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'Why are Ofsted and the DfE split on curriculum?'

Ofsted aims to help to deliver a broad curriculum – and the DfE has said it wants the same thing, says Stephen Rollett

Ofsted and the DfE shouldn't be at loggerheads over the curriculum, says Ofsted aims to help to deliver a broad curriculum – and the DfE has said it wants the same thing, says Stephen Rollett

Ofsted aims to help to deliver a broad curriculum – and the DfE has said it wants the same thing, says Stephen Rollett

If reports over the summer are to be believed, there is a simmering tension between Ofsted and the Department for Education over the direction of the inspectorate’s new framework. I worry that, if this is the case, it is schools and pupils who will lose out.

Her Majesty's chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has been consistent over the past year in arguing that inspection must look more at the curriculum. This is partly driven by the view that a counterbalance is needed to the overbearing weight that performance measures bring to bear in the accountability system -– exam results should be part of the picture, but not the whole picture.

Spielman draws on the notion of curriculum entitlement; that young people are entitled to a challenging, "broad and balanced" curriculum. In doing so, she sometimes leans on 19th-century social commentator Matthew Arnold’s famous assertion that schools must teach the "best that has been thought and said". 

How remarkable, then, that the DfE seems so troubled by this. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that Michael Gove was calling for much the same in the school curriculum, even summoning the same Matthew Arnold quote to boot.

A 2014 speech from the then secretary of state for education reminds us of the sort of rhetoric which underpinned the recent GCSE reforms: “I want every child to be able to go to a state school which excels, which nurtures their talents, which introduces them to the best that has been thought and written, which prepares them for the world of work and adult responsibility, which imbues them with the strength of character to withstand life’s adversities and treat other humans with courtesy and dignity, which gives them the chance to appreciate art and culture, to enjoy music and drama, to participate in sport and games, which nurtures intellectual curiosity and which provides a secure grounding in the practical skills the modern world requires.”

'Corrosive' accountability

There is little here to disagree with as an ambition – much of the sentiment sounds right. If you unpick the grand expressions, what he was talking about was the need for a broad, balanced and challenging curriculum. He wasn’t talking about performance measures.

We can now see, however, that, whatever the rhetoric, many of Michael Gove’s reforms have had entirely the opposite effect. For example, on results day the only conversations I heard around the creative arts were about the extent of a downward trend in entries to these subjects – quite the opposite of the "chance to appreciate art and culture" he pitched in 2014.

In part, this was because the term "curriculum" became too readily associated merely with the diet of qualifications and courses schools served up to their pupils. Courses were abruptly removed from performance tables, exams were reformed and measures of performance were altered. Performance measures became the lever through which government enacted curriculum change.

Meanwhile, far too little investment was made in terms of the money, trust and support necessary for schools to really grapple with the "substance" of the curriculum.

It now appears that Ofsted has picked up the curriculum mantle. The emerging signs are that schools will be encouraged to think more deeply about the entirety of their curriculum, not just GCSE options and entry patterns – though I’m sure this would be part of the picture. It seems likely there will be a greater focus on understanding the values and thinking which underpin curriculum decisions.

If done well, the greatest benefit of this will be felt on the many days inspectors are not in schools, rather than the relatively few they are. Curriculum thinking encourages schools and teachers to think as subject specialists, to grapple with the choices they make about what they teach and to think more coherently about the curriculum narratives pupils experience across time. It should mean spending less time on soulless data tracking and more time on what teachers came into the job to do.

It is, however, only rhetoric at this stage, and that makes me nervous. As someone who regularly picks up the phone to distraught and disillusioned headteachers on the wrong side of an Ofsted inspection, I am naturally concerned about Ofsted’s capacity to deliver this grand vision.

But I’m also aware of the opportunity that the new framework could provide for those many schools I speak to that tell me how corrosive the current accountability narrative is. Most importantly, I sense there is an opportunity here to focus the collective minds of schools and inspectors on trying to ensure that pupils are better served than under the status quo.

So, rather than Ofsted and the DfE being at loggerheads, we need all relevant bodies to regain a little policy memory. If they do, they’ll find common ground. At a time of financial misery and a recruitment and retention crisis, the education landscape is challenging enough. Schools need joined-up thinking from policymakers if they’re to do the best by young people. 

Stephen Rollett is the inspections and accountability specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders 

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