My curriculum conversation with Ofsted’s National Director of Education, Sean Harford.

Last week, in Westminster, I met Ofsted’s National Director of Education, Sean Harford, to interview him about Ofsted’s current work on curriculum and assessment. In this blog, I’ll report on some of the key points from our discussion and analyse what Ofsted’s work means for the future of the curriculum in England’s primary schools.

You can also listen to the full interview in our latest episode of ‘The Curriculum’ podcast.

Having had to cancel our meeting due to heavy snow in March, I was pleased that Sean Harford was willing to reschedule. No doubt he is one busy man, dashing from one meeting to the next with seemingly little time for breathing in between. As a keen follower of Harford on Twitter, I was interested in interviewing him and intrigued to meet the man behind some of the most significant work on curriculum for a long time.

Current curriculum focus

I begin by asking him about the origin and purpose of Ofsted’s recent work on curriculum. Harford feels that the climate is changing regarding how the curriculum is taught in schools, moving away from the rigid ‘narrowing down’ and focus on testing, towards a broader, more balanced approach:

‘We’re in a very different world now. It’s a really good time to raise the debate and to ask questions about whether things are being done correctly and rightly for the pupils with the curriculum. It’s a really healthy debate for the sector to be having. We’re delighted that this has been raised and discussed so thoughtfully across the country.’

Curriculum clarity

It seems that much of Harford’s work is about busting myths and seeking to establish clarity around all things inspection. With that in mind, it makes sense when he explains that ‘making clear what we’re talking about’ is now a key aim of Ofsted’s work as a whole.

I was keen to ask about the importance of clearly defining the ‘language around curriculum’. There is, it seems, much ambiguity around curriculum-related terms such as ‘skills’ and ‘topics’ as they can mean different things to different people. Harford is keen to point out this difficulty, stating that even the Ofsted curriculum advisory group had to work hard at defining the meaning of ‘curriculum’. But their clarification is crucial. I suggest that maybe this work could form the basis of a ‘curriculum glossary’, but I sense he doesn’t warm to this idea, stating that these terms would become apparent throughout the new framework.

The three I’s of curriculum

In the spirit of Harford’s no-nonsense, no-frills approach, he explains to me the three main aspects of curriculum improvement that schools should consider. They are handily alliterative, albeit unintentionally, he says with a smile (we all like a bit of alliteration don’t we?) He explains that these three main aspects are:

  • Intent (what your curriculum is trying to achieve)
  • Implementation (what you are doing to put it into place)
  • Impact (how you ensure that children are learning the curriculum)

Harford explains that schools need to think ‘Why do we do what we do? How do we know we’re doing it right? And, if we’re not doing it right, how do we do things differently?’

He highlights that Ofsted does not have one preferred curriculum model and that these three considerations should underpin all curriculum work, whichever way schools interpret the national curriculum.

Coherent curriculums

At Cornerstones, we’ve recently explored the issue of coherency in the curriculum in a number of blogs and podcast episodes which you can access here. Interestingly, when asked about curriculum coherence, Harford explains that, in his opinion, coherency happens when a school has:

‘Thought about what it wants, where it wants its youngsters to be at given points throughout their life at the school, and that to get them to those points they think: What building blocks do we need to put in place?’

He explains:

‘Look at how each point builds on the previous one. The school should plan these carefully. Maybe they’re linked to age-related expectations, maybe slightly below or above this, but this type of planning ensures coherence.’

So what’s the message here? It seems that Harford is saying that schools should continue to assess children’s progress and evaluate its curriculum, as this forms the ‘route map’ that children go on to reach agreed points.

Curriculum breadth and balance

When asked about the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum, Harford says that the ‘vast majority of schools’ provide a balanced curriculum. However, he feels that there is less clarity about what ‘broad and balanced’ means. For instance, when does a broad curriculum become a narrow curriculum and visa versa? Check out my blog on what makes a broad and balanced curriculum.

So, might Ofsted be somewhat responsible for schools narrowing their curriculums? Mentioning Amanda Spielman’s report, Harford smiles knowingly and says that Spielman challenged the inspectorate to consider that they had played a part in narrowing the curriculum. However, he promptly replies, Ofsted shouldn’t apologise for focusing on core subjects as they ‘provide the basic knowledge and understanding that every child should be taught in the curriculum’. He reports that levels have gone up over the past 10 years or so, proving that this focus has worked. An obvious side effect, he acknowledges, is that many schools have felt pressured into prioritising testing, resulting in a narrowing down of their curriculum.

The next step, he advises, is asking ‘How can the rest of the curriculum be brought into this and make it as important?’ In other words: there should be breadth and balance across subjects.

The role of testing

Moving on, to the ‘hot potato’ of testing. When asked about the purpose of tests in primary schools, Harford says that tests ‘have their place in an accountability system’ and that schools should continue to ‘take them seriously’, considering how they best demonstrate attainment in particular areas.

I wasn’t sure whether to ask him about his recent comments that some schools are ‘beasting’ pupils in maths and English in preparation for the end of KS2 tests. To his credit, Harford doesn’t shy away from answering my question and says that he draws on an analogy from Daisy Christodoulou: ‘If you’re training for a marathon, you don’t run a marathon every week to train for it. So, why are we giving them the marathon every week?’

Using reading comprehension as an example, Harford explains that the reading tests are testing reading, not whether a child can do a reading comprehension exercise. A broad curriculum, he suggests, that includes reading across all subjects, will culminate in better reading.

Mastery and greater depth

Currently exploring the place of mastery and greater depth in the curriculum, I was interested to know Harford’s take. He warns that subject mastery is not a ‘quasi-level’, the highest level a child can reach, or about pushing a child on to next year’s work. Instead, he explains that it should be seen as ‘making sure the concepts and ideas within a stage are actually broadening and deepening the work done with those concepts, for example, applying them in different contexts.’ I agree.

Knowledge is sticky

Harford recently said that ‘knowledge is sticky’. I asked him what he meant by this. ‘All of us’, he says, ‘learn better when we are interested’ (again, I agree). However, Mr Harford warns against writing off children who don’t initially seem keen on a subject:

‘The irony of this is not to say Child X doesn’t like that subject, therefore they’ll never be interested in it. It’s actually about getting them into the subject itself because the more you learn about a subject, the more interesting you find it. This is how knowledge comes together in our minds.’

And knowledge becomes sticky: the more you know, the more you embed some of that knowledge. Harford describes it as a ‘web of things rather than pockets of knowledge,’ and that ‘when connections are made, then knowledge sticks together’. Learn things in context then the ‘story starts to cohere’.

I’m interested in exploring this further, alongside my views on memorable learning and creativity, and I’ll be dedicating a future blog to this – so do watch this space.

Curriculum: a ‘foundation stone’ of the new Ofsted framework

When I asked him for a final piece of advice for schools, Harford says that schools need to ask themselves ‘How do we tell our story of our curriculum?’ and to check if it’s a coherent curriculum by using the three I’s. Sound advice.

Regarding Ofsted’s future work, he says that a key focus is to continue the dialogue about the curriculum as a whole and to consider what type of judgements on curriculum will be part of the new inspection framework.

In my opinion, Harford’s aim for Ofsted to be a transparent, available body that values those in the sector and listens to them is possible. He’s upfront and doesn’t shy away from criticism or challenge (if any of you follow him on Twitter, you’ll know that already!) And, Harford is optimistic about the future:

‘This is an exciting time to be involved in all of this, as it will help us develop something that will look at the right things when we’re inspecting, and also cut away the other things that aren’t as useful and focus schools on what is helpful to become more effective.’

So, what did I learn?

Sean Harford has a refreshingly common-sense approach to learning, curriculum and inspection. I’m pleased that he’s an advocate of a broad curriculum and he certainly knows his stuff. My hope now is that all this work on clarity and the broader curriculum translates into concrete guidance that schools can implement smoothly. I also hope that there’ll be a positive impact on what schools actually experience in their inspections and that they’ll feel empowered to create a curriculum that they believe in.

And, if you don’t already do so, make sure you follow Sean Harford on Twitter @HarfordSean to keep up to date with his and Ofsted’s ongoing work around curriculum.

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Melanie Moore

Mel is Director and EYFS specialist at Cornerstones. She writes most of our curriculum materials and leads our creative team. She has 20 years teaching experience, including as a deputy head teacher. She has also been a teacher adviser, a local authority strategy advisor and has worked for the QCA on national curriculum schemes of work.

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