OFSTED discovers the curriculum

OFSTED discovers the curriculum

As the regulatory body for our schools, Ofsted has shown surprisingly little interest in the curriculum. Schools have been evaluated in terms of their outcomes, the quality of leadership and management, the effectiveness of teaching and the effectiveness of their provision for pupils’ welfare and personal development. The central purpose of schools has, however, always been to teach subjects and areas of knowledge. How schools organise frameworks for the knowledge and understanding they intend to teach about, how effectively they implement this in ways which are relevant to their context and how they evaluate the effectiveness of the curriculum in enabling pupils gains in knowledge and understanding has not been a central concern of Ofsted inspectors. This seems rather to be like inspecting the effectiveness of the school’s processes and procedures without seeking to evaluate how successful the school is achieving its core function. This marginalisation of the curriculum is even more surprising given that the National Curriculum applies to fewer and fewer schools and that successive ministers have encouraged schools to take advantage of the freedom they have to design curriculum. This was to change with the appointment of the new chief inspector Amanda Spielman in 2017.

From her appointment Armanda Spielman declared that the curriculum should be more of a central concern for Ofsted and Ofsted responded by launching a curriculum survey and by providing guidance to inspectors on the evaluation of school curriculums. Ofsted has, of course, no prescribed model of the curriculum and is more interested in questions about how the school constructs its curriculum framework and how it ensures that this supports learning. However, in the theoretical concepts Ofsted puts together from academic disciplines to define and conceptualise the curriculum, a set of principles about curriculum emerges. From cognitive psychology comes theories of learning and progress which emphasise changes in long term memory as a result of the growth of knowledge and understanding which accelerates learning and enables pupils to deploy and make connections between learning. From the sociology of education (in particular from the work of Michael Young) comes the idea of ‘powerful knowledge’ which is distinct from common sense knowledge and refers to the systematic organisation of knowledge within the defined fields subject disciplines. The implications for curriculum are significant. If learning is about long-term memory and a deep body of knowledge it is not best measured through pupils’ short term ability to jump through mark-scheme hoops. Equally if the curriculum should be about the important knowledge and understanding of subject disciplines then a curriculum with an over emphasis on the development of general and learning skills misses the point and sells pupils short.

The ‘curriculum turn’ by Ofsted is to be welcomed. It should focus school inspection on the core function of the school, ensure that the whole curriculum is evaluated and encourage a much-needed debate on the effectiveness of curriculum design, implementation and evaluation. However, some cautionary words are necessary. Firstly, Ofsted’s interest in the curriculum is unlikely to have an immediate effect on inspection judgements. Currently just 3 of the Ofsted handbook’s 49 criteria for outstanding have any direct reference to the curriculum. We will have to wait for the next change in the Ofsted framework in 2019 to see if the evaluation of the curriculum will have a significant impact on the process of inspection.

Secondly raiding disciplines such as the sociology of education enables us to identify some useful concepts to talk about curriculum but curriculum theories and the theories of knowledge within which they are embedded are complex and contested and in the evaluation of the curriculum raise many questions. Powerful knowledge is distinct from common sense knowledge but how does powerful knowledge relate to vocational and non-traditional subjects. Furthermore are cross curriculum themes and the wider goals of the curriculum an impediment to subject progress and does topic work reinforce understanding or weaken progression in ‘powerful’ subjects? Powerful knowledge resides in the systematic knowledge of subject disciplines and the production of knowledge is generated within them by subject specific communities. The production of knowledge remains, however a social process subject to conflict and change. Traditional subjects are not, therefore, immutable and fixed and there is every prospect of new subjects and new definitions of existing subjects emerging. We need to be aware of change in what constitutes ‘powerful subjects’ and adopt a dynamic model of curriculum.

Ofsted has largely ignored the discussions and debates over the curriculum for the last few decades. It now needs to be aware of the complexity of curriculum to ensure that discussions with schools will be supportive and meaningful.