A summary of Amanda Spielman’s (HCMI Ofsted) latest curriculum update

As Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, releases a new blog reflecting on their recent countrywide curriculum research, we highlight the next steps for schools and take a look at what inspectors will be looking for in terms of curriculum.

You can read Spielman’s full blog here, but here’s my summary of the main points.

Ofsted’s research findings

1. Curriculum approach

Spielman admits that, over the past few years, Ofsted have ‘not placed enough emphasis on the curriculum’. As a result, some schools have viewed the curriculum as a ‘timetable’ to prepare children for tests.

Ofsted identifies a ‘lack of curriculum knowledge and expertise in the sector’ that results in curriculum narrowing and ‘teaching to test’. There are concerns as to whether all children have equal access to the whole curriculum.

Schools build the curriculum around three main approaches, which Ofsted categorise as follows:

Knowledge-led approach. These schools define their curriculum as a body of subject-specific knowledge to be mastered. Skills are an outcome of the curriculum, not its purpose. The focus is on an in-depth understanding of fewer topic areas.

Knowledge-engaged approach. These schools see their curriculum as a balance between knowledge and skills. They often use cross-curricular teaching to make the curriculum relevant and meaningful to children and for putting knowledge into context.

Skills-led approach. These schools design the curriculum to develop the skills children need for future learning, such as resilience and a growth mindset. Skills are not seen as ‘by-products’ of the curriculum but of greater importance than simply acquiring knowledge.

‘Knowledge and the capacity it provides to apply skills and deepen understanding are essential ingredients of successful curriculum design.’

Amanda Spielman

2. Curriculum design

Schools design their curriculums on their chosen approach. Again, there are variations, strengths and weaknesses seen in all models.

  • All schools view regular curriculum review and renewal as essential.
  • Subject-specific progression should be rooted in what leaders expect their pupils to know at each particular stage.
  • In some primary schools, progression models only exist in English and mathematics, and sometimes science. Progression was less clear for other subjects.
  • Schools are unsure how to map skills progression but were more confident and successful in mapping knowledge progression.
  • All schools value summative and formative assessment. Ongoing assessment that informs teaching is viewed as more effective than creating curriculum assessment ‘pathways’ for children to follow.
  • Intelligent repetition of content is also valued, particularly in knowledge-led schools, and retrieval is regularly used to promote the acquisition of core knowledge.
  • School leadership has a huge impact on the success of curriculum design, intent and implementation. Time should be taken to gather viewpoints, contribute to agreed curriculum principles and review a curriculum regularly. Schools that ‘lived and breathed’ their curriculum were particularly successful.

Ofsted’s assessment of their findings

Criticised by some in the past for favouring a knowledge-heavy curriculum, Spielman stresses that she does not advocate a ‘pub-quiz approach to education’ and that Ofsted researchers observed strengths and weaknesses in each curriculum approach.

Weaknesses

  • In many schools, weaknesses exist in leaders’ understanding of curriculum intent.
  • There is too much emphasis on exam preparation at the expense of a wide curriculum.
  • In some schools, children from disadvantaged backgrounds or with particular learning needs are being offered a narrowed-down curriculum.
  • Some schools are patching up gaps in their curriculum, but these ‘quick fixes’ are potentially contradictory and lacking in coherence.
  • Some schools show misconceptions about the concept of mastery.

Strengths

  • Many knowledge-led and knowledge-engaged schools stress the importance of subjects as individual disciplines.
  • Most schools consider their local context and pupil needs when building their curriculum.
  • Some schools do not put disadvantaged pupils into a stripped-back curriculum. Instead, they improved curriculum access by developing reading.
  • Primary school leaders enrich their education with local trips linked to their curriculum to give children experiences that would inform their work.

‘There need be no conflict between teaching a broad, rich curriculum and achieving success in exams. A well-constructed, well-taught curriculum will lead to good results because those results will be a reflection of what pupils have learned.’

Amanda Spielman

The new Ofsted inspection framework

Throughout her blog, Spielman offers strong hints about how inspectors will judge a school’s curriculum under the new framework, due out next year. Here are the main foci:

  • Inspectors should ‘place much more emphasis on the substance of education: the curriculum’. The curriculum will now be a central focus of the framework.
  • Inspectors should judge all schools consistently, no matter how radically different their curriculum approaches are.
  • The ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’ of the curriculum will be important in the new framework.

Next steps for school leaders

Spielman suggests that school leaders now focus on establishing a strong, clear, well-designed and coherent curriculum to give their school real purpose. It should be relevant to their school’s context and utilise the skills and knowledge of curriculum leaders.

In designing a curriculum, Spielman advises schools to consider what they want their children to know and be able to do by the time they leave school. She also stresses the importance of ensuring the curriculum is implemented and taught well, in appropriate sequences of content that encourage progression.

Schools should consider the role of knowledge (the ‘known’) and skills (the ‘know-how’) in their curriculum design. Spielman emphasises that ‘a rich web of knowledge is what provides the capacity for pupils to learn even more and develop their understanding.’

Finally, she advises that schools are clear about how their curriculum implementation reflects any well-meaning curriculum intent.

Do you want help designing your school's curriculum?

The Cornerstones Curriculum is a knowledge and skills-based, whole school curriculum. It includes over 80 imaginative cross-curricular projects that engage young minds and provide coherent subject progression.

Our projects and resources have provided over 2000 schools with the tools, content and expertise they needed to design their curriculum. If you want help developing your curriculum, then contact us to book a free online demonstration or meeting with one of our experienced curriculum consultants.

Click here to download free projects and resources from the Cornerstones Curriculum.

Click here to read our simple six-step guide to designing a curriculum.

Read Amanda Spielman’s full blog here.

Click on the image below to listen to our podcast with Ofsted Director of Education, Sean Harford.

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Caroline Pudner

Caroline is a Curriculum Consultant at Cornerstones. She writes curriculum materials, teaching resources and blogs. Caroline has 10 years primary teaching experience and has worked in both museums and galleries education and adult education.

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