Ofsted researches curriculum focus to plan for future inspections

4 Jan

I           The Consultation

From 16 January 2019, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman begins a consultation on the new Education Inspection Framework (EIF).   The focus on inspections is to be rebalanced.  Previously, outcomes was under the microscope – more so than progress – which had been stressing out headteachers and school/academy staff alike.   The current proposal is on refocusing inspections on the quality of education, including curriculum intent, implementation and impact.

To ensure that inspecting the quality of education is valid and reliable, she commissioned a major, two-year research study into the curriculum.   Inspectors visited 40 schools/academies in phase 1, 23 in phase 2 and 64 schools in phase 3[1]. There were also focus groups, reviews of inspection reports and other exercises undertaken.

Mrs Spielman said: “…….at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.

“Without a curriculum, a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school. Without receiving knowledge, pupils have learned nothing, and no progress has been made – whatever the measures might indicate.”  Exams should exist to serve the curriculum rather than the other way around. The dog must wag the tail not the tail the dog.  While exams were the best measure of how successfully knowledge was transmitted to young people, any test was just a sample of the knowledge that was gained. The curriculum goes well beyond that.

Knowledge appears to be like the cosmos and seems to have no boundaries in both, time and space.   Accordingly, an excellent school/academy makes careful choices between the breadth and depth of the curriculum it adopts and pursues, drawing on appropriate resources and deciding what to teach mindful of the opportunities available for pupils to develop new concepts.

This should be grounded firmly in a consensus of what knowledge and concepts should be handed over to the next generation to help that generation succeed and flourish.

The judgements inspectors currently make when they inspect a school/academy are on the

  • effectiveness of leadership and management;
  • quality of teaching, learning and assessment;
  • personal development, behaviour and welfare of the pupils; and
  • outcomes for children and learners.

In a press release on 11 October 2018, Mrs Spielman said that the quality of education will take pride of place replacing teaching, learning and assessment, i.e. processes and outcomes.

Accordingly, considerable weight will be given to primary schools/academies for prioritising phonics to enable children to become literate. Inspectors will also applaud schools/academies that encourage older pupils to read widely and deeply.  Inspectors will be looking closely at whether secondary schools and academies are offering children a broad range of subjects, encouraging them to take up the core Ebacc GCSE subjects, such as humanities and languages along with the arts and creative subjects.

Simultaneously, one can expect inspectors to look askance at schools/academies that spend too much time preparing young people for tests and exams at the expense of teaching. They will closely question why choices are narrow when they are and ask for the rationale of less rigorous qualifications when they are offered, particularly because many schools/academies engage in this practice to boost their positions in the examinations league tables.

Three other judgements will be made on

  • pupils’ personal development;
  • pupils’ behaviour and attitudes; and
  • school’s/academy’s leadership and management

Mrs Spielman proposes to split the third of the four current inspection judgements, i.e. “personal development, welfare and behaviour”, into two distinct areas in recognition of the difference between behaviour and discipline at schools/academies (on the one hand) with youngsters wider personal development to become active, healthy and engaged citizens and fly high in life (on the other).

In addition to the above, she intends to continue with the overall “effectiveness” judgement awarded on a four-point grading scale.

Announcing these changes on 11 October 2018 at the Schools North-East Conference, Mrs Spielman said she would leave plenty of space for diversity, but “discourage things that just aren’t good enough”.

She is mindful of the excessive workload that has been detrimental to recruiting and retaining good teachers, driving them out of the country or into other professions.  She also wishes to make an inspection more of a “conversation about what actually happens in schools (and academies)” and promises to acknowledge and reward those institutions that operate with integrity.

She is a Chief Inspection in a hurry. The effects of educational changes are not immediate to perceive.  It takes years to implement and embed properly.  At the same time delaying – even by a year – can affect the life-chances of more than eight million children.

Moving the focus from outcomes to the broad and balanced curriculum will recognise and reward the work of schools and academies in highly disadvantaged areas.   It may also compel schools and academies to desist from gaming the system, offloading children when they are on the cusps of taking tests and examinations.

She feels confident that the new Standard Assessment Tests (SATs) at Key Stage 2 and the revised GCSEs and A-level qualifications are marked improvements on their predecessors and at the right level of rigour. She does not think that there will be a tension between the promotion of these tests and exams on the one hand and a good curriculum on the other.  However, this is predicated on the “good curriculum” being the mother of the “good results” – not the other way around.  She is sure that this will be the case, but the jury is out until her proposals translate into action and research tests the impact.

II          The Research

Ofsted’s three phased research was a bit of an eye-opener.  In phase one, the researchers attempted “to understand more about the current state of curricular thinking in schools” and academies.   They discovered – no surprise – that teachers were engaging in a narrowed curriculum to improve their schools’/academies’ standings in the test/exam league tables, rather than giving more thought to providing a broad and balanced one to develop children’s thinking and skills.  They concluded that headteachers and their staffs hardly debated or reflected on the curriculum.

Headteachers and teachers discussed the timetables, but there “was an absence of other tangible reference points to get to grips with the complex business of curricular planning”.   In discussions with the schools/academy leaders, the inspectors-researchers concluded that there was a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum.  The notion of “skills” was used freely in different contexts. Rarely it was clear that they were subject specific (such as reading skills) or included personal skills such as the ability to work in a team, cognitive skills, critical thinking or life-skills such as how to pay bills and apply for jobs.   Other examples of woolliness were meanings given to “progression”, “enrichment”, “questioning” and “repetition”.

Several eons ago, teachers were taught the theory that underpinned good curricular planning.   That aspect of learning is now conspicuous by its absence.   Tests and examination results have driven curricular planning.    With the establishment of a slimmed-down national curriculum, a poor situation has become worse.

Primary school leaders told Ofsted that recruiting teachers who could design a curriculum was very difficult.  They thought that much of what trainee teachers currently learnt focused on teaching to the English and mathematics tests, with little or no attention to developing rounded curricular knowledge.

A reduction of the local authority support services because of the financial squeeze has exacerbated the decline in expertise on which they can draw.

Mrs Spielman accepted that the inspection process was partly to blame, playing “too great a role in intensifying performance data rather than complementing it”.    She added that the result of all the changes have been as follows.

  • First, the primary curriculum is narrowing in some schools because of too great a focus on preparing for key stage 2 tests.
  • Second, leaders have often misunderstood the purpose of key stage 3 and the new GCSE assessment criteria.
  • Third, the intended curriculum for lower-attaining pupils in some secondary schools was often associated with the qualifications that count in league tables but not with other knowledge the pupils should be acquiring.

Phase 2 of the research sought to look at those schools/academies that had invested in curricular design with a view to raising standards via the curriculum.  Even though the inspectors-researchers went to a different cadre of schools/academies, they found many common features with those they saw in phase 1 – related to curricular quality, which, if successful would normally focus on

  • the importance of subjects as individual disciplines;
  • using the curriculum to address disadvantage and provide equality of opportunity;
  • regular curriculum review;
  • using the curriculum as the progression model;
  • intelligent use of assessment to inform curriculum design;
  • retrieval of core knowledge baked into the curriculum;
  • distributed curriculum leadership;

In phase 3, the inspector-researchers sought to ascertain how Ofsted might inspect aspects of curriculum quality, including whether the factors above could apply across a much broader range of schools/academies.

Ofsted concluded from this study that both, intent and implementation, were equally important.  Intent was based on a rationale, ambition and concepts of the curriculum for the pupils.  Implementation, on the other hand, required expertise in subject leadership, subject knowledge, equitable delivery (of the curriculum) planning for progression, breadth and balance and assessment.

Ofsted’s consultation on the new inspection model it proposes to implement from September 2019, will be informed by pilot inspections, curricular research, research on lesson observations and work scrutiny and a study of the academic literature on educational effectiveness.

Ms Spielman promised that the consultation will be thorough.  She acknowledges that it will not be easy, especially in relation to “how we calibrate our judgement profile”.   She said that she will “listen to as many of you as possible, to address your concerns and hopefully hear your positivity about this new direction too”.   Her intentions are good.   The jury is out on the implementation bit……

[1] The phase 1 report was published on 11 October 2017, the phase 2 one on 18 September 2018 and the phase 3 0n 11 December 2018.

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