Ofsted signals focus on curriculum and GCSE hothousing

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Ofsted has praised the exceptional “dedication and commitment” of teachers and professionals working with children across England as its annual report confirmed that the vast majority of schools are rated good or outstanding.

In launching the report in Westminster on Wednesday (December 13), chief inspector Amanda Spielman said that the quality of education and care provided to young people today is “better than ever” and reported evidence of “widespread good practice” and “continual improvement”.

Ofsted's figures show that 94 per cent of early years providers, 90 per cent of primary schools, 79 per cent of secondary schools, and 80 per cent of further education and skills providers are considered to be good or outstanding.

However, the report also highlights a number of areas of “persistent underperformance” and concern...

A decade of underperformance

The report identifies a group of 500 primary and 200 secondary schools that have not improved during their last two inspections, including around 130 (80 primary and 50 secondary) which have not been rated good or outstanding since 2005.

It warns policy-makers that despite “considerable attention and investment from external agencies”, these schools have still struggled.

These schools share similar characteristics, including unstable leadership, high staff turnover and difficulty recruiting. Many have high proportions of pupils from deprived areas and above average proportions of pupils with SEND.

Ms Spielman said: “There is no doubt that the leadership challenge facing some schools is great. But progress is possible and we should all be wary of using the make-up of a school community as an excuse for underperformance.

“I do find myself frustrated with the culture of ‘disadvantage one-upmanship’ that has emerged in some places. Fixating on all the things holding schools back can distract us all from working on the things that take them forward. Schools with all ranges of children can and do succeed. Where this is difficult, what is needed is greater support and leadership from within the system. That means making sure the system has the capacity to provide this support.

“And this isn’t about just about incremental ‘interventions’ or ‘challenge’. Good schools teach a strong curriculum effectively, and they do it in an orderly and supportive environment: getting this right is the core job of any school.”

Ofsted has said it plans to undertake research into why some schools get trapped in cycles of underperformance.

Capacity within the system

The report warns about problems with capacity within the country’s best multi-academy trusts (MATs) to take on responsibility for tackling underperformance within a school-led system.

It states that England’s best MAT’s are “spread too thinly”. The report adds: “The system is asking a lot of the best multi-academy trusts and school leaders. It is not clear that a small group of large, high-performing trusts has the capacity to provide all the help that is needed.

“There are senior leaders in our best large MATs who are leading the way and have a history of improving schools. However, they are very few in number. Many of these are coming under pressure from the weight of what they are expected to contribute to the education system.”

The curriculum

The annual report also carries a clear warning about schools that have developed a culture of teaching to the test and cramming for GCSEs.

It states: “We have learned over the past 10 years that increases in test scores do not necessarily reflect a real improvement in education standards. While tests are important and useful, they do not, and can never, reflect the entirety of what pupils need to learn. Exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round.”

Ofsted warns that its research into the curriculum has shown that the “depth and breadth of the curriculum is being eroded by some schools” – both secondary and primary.

The report continues: “These schools are focusing too much on their performance, measured in test results, and not the learning. A number of secondary schools we visited are reducing the length of key stage 3 in favour of a longer key stage 4 and a corresponding earlier start to GCSEs. However, the majority of pupils do not take GCSEs in geography, history or a language.

"So, unless the year 9 curriculum is designed to compensate, a large number of pupils will not study these subjects after the age of 13. The same is true of other subjects such as music, drama and art. Pupils are entitled to a broad curriculum to age 14. Reducing key stage 3 to two years risks narrowing their exposure to a wide programme of study.”

It adds: “Neither a focus on English and mathematics, nor a focus on the wider curriculum, is about choosing sides. This is a false dichotomy. What pupils need is balance, and one in which a broad curriculum leads to exam success, rather than a curriculum purely serving tests.”

British Values and Equality

Ofsted warns that “an increasing number of conservative religious schools” are deliberately flouting British values and equalities law.

The report states: “We have found an increasing number of conservative religious schools where the legal requirements that set the expectations for shared values and tolerance clash with community expectations.

“The schools are, therefore, deliberately choosing not to meet these standards. This tension is also leading to the creation of illegal ‘schools’ that avoid teaching the unifying messages taught in the vast majority of schools in England. Both of these situations are of great concern.”

Apprenticeship Levy

There is a stark warning about how the money being raised by the government’s Apprenticeship Levy is being used.

The Levy, which came into effect in April, is a tax on all UK employers at a rate of 0.5 per cent of the company pay bill to help fund the government's expansion of Apprenticeships. It is due to double the annual investment in Apprenticeships in England to £2.5 billion by 2019.

However, Ofsted says that without adequate scrutiny, we risk “repeating the mistakes of the past”.

The report states: "When billions of pounds were made available for Train to Gain, problems with implementation led the National Audit Office to conclude that the programme did not offer good value for money. A push to rapidly expand take-up led to weak oversight of the companies delivering the training. The funding available subsidised low-level, low-quality training that did not deliver any material gain for learners. We have previously raised concerns about the quality of many Apprenticeships."

It adds: " We are working closely with the DfE to monitor the quality of training to make sure that the mistakes of the past are not repeated."


The report says that children with SEND but who do not have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCPs) often have “a much poorer experience of the education system than their peers”. It means that EHCPs are becoming like a "golden ticket" for access to proper support.

Ofsted has carried out 30 local area SEND inspections and is concerned that in some areas, children without an EHCP but still in need of SEN support "did not benefit as consistently from a coordinated approach between education, health and care as those with a plan".

It adds: “In the local authorities we inspected, leaders were not clear how their actions were improving outcomes for these children and young people. Some parents reported that they had been asked to keep their children at home because leaders said that they could not meet their children’s needs. This is unacceptable.”

The chief inspector

Launching the report in Westminster on Wednesday (December 13), chief inspector Amanda Spielman said: “Our collective mission – and by that everyone involved in education and care – should be to create a society where every young person, regardless of birth or background, can achieve their full potential. Everything I see in my job, looking at the work of thousands of children’s homes, colleges, schools and nurseries shows me that isn’t an idle pipe dream.

“In fact, the areas of concern identified in today’s report are some of the last remaining barriers that stand in our way. Tackling them will not be easy. But the prize of doing so could be great – a country that is both caring and bold, innovative but unified, aspirational and at the same time fair.”

Inspection Framework

In 2018, Ofsted is to begin work on its new Education Inspection Framework, which is due to be introduced in 2019. Ofsted has said that this will "build on recent findings" and will have "a particular focus on the curriculum".


National Association of Head Teachers: “It is no coincidence that the very small number of schools that have struggled over many years serve the most disadvantaged communities, despite the tireless efforts of teachers and school leaders to improve outcomes. Many leaders of schools working in challenging circumstances tell us that they struggle to recruit teachers and the high stakes low trust accountability regime has been part of the problem.

"Ofsted’s recent more supportive narrative is welcome but it will be some time before the culture of fear changes. Leaders and teachers need absolute confidence that the inspection system will treat teachers and leaders fairly and properly recognise the significant challenges in striving to transform life chances for the most disadvantaged in society.”

Association of School and College Leaders: “Ofsted’s research needs to include looking at the stigmatising impact of Ofsted judgements and government performance measures, which make it difficult to recruit leaders and teachers, and which deter some parents from sending their children to these schools. It may be that our high-stakes accountability system is in itself at least partially responsible for trapping schools in a cycle from which it is very difficult to escape.

"We are encouraged by Ofsted’s recognition that improvement requires external support, and we think that creating a more supportive environment must involve how we use accountability measures to identify and direct the help that is needed, without creating a corrosive sense of failure. Alongside this, the government must recognise that its underfunding of schools, and the on-going teacher recruitment and retention crisis, make it even more difficult to secure improvement, and that these factors are putting in jeopardy educational standards in general. Urgent action is needed to ensure that schools have the vital resources that they need.”

National Education Union: “Ofsted should speak truth to power. The defining characteristics of the schools Ofsted is pointing to that haven’t improved is that they are drawing ‘high proportions of their children from deprived areas’ and have ‘higher than average proportions of children with SEND and White British pupils from low-income backgrounds’.

"Ofsted as the chief inspector of education should take government to task over this. Teachers can do what they can do within schools but it is government that is missing child poverty reduction targets, presiding over increases in relative poverty and failing to produce a decent industrial strategy. It is the government that is cutting funding to schools and missing teacher recruitment targets. An education inspectorate worth its salt, if it were truly independent, would be making these points to government in their report.”

Further information

Ofsted Annual Report 2016/17, December 2017: http://www.gov.uk/government/collections/ofsted-annual-report-201617


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