'What does Ofsted really want to see from school curricula?'

Instead of overhauling the curriculum, let's focus on sequencing it: making sure that learning builds on what went before

Sequence curriculum

It won’t have escaped your attention that curriculum is the next big thing. Of course, you may have thought that curriculum had been around for years, but now everything you thought you were doing under the heading of curriculum needs looking at again because you-know-who has decided it’s a big priority. Curriculum is no longer the stuff we put on our curriculum plans; now it’s the stuff that Ofsted inspectors scrutinise when they come to check if we're up to scratch.

I can’t be the only one who finds this absolutely bonkers. We’ve had a centralised school inspectorate for a quarter of a century, and now they’ve decided that curriculum is worth looking at. I guess you could argue that, for many of those years, curriculum wasn’t really a matter for schools anyway. The department issued the national strategies, and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority provided the framework plans for foundation subjects. All teachers had to do was work out how to squeeze them into the school day.

Then, after the change of government in 2010, things took a different turn. Free of the old strategies – and, for many schools, free of the national curriculum altogether – the central dictation was scaled back.


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Very few schools completely abandoned the foundation subjects, of course. I challenge anybody to show me a primary school that doesn’t include the occasional history topic or take infant children out to look at the falling leaves each autumn. And in truth, for all the talk of freedom from the national curriculum, most primaries are pretty happy to make use of the framework to plan learning for their pupils.

Sign up to sequencing

But something else is lying at the centre of the new inspection handbooks, and it’s a key aspect that perhaps – if we’re honest – we’ve not given enough thought to in the past. Sequencing the curriculum is where much of the focus needs to be. It’s not enough to have done some history: we need to know that what our children learn each year builds on what went before.

I remember in my early years as a teacher coming to the end of a unit on medieval history only to discover that more than one pupil in my class had confused the characters of Henry II and Henry VIII in their minds. The fact that I’d never once mentioned six wives or monasteries seemed academic to them: all they’d retained from Year 5 was that a fat guy called Henry was an important king. Why should they think this Henry was someone else?

That’s not to say that teaching things in order will solve the problem. Rather, it requires us to think about what we expect our children to know. When I taught medieval history, I didn’t make links to the Tudors because that topic had been two years earlier and I hadn’t taught it. On reflection, of course, the very place I should have started was the links to what they already knew. At the very least, the premise that Henry VIII was so called because there had been seven prior Henrys might have been a start!

So maybe we don’t need to overhaul the curriculum at all. Very few schools have completely ignored the call for a broad and balanced curriculum. But how many schools are genuinely clear about what we expect children to recall from earlier topics – maybe even those topics from five years earlier?

Perhaps just asking that question might lead us to look again at topics we teach and ask: what do we hope our pupils will remember for future teachers? And then, we can adapt our curriculum accordingly.

Michael Tidd is headteacher at Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979

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