Why is the national curriculum Ofsted's gold standard?

Academies don't have to follow the national curriculum. But, says Matt Hood, now Ofsted uses it as an informal benchmark, they may have no choice

Gold bars, in a stack

There is a new dawn for the national curriculum

It wasn’t any particular conversation or article I'd read that got me to this realisation. More a collection of opinion pieces, presentations and conversations at different levels in the system over a few days. 

Something felt missing from them all – and then there it was. I’m not sure how I missed it: the national curriculum is now the informal benchmark within the new Ofsted framework

Is the school’s key stage 3 curriculum “as ambitious” as the national curriculum? Is languages teaching at key stage 2 “commensurate” with the national curriculum? Is citizenship “comparable” at key stage 4?

If you want a "good" inspection grade, the national curriculum now matters. A lot. 

'Good' is relative

This isn’t a surprise. "Good" is relative in this case, so “'Good', compared with what?” was always going to be a question Ofsted had to answer. 

It is, however, causing some problems: specifically, a clash between the framework and academy freedoms. 

Within the school where I am chair, we’ve been asking ourselves about computing at key stage 4. It’s currently an option for pupils, but do we need to make it compulsory? 

Last year the answer was no: we thought it was right that it was an option but not compulsory, and that’s all there was to it. 

This year, I’m not so sure, because we now have to answer whether our key stage 4 computing curriculum is “as ambitious” as the national curriculum. That’s a very different question.

The national curriculum says that all pupils should study computing at key stage 4, and sets out that all pupils should be taught to “develop their capability, creativity and knowledge in computer science, digital media and information technology”. 

If we’re offering computing as an option that only some pupils will take, can we argue that at the subject level our curriculum is “as ambitious”? And can we risk losing that argument if an inspector shows up?

Choose your own curriculum

Before the new framework, this wasn’t an issue for us, as it wasn’t for many schools. Why? Gove’s academy freedoms. 

We’re a secondary academy, and so we don’t have to follow the national curriculum. That was part of the deal. But the new framework has shaken things up.

On one hand, the government has given academies the freedom to choose their own curriculum. On the other, the inspectorate is using the national curriculum as the benchmark for what (at least) "good" looks like. Schools are stuck in the middle, walking a pretty high-stakes tightrope. We deserve some clarity. 

So how do we resolve this? Let’s start where I think we all agree. 

We agree that pupils are entitled to a broad and balanced education throughout their time at school. 

It should have a focus on literacy and numeracy early on, and it’s right to allow some limited specialisation at the end of key stage 3 and more still at the end of key stage 4. 

This gives pupils a rich understanding of the best of what has been thought, said, written, sung, danced and painted, and keeps their options open until they’re ready to make the first steps towards a career. The national curriculum is one example of what this might look like.

Outcomes matter

We agree that outcomes from this education matter. We measure some of these outcomes through tests and exams, and so they matter too. 

Of course, we need to guard against them being the only thing that matters. But, as John Tomsett says: “Ultimately, the best pastoral care for socio-economically disadvantaged students is a good set of GCSE grades.”

And, finally, we agree that it makes sense for Ofsted and the DfE to look at different yet related things when it comes to schools. It’s a good thing to have some tension between a qualitative inspectorate looking at a broad and balanced education, and a data-driven DfE looking at quantitative outcomes. 

When all that mattered in inspections was your data, what was the point? But if all that matters is your offer and not the outcomes it yields, that’s pointless too.

Tricky question

Now we get to the tricky question of how we achieve this.

Whether we agree or not, academies don’t have to follow the national curriculum. Until ministers decide otherwise, it’s unfair to move that particular goal post. 

That doesn’t give schools carte blanche to do what they like. It doesn’t mean that Ofsted can’t take a position.

But it certainly gives schools a wide scope for designing a curriculum that they think is right for their pupils. And it’s reasonable for that freedom to include what to study and for how long. The national curriculum is just one example among many.

If schools are outside of that scope (for example, extreme narrowing of the curriculum very early on), they are going to have to get used to being called out for dodgy practices by Ofsted – and rightly so. 

Any system with incentives has gaming and the inspectorate plays an important role in challenging the small number of schools that take part in it.

That said, Ofsted need to be – and to be seen to be – more open to different models. If the reports I’m hearing are true, inspectors need to stop using the national curriculum as a minimum entitlement – it’s not. It is one example of what a full curriculum might look like. 

Ofsted should look at whether the whole curriculum is ambitious, in order to call out the worst cases of gaming. 

But they must be more cautious about calling out a curriculum because it doesn’t have the same ingredients as the national curriculum. 

It’s not fair to school leaders in the system of “freedom” we have created, as they have to take things out of the national curriculum in order to find space to put their own things in. This process will be helped further if inspectors double down on their commitment to giving schools time to implement curriculum changes.

There is a debate to be had about a new compulsory national curriculum, and whether it’s a good thing. But we haven’t had it yet. 

Until we do, academies’ freedoms have to take precedence. Giving school leaders clarity is critical, because this impasse isn’t good for anyone – not least when there is so much on which we agree.

Matt Hood is chair at Bay Leadership Academy. 

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