Ofsted -The Education Deceptions

Ofsted Part 2 – Page 3

Ofsted, learning and ‘logical progression’

When one looks at the ‘sources of evidence’ from which inspectors will draw when judging leaders’ curriculum intent, it is made clear that curriculum design must successfully address two particular challenges:

  • how the curriculum will address social disadvantage by addressing gaps in pupils’ knowledge and skills and;
  • ensuring that content is taught in a logical progression, while understanding how the pandemic may have led to gaps in pupils’ knowledge, learning delays and a wider range of starting points.

The term ‘social disadvantage’ only made its first appearance within an Ofsted inspection schedule in 2018. [8] However, a report commissioned in 2016 by Amanda Spielman’s predecessor, Sir Michael Wilshaw, Unknown Children – Destined for Disadvantage?’,[9] showed a far more comprehensive understanding of the complexities of social disadvantage (focusing particularly on early years) than is evident within the revised 2019 inspection framework, in which it is a requirement for the curriculum to be designed to address social disadvantage.  Ofsted appears to believe that reducing social disadvantage can be achieved through the simple expedient of ‘addressing gaps in knowledge and skills’.  As I have suggested elsewhere, it’s disappointing that neither schools nor the teaching profession had considered this straightforward remedy previously.

At the same time, Ofsted again seems to have misunderstood the nature of learning and to have very little practical understanding of the nature of curriculum design.

The logical sequitur for schools of designing a curriculum that addresses gaps in pupils’ knowledge, whether attributable to learning lost because of the pandemic or through social disadvantage, is that the designed curriculum must allow pupils to start at different places within it but enable them to finish it, knowing all the same things, at the same time.  But unless its design is effective in enabling pupils with gaps in their knowledge and skills to fill those gaps and to re-align with the learning of (nominally) all other pupils, the curriculum must not only allow for different entry points, it must do so continuously.  (At a simple commonsense level, what should pupils without gaps in their knowledge and skills be doing whilst other have these gaps addressed?  Marking time?  Because if they learn something new, those with gaps will immediately have fallen behind.)

However, ‘differentiation’ is not a word in Ofsted’s vocabulary.  Its only (oblique) reference to the idea of differentiation seems to highlight that it isn’t a desirable approach.  Within the grade descriptors (for the ‘good’ category of judgment in respect of curriculum implementation) we find:

“They [teachers] check pupils’ understanding systematically, identify misconceptions accurately and provide clear, direct feedback.  In so doing, they respond and adapt their teaching as necessary without unnecessarily elaborate or individualised approaches.” [10]

Filling in gaps in knowledge and skills, yes; individualised approaches, no.  (Teachers should simply ‘adapt their teaching’.)

Predicating successful inspection outcomes on schools’ ability to ‘address social disadvantage’ in this way also places completely unequal demands on schools which serve communities of lesser and greater social disadvantage.  To state the obvious, those schools that serve communities with significantly higher levels of social disadvantage are themselves placed at a disadvantage by the revised inspection framework.

Secondly, as I have said elsewhere, learning is a continuous, cumulative process which may involve many visits and much practice and application, before someone can reach any conclusion about what, or whether, a child has learned.  Learning does not proceed in a ‘logical progression’ in the way that Ofsted characterises it.  If it did, some children would remain completely becalmed in their progress and any missed content would render those children unable to resume their learning development (until gaps in knowledge and skills had been successfully plugged).

Further, it’s only possible to identify gaps in knowledge and skills through some form of (comprehensive) assessment – and every child’s gaps will be individual to them.

Cultural capital

The current School Inspection Handbook [11] sets out a qualitative element of the new quality of education judgment: cultural capital.

‘As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Our understanding of ‘knowledge and cultural capital’ is derived from the following wording in the national curriculum:

 ‘It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement.’

In fact, the term ‘cultural capital’ doesn’t come from the national curriculum (which doesn’t use the term at all), but from the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who defined it as ‘familiarity with the legitimate culture in society’.   The wording that Ofsted has used here to explain cultural capital is to be found under the heading of ‘Aims’ within the national curriculum framework guidance: [12]

The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement. (My underlining.)

So what Ofsted has done is to lift what is an aspirational aim of the national curriculum, to misrepresent it as constituting a definition of ‘cultural capital’ and to make it into a component of inspection on which schools will be judged.  If Ofsted’s hope is that the revised inspection schedule should improve the organisation’s credibility, inventions such as this will not help to achieve that.

At last –a point of agreement with Ofsted

One clear message that the requirement to build, construct or design one’s own school curriculum sends is that the national curriculum is neither coherent nor sufficient.

In this I find a rare moment of synchronicity with Ofsted: the national curriculum is not a curriculum that sets out the knowledge and skills that pupils need in order to take advantage of opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life; in that sense it is woefully insufficient.  But it is also incoherent because it is not ‘joined together’ to form a unified whole with an identified purpose.  It makes no attempt to join or align subjects together or to identify cross-curricular themes, strands or concepts. 

The national curriculum English programme of study makes one reference to other subjects:

“The skills of information retrieval that are taught should be applied, for example in reading history, geography and science textbooks….’ [13]

The mathematics programme of study pays a nod to science:

“They should also apply their mathematical knowledge to science and other subjects.” [14]

The science programme of study reciprocates:

“The relevant mathematical skills….should be embedded in the science context.” [15]

But otherwise, the national curriculum remains as it has always been: a dry set of subject contents, developed in silos without reference to any other parts of the curriculum as a whole.

So schools are to be judged ultimately on the extent to which they make an incoherently designed statutory curriculum coherent and by making it achieve some things that it was evidently not designed to achieve.  If one looks back at the last iteration of the inspection evaluation schedule prior to the introduction of the revised framework, published in September 2018, the only specific curriculum requirement was that it should be broad and balanced. That is far from being the case now. Ofsted has decreed it.


Through its revised inspection framework, Ofsted is currently realising the intention expressed by the Chief Inspector that it should ‘play a larger role in informing education policy’.  That education policy should be informed – or more accurately, driven – by an inspection framework is absurd.  That education policy and the work of schools should be driven by an inspection framework that is disingenuous and lacking in validity, which places maintained schools (i.e. the majority) at a disadvantage, which displays such minimal understanding of the nature of learning, which is fundamentally threatening and is not designed to support schools to improve, is a national tragedy – the ultimate triumph of the quasi-educational ideology that has dominated the education system for at least 30 years.

It is time for Ofsted to be called out and challenged.


[1] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/963625/Research_for_EIF_framework_updated_references_22_Feb_2021.pdf

[2] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766252/How_to_assess_intent_and_implementation_of_curriculum_191218.pdf


[4] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/commentary-on-curriculum-research-phase-3

[5] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-eif/school-inspection-handbook

[6] https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/state-funded-schools-inspections-and-outcomes-as-at-31-august-2021/state-funded-schools-inspections-and-outcomes-as-at-31-august-2021-main-findings

[7] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/936097/Curriculum_research_How_to_assess_intent_and_implementation_of_curriculum_191218.pdf

[8] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/730127/School_inspection_handbook_section_5_270718.pdf

[9] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/541394/Unknown_children_destined_for_disadvantage.pdf

[10] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-eif/school-inspection-handbook

[11] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/school-inspection-handbook-eif/school-inspection-handbook

[12] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4/the-national-curriculum-in-england-framework-for-key-stages-1-to-4

[13] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-english-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-english-programmes-of-study

[14] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-mathematics-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-mathematics-programmes-of-study

[15] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study/national-curriculum-in-england-science-programmes-of-study

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