Ofsted -The Education Deceptions

Ofsted Part 2 – Page 2

The problem of linearity

One inherent weakness in this model of inspection is that the three components of curriculum that are scrutinised are three stages of a process envisaged as a linear progression, that is to say that strong curriculum intent leads to strong implementation, yielding strong impact, or weak intent – weak implementation – weak impact.

Within all previous frameworks, while having positive exam results would invariably give schools something of a head start, the greatest weighting of the overall judgment would be given to the middle phase – what is now called curriculum implementation, but was previously known more simply as teaching.

But it seems evident that the quality of education judgment will almost certainly turn on the way that curriculum intent – the obvious starting point – is judged.  If it is considered to be weak or poor, it is very difficult to see how curriculum implementation can be viewed in a positive light; that would imply that collectively, subject leaders and teachers are somehow implementing a poorly constructed curriculum framework, well. The strong likelihood is that if inspectors judge curriculum intent unfavourably, it’s very likely that the overall judgment on the quality of education will not be positive.  In fact so much seems to ride on curriculum intent that we should expect that Ofsted-qualified ‘consultants’ will quickly be offering (if they’re not already doing so) to guide schools through the process of how to ‘talk the curriculum intent talk’, in much the same way as they have long offered to provide ‘mock inspections’ for a suitable consultancy fee. 

The bigger problem of ‘curriculum’

Perhaps the most critical issue that Ofsted did not address in its construction of the revised framework is that ‘curriculum’ already had a meaning and a definition before Ofsted invented its new version – and curriculum does not mean the same thing in all schools. 

Not all schools are under the same duty in respect of the curriculum – and duty brings with it responsibilities and constraints.  To fail to recognise this is to create a framework that creates advantage and disadvantage, rather than equity across all types of school.

In assessing ‘curriculum intent’, Ofsted’s list of key factors includes the following:

  • ‘The school’s curriculum is rooted in the solid consensus of the school’s leaders about the knowledge and skills that pupils need in order to take advantage of opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life. In this way, it can powerfully address social disadvantage.’
  • ‘It is clear what end points the curriculum is building towards and what pupils need to know and be able to do to reach those end points.’

The sources of evidence from which inspectors will draw includes:

  • ‘how leaders have ensured that the subject curriculum contains content that has been identified as most useful’ [5]

The phrase ‘opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’ should sound familiar, because it relates to the statutory duty that schools have had since the implementation of the Education Reform Act 1988 to provide a curriculum which ‘prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’.

In legislation, the curriculum that is nominally intended to achieve that goal, and which maintained schools must follow, is the national curriculum.  The entire content of the national curriculum is set out in its programmes of study; the ‘end points’ that Ofsted requires the school’s curriculum to identify are already set out, as attainment targets.

Academies (and free schools) do not have to follow the national curriculum.  They must provide a curriculum ‘of comparable breadth and ambition’ (and which also ‘prepares pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life’), but they have the scope to design their own.  Academies are at liberty to choose curriculum content based on their perception of its usefulness for pupils; maintained schools do not have that freedom, yet the framework simply doesn’t acknowledge that fact.

In the most recent official statistics [6] (released August 2021), 56% of state-funded schools were maintained schools; 44% were academies or free schools.

Just for the avoidance of doubt, Ofsted’s Phase 3 research study [7] made it explicit that a curriculum that is planned in line with the national curriculum is not an example of the type of curriculum that leaders are expected to show for the purposes of the inspection framework.

In language very evidently dripping with disapproval, Ofsted reported that,

‘In some cases, curriculum design was little more than cutting and pasting the key objectives of the national curriculum. In other words, they merely highlighted the key statements in the national curriculum and planned around those.’

Imagine that – schools taking a statutory school curriculum, replete with required content, set out by Year group and Key Stage in programmes of study and with shared attainment targets, and using that as the basis of their planning of the school’s curriculum.  Ofsted now characterises this as being insufficient – following it in the way that it was designed would seem to be a recipe for an unfavourable judgment.

Let’s call it as it is – Ofsted’s revised inspection framework advantages academies while placing maintained schools in an impossible position.  

Hanlon’s Razor entreats us to ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity,’ but to accept that this is an unintended consequence that Ofsted failed to recognise is to overstretch credulity.


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