In this blog post, Mike Sheridan, Ofsted’s regional director for London, gives an update on Ofsted’s research into the curriculum – emphasising the importance of staying focused on quality of education, rather than qualifications.
In my last blog post, I talked about Ofsted’s forthcoming research into the curriculum. Since then, the Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, has published a commentary which set out some of our initial findings. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, I’d encourage you to do so. In it, Amanda challenges us to think about the substance of education. She writes:
“What do we understand to be the real substance of education? When we think about what the core purpose of education is, what comes first to our minds? In recent years, we have thought a great deal about the role of leaders and the importance of teaching. We have also given a great deal of our collective time to exam grades and progress measures. These are undoubtedly important. However, 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.”
The final sentence in this quote resonates with me, as I’m sure it will with many of you, because it challenges schools to think about why they do what they do. Let me explain. 

Qualifications versus quality of education

I sometimes wonder if some schools have become so driven by end of key stage measures that they’ve lost their focus on the substance of education. I’d like to encourage teachers and leaders to focus honestly on this and consider if tests and examinations have become an end in themselves, rather than a measure of the quality of education a pupil is receiving.
Put another way, when schools are making curriculum decisions, are they primarily concerned about the knowledge and experiences a learner will glean, or the examination outcomes the learner and school will record?
Let me be really clear here. I’m not suggesting for a minute that examinations and accountability measures aren’t important. They are both vital and necessary. But where schools are “gaming” the system to the point where the education learners receive is compromised – and we have seen some evidence of this – pupils are the ones losing out.
What needs to change? Well, we need to make sure every school’s curriculum is focused on substance (the stuff learners know as a result of their schooling), not “stickers” (qualifications for the sake of qualifications, which add little to their broader knowledge and understanding).
There have been some well-rehearsed examples of practice designed to get the “sticker” at the expense of the experience of learners. For example, learners being entered for easy qualifications which add little, if anything, to their knowledge or ability. Or being entered early into mathematics GCSE to secure a grade C, when two years’ study rather than one would give them a deeper understanding, and perhaps prepare them to study mathematics at a higher level.

Make every key stage count

These examples are, thankfully, much less commonly seen in our schools today than they have been in the past, and pupils are getting a better deal because of their demise.
However, there are still examples of practice in schools which, despite stemming from good intentions, focus on the importance of qualifications at the expense of experiences. One of these, and the one I really want to highlight, is the narrowing of a broad curriculum to spend more time preparing for tests.
We see this happening in two ways. First, in some schools the Year 6 (and sometimes Year 5) curriculum focuses too keenly on passing the tests. I can’t imagine the boredom and frustration some children must feel in this situation, and the missed opportunity to develop their knowledge across a full range of National Curriculum subjects.
The second is the shortening of Key Stage 3 and early start of Key Stage 4. While I can see the arguments for this, we shouldn’t lose sight of the importance of KS3, and the rich range of subjects studied during this time. For some learners, this is the last time they will study important subjects such as history, geography or the arts. Are we really saying that losing this breadth early is serving them well? I believe we should be focusing on making KS3 a period in a young person’s life where they are enthused across a full range of subjects, taught well by teachers who are passionate about what they are teaching. At the very least, I would hope those schools that are lengthening KS4 stage have a good reason for doing so. 
If we are serious about teaching a rich, knowledge-based curriculum, surely we need to hold our nerve and make decisions with this at the forefront of our minds. At Ofsted we are continuing our research into this, and will publish fuller findings later this year.
Mike is Ofsted’s regional director for London. He joined Ofsted as a seconded head teacher in 2007, moving on to become one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors, and then a senior HMI and operational lead for the South East of England. He is a qualified teacher and has held several leadership roles in schools, including the headship of a federation of schools. He’s also worked as a consultant and a trainer for heads and teachers. 
Read more: “Broad not bored: a creative curriculum that gets results” – what’s working at Lavender Primary School
How is your school delivering a broad and balanced curriculum? Contact us to share your views.
Wednesday, January 24, 2018