In his latest commentary, Sir Michael Wilshaw said subjects like science and modern languages have become the ‘poor relations’ of the primary school curriculum. Colin Richards argues that Ofsted is in large part responsible for the status quo.

Ofsted has a lot to answer for when the chief inspector’s latest monthly commentary dares to criticise primary schools for allowing subjects such as science and modern languages to become the “poor relations” of the school curriculum.

A few years ago I undertook a detailed scrutiny of a sample of thirty or so Ofsted school inspection reports. In none of them – none – did any subject other than mathematics and English ever get a mention. Nine-elevenths of the curriculum had been airbrushed; it was as if they never existed. There was a similar but less marked imbalance in secondary school reports. Take a look at the current Ofsted framework and handbook. Individual non-tested subjects are not mentioned by name. No wonder they don’t feature in inspection reports.

People don’t do what you expect; they do what you inspect.

Twenty years or so ago, Ofsted stopped making judgments about standards of work in primary schools in subjects other than mathematics and English. Previously such judgements had been rough and ready but had at least been made. For the last two decades there has been no attempt to make overall judgements of standards in the vast majority of subjects. We don’t know how far, if at all, national standards in history, science, modern languages, the arts, etc. have improved or deteriorated. There is anecdotal evidence of their neglect but no inspection evidence.

There is an adage, “People don’t do what you expect; they do what you inspect”. This has been particularly true since the introduction of the national strategies twenty years ago. It has contributed to the relegation of all but two subjects to second- or even third-class status.

To be fair to the chief inspector, he does recognise explicitly that in recent years inspections “have prioritised the quality of provision in English and mathematics”, thus implicitly acknowledging their partial responsibility for other subjects’ comparative neglect – but why doesn’t it he admit that openly? Why does his commentary focus entirely on modern languages and science with no mention at all of the marginalised humanities and arts?

As is too often the case, the chief inspector wants it both ways. He argues that in future inspections “we need to put as sharp a focus on the other subjects as we do in English and mathematics” without presumably losing focus on the so-called but misnamed “basics”. But how is that going to be possible given the time constraints, especially in short inspections? Presumably too he wants schools to follow suit. But how realistic is that, given the constraints of national testing in just two subjects, the existence of league tables and the current priorities of the national curriculum programmes of study which, as hard-pressed teachers know, devote thirty times more “space” to English and to mathematics than to the “poor relations”?

As is too often the case, the chief inspector wants it both ways.

There is no doubt that many of his comments on modern languages and science are valid given the curriculum priorities of governments and inspection regimes since David Blunkett’s fateful suspension of requirements in the non-core subjects in the late nineties. There is insufficient time devoted to the study of science and foreign languages but where is the time to come from except from the “rich relations” who still require focused attention?

It is true that “the majority of primary-age pupils enjoy studying science and having the chance to learn a foreign language”, though that enjoyment is not likely to be a major feature of their experience in the run-up to testing in year 6 – the very time where good working arrangements with partner secondary schools are required for effective transition and progression. As the commentary stresses, these arrangements are too often poor, but for a variety of reasons – lack of time for them to work properly; the “free-for-all” choice of language to study in both primary and secondary schools; and the failure of Ofsted to make cross-phase transition and progression a focus in its school inspection reports.

Those of us in favour of a wide primary curriculum, well taught, well resourced and well respected, welcome the lip service paid in this commentary to such a curriculum, but lip-service it is, without a fundamental and realistic reappraisal of Ofsted and government priorities. If that reappraisal takes place, schools will follow – they will do what Ofsted expects and inspects. But without it, comments like Wilshaw’s are so many “whistles in the wind”.

Colin Richards is Emeritus professor of education at the University of Cumbria