How can we ensure all young people have access to a broad and rich curriculum? In this blog post for the NACE community, Chris Jones, Ofsted Research and Evaluation Deputy Director, shares an update on Ofsted’s curriculum thematic review.
Recently, the curriculum has been high on the agenda at Ofsted. Over the past 18 months, our Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, has placed great emphasis on understanding how we can make sure that all children have access to a broad and rich curriculum.

Refocusing: from exam-ready to well-rounded education

Work began early last year on a research programme that looked at what schools are doing to provide a rounded education. What we found in our first wave of the study was that in some of the 41 primary and secondary schools visited, the focus was largely on preparing children for exams, rather than delivering an enriching curriculum. This meant subjects other than English and maths were not being taught well in primary schools, and pupils were dropping subjects like art, drama and design and technology too early in secondaries.
This kind of practice has a particularly negative impact on pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. These pupils are already less likely than others to have access to rich cultural experiences, and so it’s even more important that they have the opportunity to study subjects including art, music, drama or some of the EBacc subjects, such as a modern foreign language. Often these pupils were instead being guided to take “easier” qualifications and a less academic route. The result is that these pupils were being short-changed in their one shot at a good education.

Investigation: characteristics of effective curriculum design

Given this rather gloomy picture, in phase 2 of our curriculum research we carried out a study of 23 schools that were selected because their leaders were perceived as being “particularly invested in curriculum design”.
We looked at the different approaches to curriculum design within these schools and noted strengths and weaknesses in their approaches. What was clear from the evidence, was that no one curriculum approach best fits all schools. However, some important similarities were noted.
These schools designed their curriculum by putting local context and pupil needs at the forefront. This was particularly the case as some of these schools were in competition with selective grammar schools, in areas with large refugee, asylum seeker or migrant populations or located where high levels of deprivation existed. School leaders often talked about giving their pupils the knowledge or skills that were lacking from their home environments as a core purpose for their curriculum, and tailored their approach accordingly.
What these schools did not do was provide a restricted curriculum for lower attaining or disadvantaged pupils. Most of them made strong links between reading and accessing the rest of the curriculum offer. A couple of secondary schools in areas of high deprivation had included Latin and philosophy as subjects at Key Stage 3, of which one had made them compulsory. Elsewhere, in primary schools, pupils were given enrichment activities with well-planned regular trips that were tightly linked to their curriculums.
However, in a few schools, the local context seemed to lead to low expectations. In these schools, too much time was put into engaging pupils’ interests rather than balancing this with helping pupils to progress through the curriculum, to deepen and widen their knowledge, skills and understanding.
A key to successful curriculum design and implementation was leadership, and this worked well when it involved not just senior leaders but also subject leads and classroom teachers. This helped the curriculum design to be more sustainable as the responsibility of it did not fall solely on a senior leader or headteacher.
The collaborative approach also meant that all those working at the school shared the same vision, approach and understanding about their curriculum design. In a few schools this also appeared to help with retaining specialist subject teachers.
It is important to be clear that there shouldn’t be a conflict between teaching a broad and rich curriculum and achieving good exam results. One should lead to the other because those results will be a reflection of what pupils have learned.

Next steps: researching curriculum implementation

The next stage of our research will look at whether the implementation of the curriculum reflects the intent behind it. This focus will help us see how intent translates into practice.
How does your school approach curriculum design? Contact us to share your experience.
Chris Jones is Deputy Director with responsibility for Ofsted’s research and evaluation programme. This includes oversight of Amanda Spielman’s new multi-year research programme into the curriculum across all phases of education, and ensuring the 2019 Education Inspection Framework is informed by the best possible evidence from research and academia. Previously Chris worked in the Department for Education as Head of Schools Strategy, and on reform of school funding. He has also worked in HM Treasury and in the Department for Transport in a variety of policy and strategy roles.

You can follow Chris on Twitter @Chris_Ofsted

Header image: ID 2499436 © Beata Becla
Thursday, October 11, 2018