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Accountability, Curriculum, Leadership

The Potential Conflict at the Heart of Ofsted’s New Framework

There is likely to be a fundamental conflict at the heart of Ofsted’s proposed framework. What does an outstanding, good, requires improvement or inadequate curriculum looks like? Well, it varies from subject to subject and often within subjects there are different views; therein lays the crux of the matter.

Ofsted are extolling the virtues of the different subjects within the curriculum (hurrah say I) but are likely to propose a generic inspection framework to judge them. Inevitably inspectors will have to make very detailed subject based curriculum determinations in subjects or phases that they are not qualified in or sufficiently knowledgeable about. That simply doesn’t make sense.

I may be wrong; on Wednesday I’ll take my hat off to the inspectorate and the people who have led the process of devising the new framework if, sat at the heart of it, there is a series of subject specific curriculum frameworks including a phase specific element for Early Years. I may be less happy if it turns out that fifteen or more inspectors, all with expertise in different subject areas or phases, are to descend upon schools but at least that would be consistent. The irony and dangers of a generic set of curriculum descriptors, used to judge all subjects, will not be lost on some members of Ofsted’s Curriculum Advisory Group. A number have been particularly outspoken about the use of generic assessment descriptors and for very good reasons.

Developing a subject’s curriculum is an ongoing and iterative process. Within subjects there are often profound and equally coherently argued differing points of view about what constitutes a good curriculum; people express perspectives and preferences not objective truths. In essence there is an element of subjectivity in any decision made. The potential good Ofsted could do, by moving school leaders’ focus on to the area of curriculum, may well all be undone by a decision to retain their grading system and to dictate a generic view of curriculum rather than focussing on curricula.

Our Curriculum Policy document has evolved significantly over the years; it needed to and all such documents should do. For your information, here are some of the bold statements contained within the document when first written circa 2010:

The statements probably look more at home in 2019 than they did when written circa in 2010. Much of the learning from cognitive science has only recently been generally available to schools; I believe it will have an increasing impact on how we teach and appears to have significantly influenced Ofsted’s New Framework.

Take for example John Sweller’s Cognitive Load Theory; I love it and see just how beneficial it could be to teaching and learning within Science. My teaching roots are in Science; most of Sweller’s research was completed in Science & Mathematics so my admiration for it may not be that surprising. However, this “admiration” may well be subject based. There is no guarantee that Cognitive Load Theory is equally applicable in Art or Drama. Despite what we may think, as individuals, the evidence is not there. A number of Ofsted’s curriculum indicators are built around such an assumption; this is a danger and limitation of what is likely to be proposed in the new framework.

In developing the curriculum across the Trust, I lead and live with a level of uncertainty and doubt:
Is a particularly useful/well evidenced way to implement the curriculum in one subject universally applicable to all subjects or all age groups?
Will what seems like a strongly evidenced approach today be equally as strong in twelve months’ time never mind twelve years’ time?

I am currently asking the Mathematics Department about their approach to spacing. However, I am genuinely concerned that I may prompt them to change their curriculum for the worst. Too much spacing could make the curriculum incoherent. Interleaving in English may look very different to the same in Mathematics; knowledge organisers and retrieval practice may make a lot of sense in Science but have limited value in Art (or Mathematics). Moving from specific research to generic guiding statements to implementation in individual subjects requires thought not a one size fits all approach.

There have been far too many approaches suggested or forced on schools (school leaders, researchers and Ofsted are all guilty) that have later been seen to be less than valuable. Since I’ve highlighted Ofsted’s data and progress every 15 minutes widely accepted but nonsensical assertions before; here’s one of my own. At the turn of the millennium I started headship and led a short presentation on VAK to various groups of staff. It was all the rage and I was fascinated that some schools had questionnaires to determine pupils’ preference and then grouped them accordingly. Whilst I was fascinated, I couldn’t get my head around the classroom organisation or implications for teaching and learning. How could this be managed by a teacher? So, I just advised staff to use a variety of different teaching strategies. In terms of implementing an approach to VAK learning, largely by serendipity, I arguably took the least harmful approach of the various options available (except of course ignoring it completely).

Given the damage the hyper-accountability system has already done to schools I may not conclude the same nonmaleficence for the new inspection proposals out on Wednesday. I believe we should applaud Ofsted for rebalancing its new framework to include a greater focus on the critical issue of a school’s curriculum; I just remain unconvinced that the accountability system is the right vehicle to actually achieve a great curriculum for all pupils.



4 thoughts on “The Potential Conflict at the Heart of Ofsted’s New Framework

  1. “Inspectors will have to make very detailed subject-based curriculum determinations in subjects or phases that they are not qualified in or sufficiently knowledgeable about.” My very first inspection in 1999 was one-to-one with a design technology inspector -dare I say, it was very meaningful for both parties.

    Posted by @TeacherToolkit | January 13, 2019, 12:38 pm
  2. Another great post by @LeadingLearner who captures my own anxieties with clarity and focus. The change in direction of the CIF is such that many schools need to apply a ‘hand-break’ turn approach to meet the expectations. As a new HT, I am hoping that the ‘journey’ towards an educational offer built on values but emerging from necessity will be encouraged. However, I accept that in the current climate, being brave doesn’t give any defence from the key issue of accountability.

    Posted by Glynpotts | January 13, 2019, 6:17 pm
  3. Excellent article and sentiments expressed. What is the idea of “vertical integration”?

    Posted by Julian Selman | January 14, 2019, 8:42 pm
    • It is a focus on progression in terms of knowledge; what should be taught in what order to enhance learning. Linked into the idea of a spiral curriculum. Dylan Wiliam in Principled Curriculum Design (SSAT) is very good on this.

      Posted by LeadingLearner | January 15, 2019, 8:47 am

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