The curriculum: Seven questions for your school

Written by: Danny Cuttell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The curriculum has become a core focus for Ofsted inspections. Drawing on inspections under the new EIF, Danny Cuttell offers seven curriculum questions to consider before the summer

The new Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF) has moved away from internal assessment and focuses on their three curriculum I’s – intent, implementation and impact.

From monitoring the results of the first inspections and talking to schools about their experiences, we have identified seven key questions that we think curriculum leaders should be thinking about.

Key stages 3 and 4

1, What is the rationale for the structure of key stage 3 and 4 in your school?

The debate around the length of key stage 3 – and whether Ofsted has a preference on this matter – is on-going. Ofsted’s official stance is they have no preferred duration for key stage 3. Instead the focus of inspection is around monitoring whether students have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects to a meaningful level of depth.

Nevertheless, in reviewing the results of the first wave of inspections, there is undoubtedly a pattern. In an analysis of 80 of the first secondary school inspections, we found that 88 per cent of those offering a reduced two-year key stage 3 curriculum were judged as requiring improvement.

In reality the message from Ofsted is subtler than this – there are examples of schools performing well with a reduced key stage 3. For example, some schools offering a three-year key stage 4 have done so in order to enable students to study more subjects at GCSE level, or to go into greater depth than the content of the specification.

Other schools treat year 9 as a subtle transition to GCSE, introducing GCSE skills and task-types but not necessarily GCSE content. These examples contrast sharply, in Ofsted’s view, with schools who are simply starting GCSE a year early.

When considering the structure of your key stage 3 and 4 phases, a key question to ask yourself is: am I preserving richness and breadth throughout my curriculum and could I easily demonstrate to Ofsted that this is the case?

Broad and balanced

2, Is the curriculum in your school broad and balanced?

Linked very closely to the length and structure of key stage 3 and 4 is this question of breadth and balance in the curriculum. This means offering a range of academic and non-academic subjects for as long as possible, maintaining breadth in your curriculum in a way that allows students to discover and pursue particular passions and areas of interest.

Maintaining this breadth and balance is a key focus of the new Ofsted framework; any move to narrow the curriculum – either in terms of offering a reduced diet of subjects or overly limiting the time available to teach subjects to a meaningful depth – is likely to be looked on unfavourably by Ofsted.

There is no prescribed view of what breadth and balance looks like in a school curriculum – for some it may be around the balance of academic and vocational pathways, for others a focus on the arts. A good yardstick is to ask whether the curriculum in your school truly provides choice and caters for the needs and interests of different students.

Ambition vision

3, Do we have a clear and ambitious vision for our curriculum?

Curriculum is at the heart of education; one can see and understand the values and philosophy of a school by looking at the curriculum it puts in place for its students.

Having a clarity of vision for your curriculum – and ensuring that vision is shared by all involved in implementing the curriculum – is vital to its success. Ask yourself the following:

  • What is the “intent” of our curriculum?
  • What knowledge, skills or experiences does our curriculum prioritise and why?
  • What outcomes are we trying to secure for our students?
  • Is our curriculum ambitious for each and every pupil in our school?

Ofsted will be looking for staff across the school to be clear and consistent in their responses to the above. Make sure everyone is on the same page as it will help drive the focus and coherence of your curriculum at a whole school and subject level.

Curriculum structure

4, Is my curriculum logically structured to make sure that students remember more?

Ofsted defines learning as “an alteration in long-term memory” where pupils are making progress in terms of knowing and remembering more.

They also draw a distinction between this “genuine” learning – where pupils connect new and existing knowledge – and the recalling of disconnected facts.

Underpinning the new framework is the belief that the sequencing of learning in a curriculum has a direct impact on whether students learn and remember more. Can you and your colleagues answer questions around:

  • Why is content taught in the order it is?
  • Where is content revisited and built on?
  • How does the sequencing of the curriculum ensure you build on, rather than repeat, students’ prior learning?

Implementation support

5, Are teachers fully supported to implement the curriculum effectively?

A well-designed curriculum can still be implemented poorly. It is worth considering whether all your staff, from the most experienced through to the newly qualified, are equipped with the subject and pedagogical knowledge to deliver the curriculum effectively.

Being able to articulate what plans you have in place to support your staff, and to tell a story around any professional development programmes you have in place, is likely to reassure Ofsted that the implementation of the curriculum is being managed effectively.


6, Is assessment used to improve teaching and learning?

One of the key framework changes is the shift away from a focus on internal progress data, previously the backbone of any inspection. Ofsted will no longer ask to see such data. Instead, inspectors will be more interested in understanding why you have collected the data you have and how that data is being used to inform what is taught next.

Assessment should ideally be used to identify gaps in students’ understanding that can then be addressed in the curriculum.

Ofsted will also monitor whether schools have a sensible policy around the frequency with which teachers are asked for data drops – with a preference for no more than two to three per year. Many schools will already be in line with this, but where schools are carrying out more than three, a sound rationale will need to be in place.

The school context

7, Is my curriculum tailored to the school’s context?

Ofsted is looking for well-designed curricula that take account of the school’s local context. Think about the following:

Are there any opportunities local to the school that could be used as part of providing a broad and balanced curriculum? For example the history and geography of the local area or potential links to local industry/employment

What knowledge and experiences do students not have easy access to which the school curriculum might need to address? This links closely to the idea of “cultural capital”. What is your curriculum doing for students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds? 

  • Danny Cuttell is head of curriculum services at Pearson UK.

Further information & resources

  • Ofsted: Education Inspection Framework, May 2019:
  • Pearson has created a series of Handy Guides to Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework. Part one summarises the questions above as well as key changes and their implications. Part two focuses on leadership and management. Part three, due out soon, looks at personal development. To read the guides, visit


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