15th November 2017
In her most recent commentary, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s HMCI, outlines her findings from recent research into the curriculum at the primary and secondary levels. Below is a summary of her conclusions.
In the opening to her commentary, Spielman begins by immediately directing the reader’s attention towards what will be her main focus: the curriculum. She makes it clear from the start that she believes that ‘exams should exist in service to the curriculum rather than the other way round’ and that a ‘careful balance’ needs to be struck between the delivery of curriculum content and exam practice.
Spielman acknowledges that inspection may have ‘played a role in bending the curriculum out of shape’ but calls for schools to redress the balance to ensure that children don’t receive ‘a hollowed out and flimsy understanding’ of the curriculum. She begins to elaborate on how this might be accomplished: ‘Choices need to be made about what to do when, how much depth to pursue, which ideas to link together, what resources to draw on, which way to teach, and how to make sure all pupils are able to benefit as each new concept, construct, or fact is taught’.
According to Spielman, ‘a good curriculum should lead to good results’ and reduce the need for constant testing. To accomplish this, she suggests that schools need a higher level of control over their curriculum design and implementation processes. Initially, a school needs to spend time selecting an appropriate ‘body of knowledge’ that will allow each of their children to ‘flourish’. Then, to integrate the chosen content, ‘important ongoing decisions’ must regularly be held regarding ‘how the curriculum will be implemented’.
In this section, Spielman explains how there seems to be ‘little debate or reflection’ about curricula in schools. School leaders and inspectors tend to focus on the timetable instead, which Spielman reminds us is ‘not the curriculum’. This misunderstanding and others concerning ‘the language of the curriculum’ could be the main barrier to ‘[getting] to grips with the complex business of curriculum planning’.
‘The most likely explanation’ for this ‘ambiguity and lack of shared understanding’ is, Spielman suggests, probably a ‘weak theoretical understanding of the curriculum’. Many new teachers are trained to teach ‘English and mathematics tests’ and pay little attention to developing the ‘more rounded curriculum knowledge’ that teachers who trained a fair time ago hold in a higher regard. To avoid further affecting this ‘competence across the sector’, Spielman proposes that leaders and teachers be supported and ‘Ofsted has a role to play here too’.
To avoid narrowing the primary curriculum and to develop broad and balanced curricula, Spielman states that a change in thinking is necessary: ‘Schools should view the tests as existing in service to the curriculum, rather [than] maximising test scores at the expense of children’s learning’. Backing up this argument is the fact that most of the primary school parents she has encountered as part of her review agree that ‘preparing for tests was cutting into their child’s learning time’, in some cases leading to demotivation.
Spielman stresses that the ‘regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child’s ability to comprehend’. Instead of seeing children preparing for reading comprehension tests, Spielman wants them to be taught and assisted to read more challenging texts.
For low-attainers, Spielman warns that she has identified a lack of balance in the curriculum. The danger is that if these children are denied opportunities to gain ‘knowledge that could be valuable in subsequent stages of education or in later life’, their social mobility will be restricted as they will be unable to compete with their better-prepared peers who have had these opportunities. Spielman stresses that ‘energy’ should now be invested by schools in ‘sequencing and organising subject content to take account of different starting points’ to give lower-attaining children every chance at future success.
Spielman reflects that ‘inspection may well have helped to tip the balance’ towards a focus on the performance of the school above the needs of its children, but maintains that this should no longer be the case. She ends her commentary positively, revealing that she has met many people ‘who have a vibrant enthusiasm for revitalising the debate about the curriculum’ and acknowledges that many school leaders are already taking action ‘to ensure that the content of young people’s learning takes precedence over performance tables.’
Click here to read Amanda Spielman’s full commentary – full findings will be published in late spring.