agency fully complicit in the miseducation of so many children by failing to draw sufficient attention to that narrowing of experience.

Pre-Ofsted HMI reports on primary schools contained evaluations of all aspects of the primary curriculum. Albeit in a rough-and-ready way, they commented on standards in those subjects as well as commenting on teaching, learning and curriculum content. In addition, there were publications drawing on interesting practice in a variety of subject areas. There were also comments on whole school curriculum planning.

Post-Ofsted, standards in non-core subjects were deliberately not reported upon and with the introduction of the national strategies, subjects other than mathematics and English started disappearing from reports. So much so that by 2010, in a survey of 40 inspection reports I undertook, mathematics and English were the only subjects referred to in 39 of those cases. In addition, no publications were issued about practice in non-core areas based on specially conducted surveys. How could they when they didn’t feature as important components in a succession of inspection frameworks?

Just as significantly, inspection reports failed to draw attention to an imbalance in the curriculum arising from schools’ understandable need to meet accountable measures in just mathematics and English – one-fifth of the supposed national curriculum. Instead, Ofsted focused on test data in only two subjects when forming overall judgments; schools, understandably but regrettably, did likewise.

Tellingly, the curriculum has not featured as a separate section in Ofsted reports since 2010. It was downgraded in importance by Gove and did not feature as one of the main judgments in a number of inspection frameworks. Yet there is no mention of this omission in Spielman’s commentary; she may not have been there personally to preside over that startling omission, but some of her senior colleagues were. Her comments on the narrowing of the curriculum and the extent of test preparation come over as incredibly naïve.

The commentary is right in pointing out that there has been, and still is, too little debate and reflection about the curriculum, both primary and secondary. Implicitly, school leaders are taken to task for it. But why did it happen? Because the government imposed, rather than negotiated, a national curriculum and instigated a testing regime that in primary schools focused on only two subjects.

Professsor Colin Richards was formerly staff inspector for the curriculum and editor of the Curriculum Matters series

 

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