Ofsted: Are you ready for September 2019?

Written by: Stephen Rollett | Published:
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Hi. My school has done a lot of work with you regarding pastoral work. I would be interested in ...

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What will Ofsted’s new inspection framework mean for schools? Stephen Rollett looks at what we know so far...

A new Ofsted framework is heading our way in September 2019, and a growing swell of discussion about the curriculum is already building. But how should we prepare for the gathering curriculum tide and is it already time to begin paddling?

On the horizon

The first wave of Ofsted’s research (October 2017) stated there was little curriculum reflection and a lack of common curriculum language in schools. The effects of this, chief inspector Amanda Spielman said, were:

  • “The primary curriculum is narrowing in some schools as a consequence of too great a focus on preparing for key stage 2 tests.”
  • “Leaders have often misunderstood the purpose of key stage 3 and the new GCSE assessment criteria.”
  • “The intended curriculum for lower-attaining pupils in some secondary schools was often associated with the qualifications that count in league tables but not with other knowledge they should be acquiring.”

Ofsted’s most recent (September 2018) research explored the curriculum thinking of 23 “curriculum invested” schools. Inspectors noted strengths and weaknesses in approaches that were knowledge-led as well as those which prioritised skills (although it was noted that progression models for skills-led curricula were harder to achieve). The recognition of a range of valid approaches was important as it should give reassurance to schools concerned that Ofsted might prescribe a particular method (see also, SecEd, September 2018).

However, it is notable that both commentaries emphasised the importance of knowledge as the foundation upon which skills are built. This is not to say Ofsted is anti-skills, but its research does suggest careful sequencing of knowledge should be high-profile in the minds of curriculum designers.

Being ready

The focus on the curriculum is about much more than inspection. Above the surface we see Ofsted’s new framework appearing to set the agenda, but the real power of the curriculum runs much deeper. Whether facing inspection or not, there are steps you can take to evaluate and improve the curriculum – all of which should strengthen your practice in the event Ofsted does come calling.

Join the conversation

While the temptation may be to wait until Ofsted’s new framework has been finalised, your curriculum should meet the needs of your pupils, not inspectors. Get involved in this great curriculum conversation by talking to colleagues and reading blogs and books. The aim is to become more informed and more confident at thinking and theorising about the curriculum.

Review your curriculum

Look within your own school, department or classroom to explore how well it resonates with your emerging curriculum thinking. This is an area where Ofsted’s emerging framework is useful. Its national director, Sean Harford’s April 2018 blog offered “three i’s” (intent, implementation and impact) as a helpful structure to frame analysis of the curriculum.

As ever, much of this work, particularly your “intent” and “implementation”, will be shaped by your context. Get a feel for how informed and aligned curriculum thinking is across the school, including among governors.

Consider entitlement and equity

Schools will need to ask reflective questions about their range of GCSE options, the length and breadth of key stage 3 and the potential narrowing that can take place as we prepare pupils for tests at key stage 2.

But this interrogation of the curriculum should go deeper and be informed by research, not just intuition. For example, if part of your curriculum intent is to “close the gap” for disadvantaged pupils, have you read Michael Young’s work on “powerful knowledge”?

And, before you hastily reject ED Hirsch as an advocate of rote-learning, have you explored the detail of his argument that disadvantaged children are best served by a knowledge-rich curriculum?

Catching the wave

Just as the tide is a recurrent feature of our shoreline, curriculum thinking should be central to the ebb and flow of school life: informed by the day-in, day-out interactions between pupils, teachers and the content they teach. As such, riding the curriculum wave is about a long-term commitment to developing and distributing curriculum leadership and expertise in your school.

Create capacity

Where you can, remove or reduce extraneous pulls on time that don’t target what David Weston and Bridget Clay (2018) call “the organisational edge” – the point where school directly impacts on pupils. Ask yourself, what can you get rid of in order to give the curriculum the sustained attention it deserves, while ensuring teachers’ workload is manageable?

Cognitive psychology

Develop colleagues’ critical understanding of the growing body of evidence from cognitive psychology about how memory works. Understanding How We Learn (Weinstein, Sumeracki & Caviglioli, 2018) is an accessible and useful guide to concepts such as schema, cognitive load, spaced practice, interleaving and retrieval. Awareness of these ideas should help teachers and middle leaders to sequence learning more effectively. It is also interesting to note that research around these areas was built into Ofsted’s training programme for inspectors this year. Knowing what inspectors know can’t hurt!

Disciplinary thinking

Subjects give us a way of describing and organising knowledge, but it is through exploring subjects as “disciplines” that teachers and pupils engage with the community of expertise, methods and traditions that exists in each field. Christine Counsell, former senior lecturer at the University of Cambridge Faculty of Education, argues that at the heart of each discipline is a quest for truth (September 2018). How does your school/department engage in this quest and how do you introduce pupils into these traditions? Do you encourage colleagues to interact with their subject communities in ways that go beyond discussions about exam mark schemes and specifications? How do you structure CPD time to give departments space to breathe the invigorating air of their disciplines?

Curriculum leadership

The challenge for leaders is to gain insight and oversight across areas that are not necessarily their own domains of expertise. They must ensure the tendency towards generic whole-school levers of organisation, accountability and assessment don’t undermine the unique character of each discipline.

The best I have seen on this is on Christine Counsell’s blog. One of the most profoundly simple but illuminating statements I have gleaned from her writing has been “the curriculum is the progression model”. I noted the same phrase was used in Ofsted’s most recent curriculum commentary.

Increasingly, I speak to leaders who are willing to challenge the orthodoxy of half-termly data drops and one-size-fits-all assessment systems. Your confidence to do likewise may be shaped by the context of your school, but you should know that Ofsted is increasingly asking inspectors to look beyond data.

In the most recent School Inspection Update (September 2018), Sean Harford, urged inspectors to “move beyond the data as quickly as possible to ascertain how well the curriculum is being taught”. Leaders should draw confidence from this document, even if they may need a copy to hand in order to remind inspectors if necessary.

Successfully riding the curriculum wave is about nurturing the knowledge and confidence to take control of the distinctive nature of what you teach and how you teach it. This doesn’t mean “anything goes” – I would expect inspectors to challenge poorly constructed curricula – but it should mean leaders and teachers can spend more time exploring, debating and improving that part of school life which many enjoy most.

Whether Ofsted comes calling or not, developing curriculum expertise can only be beneficial.

  • Stephen Rollett is inspections and accountability specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

Reading & references

  • HMCI’s commentaries: Recent primary and secondary curriculum research, Ofsted, October 2017 (http://bit.ly/2DFmQdA) & Curriculum and the new education inspection framework, Ofsted, September 2018 (http://bit.ly/2DnsNvy).
  • Ofsted’s Spring Conferences, Sean Harford blog, Ofsted, April 2018: http://bit.ly/2NHrEUk
  • Knowledge and the Future School, Young, Lambert, Roberts & Roberts (Bloomsbury, 2014).
  • Why Knowledge Matters, ED Hirsch (Harvard Education Press, 2017).
  • Unleashing Great Teaching, Weston & Clay (Routledge, 2018).
  • Understanding How We Learn, Weinstein, Sumeracki & Caviglioli (Routledge, 2018).
  • Taking Curriculum Seriously, Christine Counsell, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2OS3T8C
  • Christine Counsell’s blog: https://thedignityofthethingblog.wordpress.com
  • School Inspection Update: Special edition, Ofsted, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2QXGTq5
  • Ofsted chief: ‘We have not placed enough emphasis on the curriculum’, SecEd, September 2018: http://bit.ly/2N13yOQ
  • More details emerge ahead of new inspection framework, SecEd, June 2018: http://bit.ly/2Q13xwp

Hi. My school has done a lot of work with you regarding pastoral work. I would be interested in updates. Thanks
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