Ofsted is to launch a major investigation into the curriculum amid concerns that some schools are excluding weaker pupils from entries in some subjects in order to boost league table performance.
Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, told delegates attending the Association of Schools and College Leaders’ (ASCL) national conference in Birmingham, that she understood the “conflict” schools faced over providing a broad and balanced curriculum and maintaining their league table position – and that this was putting pressure on heads and teachers.
She said: “Vitally important though a school’s examination results are, we must not allow curricula to be driven just by SATs, GCSEs and A levels. It is the substance of education that ultimately creates and changes life chances, not grade stickers from exams.
“I am determined to make sure that the curriculum receives the proper focus it deserves.”
Her concerns about the curriculum mean it will be the focus of the “first big thematic Ofsted review of my tenure”.
The review will encompass early years, through to primary, secondary, sixth form and further education colleges, and would “explore the real substance of education”.
Ms Spielman told delegates: “We will look at how schools are interpreting the national curriculum or using their academy freedoms to build new curricula of their own and what this means for children’s school experience. We will look at what makes a really good curriculum. And we will also look at the problems, such as curriculum narrowing, and what we can do to tackle them.
“What we will not be doing is trying to unpick the national curriculum. Indeed, I suspect I would be jeered off the stage if I were to suggest yet more upheaval.”
She added that she hoped the review would examine, as part of its remit, how the curriculum affected the social mobility of pupils.
Ms Spielman said the conflict between league tables and curriculum offer was leading to a “corrosive pattern” of behaviour in some schools. She said: “However much you want to resist narrowing your curriculum or teaching to the test, when you see the school down the road doing it, and getting the league table pay off, you may feel you have no choice but to follow suit.”
She said that “one of the most dispiriting moments in my 15 years of visiting schools” was observing a year 11 history lesson in which pupils did a practice examination and had to compare their own work to the model answer.
She continued: “If you had a C grade target, you were actively discouraged from aiming any higher. For me, the whole lesson was a clear example of where the exam had come to replace the education, rather than merely measuring it.”
Ms Spielman, adopting a more cooperative and collaborative tone throughout towards heads than some of her predecessors, said she was aware of the concerns over workload associated with Ofsted inspections. She added: “We are not naïve about the impact that our inspections have on workload. So we will do our bit to make sure your time is spent where it matters most.
“We have worked hard, especially over the past two years, to dispel many of the common staffroom myths about what Ofsted requires or expects when it comes to things like teaching styles, lesson-planning, and marking.
“Although this is strictly anecdotal, we are seeing more school leaders on social media and elsewhere reflecting positively on their recent inspection experience, and how it felt like a marked departure from the past.”
Ms Spielman said that despite what consultants were selling to schools, “mocksteads” were a waste of time and valuable resources at a time of constrained budgets.
“All of us have a role to play in tackling that destructive cycle which means the teaching profession is bleeding talent, and losing the brightest and the best,” she added.
On a personal note, in her first major speech to heads, Ms Spielman said she had no interest in imposing “my personal prejudices about how you should run your schools, nor will Ofsted on my watch become a vehicle for promoting the latest educational fashion or fad. And I won’t be pushing you to jump through increasingly convoluted hoops, only to change direction a couple of years down the line”.
A report on the curriculum review is expected to be published by Ofsted later this year.