Where schools (and Ofsted) are getting curriculum wrong

Ofsted has a very narrow view of what curriculum is and schools have not been given the skills or freedom to innovate, according to academic Mark Priestley

Jon Severs

Curriculum ofsted

How comfortable are you with theorising, developing and enacting a curriculum? What about assessing how well that curriculum is performing?

In England, this is essentially what Ofsted is demanding of schools, but speaking on the latest episode of the Tes Podagogy podcast (you can listen on the player below), Professor Mark Priestley explains why this is problematic.

First, the professor of education at the University of Stirling and world-renowned curriculum expert argues the view of curriculum in England – at all levels from policy to classroom – is too narrow.

“On one level, it's very welcome Ofsted has brought curriculum back into the conversation because it's something I think that had disappeared for years,” he says. “[But] one of the issues I have with the Ofsted approach is that it narrows curriculum down to discussions largely about content, and it separates out the content from other practices, which for me are fundamentally part of curriculum planning."

Ofsted curriculum focus

“I'd like to see a much more holistic view of curriculum…. curriculum practices would include selection of content, but they would also include pedagogy, assessment, provision and a whole range of other activities, through which education is structured.”

He argues, too, that the idea schools have free rein to develop a curriculum is misleading.

“It is welcome schools have autonomy in developing the curriculum, but an important point here is that autonomy is not the same as agency – you can actually give people lots of autonomy, hand over responsibility and effectively disable them from exercising any agency at all,” he says.

“What we've seen since the early 1990s is policy that has sought to regulate teachers through outcomes. What this sort of regulation does is, it can constrain people's thinking, it constrains innovation. And it also encourages people to think about curriculum planning in terms of satisfying external performance indicators…rather than thinking big about what sort of young person do we want to emerge from an educational process and how do we develop a programme that is best going to achieve that.

“So often you get a very piecemeal fragmented approach driven by the need to evidence particular learning outcomes for example, which lose sight of this big picture... It becomes very risky as well. If you are being judged according to external indicators, and you're suddenly being asked to innovate, innovation is a risky business. And you're going to be very cautious about it.”

Skills gap

Even if you did get a broader definition of curriculum to work within and have real agency to develop a curriculum, Priestley believes teachers simply haven’t been giving the skills to develop curriculum properly – the speed of Ofsted’s shift has not given time for teachers to get that training, either, he says.

“When I meet people who were teaching in the 1980s, they have a good understanding of curriculum development principles,” he explains. “If I talk to people who have developed their careers since the mid-1990s. I see far less evidence of that.”

He says the regulation by outcome mentioned above is a key reason for this, and it is this that means curriculum development skills are so lacking.

“In that sort of climate, we then suddenly expect teachers to become in charge of curriculum development instead of being told what to do. It's hardly surprising that those teachers will not have the technical knowledge to do it.”

Subject silos

Priestley goes on to discuss steps to building an effective curriculum, the lessons from Curriculum for Scotland and the role of cognitive science in curriculum development.   

“The findings of [cognitive science] present a very linear view of learning,” he says. “I would rather see an approach to education that is based on values, philosophy, and also the community, so it's not just about learning, it's not just about the psychology.

“So, for me, the starting point has to be purposes. We need to consider what knowledge do young people need in order to engage critically and meaningfully with the world. What sort of skills do we need to develop? And we really need to be talking about a balance between knowledge and skills.

"I would also suggest that we need to think about the communities that young people are in – one of the purposes of education is also about developing more cohesive communities and better communities as well.

“Once we clear on those, then we can start doing things like selecting content and pedagogy and at that point taking account of the insights from cognitive science, taking account of the need to develop pedagogy which is dialogical, because we know from other research which is often neglected by the advocates of cognitive science that actually people learn through dialogue. But they're not purposes and not endpoints.

“Similarly subjects for me are not purposes, they're one way of organising content knowledge in the curriculum. Other methods, including interdisciplinary working and integrated curriculum are, other ways of doing it and one of the decisions that schools have to make when they decide what the purposes of their curriculum are is what is the best way to achieve this… I'm not advocating we move away from disciplinary knowledge I think it's very important, but I am suggesting here that there are better ways of organising than we currently have.”

You can listen to the podcast on the player above or by typing ‘Tes – the education podcast’ into your podcast platform (including Spotify)


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Jon Severs

Jon Severs is editor of Tes

Find me on Twitter @jon_severs

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