Is there a battle brewing over Ofsted’s curriculum plans?

Significant concerns about plans to inspect schools' approach to the curriculum are being raised – including at the DfE

Ed Dorrell

War Editorial

Just when you thought peace had been declared in education’s little chunk of Whitehall, another turf war breaks out.

Unlike most internal government scraps, this one could have serious repercussions for schools, and how and what they teach. 

Fresh from seeing off the expansive regional schools commissioners and their incursion into the realm of inspection, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman is now facing a battle over the curriculum.

It’s long been trailed that Spielman has her sights set on encouraging heads and teachers to step away from teaching to the test (be it Sats in primary or GCSEs in secondary) and think more deeply about what is taught in their schools, ensuring their pupils have a rich and varied education.

This agenda, we were told, would be set out in the new 2019 inspection framework, due to be released for consultation this autumn – after a significant period of research.

And then, at the weekend, there it was (or at least part of it) on the front page of The Sunday Times, almost certainly leaked from within Ofsted. We were told that the inspectorate was planning to punish “exam factory schools”. More specifically, schools would no longer be judged by their “outcomes” but by the “quality of education” they provided.

This would be a significant change in direction for Ofsted and one that would be welcomed in many quarters. There are few things that unite teaching’s disparate factions more than a mutual loathing of teaching to the test and inspection that can’t see beyond exam results.

But the idea doesn’t come without its critics, and these concerns – largely vocalised behind closed doors – are centred on two things. First, the readiness of both Ofsted's workforce and schools to discuss the curriculum. Second, whether the supposedly politically neutral inspectorate is in a position to judge something so subjective.

The potential problem for Ofsted is that some of these critics hold senior positions in government.

The Department for Education, which is gaining confidence under its new-ish secretary of state, Damian Hinds, is worried about the development and is, I understand, pushing back. While incredibly subtle, the official response to The Sunday Times story was telling: it went much further than the usual “we don’t comment on rumours” and set out a defence of the status quo:

"We do not comment on speculation. Exams and assessments have always been one of several measures to judge a school's performance and this will continue.

"All children should have a broad, balanced and rounded education. We have always made this clear and the Ofsted inspection framework already ‎requires schools to demonstrate this.

"Our exams are on par with the world's best education systems and will ensure young people have the knowledge and skills businesses tell us they need from their future employees.”

I understand that officials are concerned, unsurprisingly, about protecting their patch. Reviewing curricula has historically been overseen and commissioned by the DfE and its ministers and civil servants are naturally predisposed to reject any erosion of their sphere of influence.

Like many others, they are also worried about the capacity of Ofsted – which is leaking staff to multi-academy trusts and nearly always has question marks hanging over the quality of its inspectors – to deliver on this change in direction.

However, another significant concern is that a move into the inspection of the curriculum would take Ofsted – which is supposed to be a neutral, apolitical watchdog – in a political direction.

For those who sympathise with her position, it’s one thing having Spielman – a pragmatist with traditionalist leanings – running Ofsted. It’s would be another thing altogether if a Jeremy Corbyn-led government were to nominate her successor. What would such an HMCI judge to be a successful curriculum?

But what can the DfE and Hinds do? This cat is out of Ofsted’s bag. It would take a major political campaign to put it back in, and any such move would put Spielman in an invidious position. She has a lot of her own political collateral invested in this project.

If ministers and civil servants were to try to force a U-turn, then this private scrap could quickly become a very public row.

Ed Dorrell is head of content at Tes

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