If primary schools have to offer a broad curriculum, does that mean less time for English and maths, asks Karen Wespieser

Can you have a broad curriculum and focus on the basics? In her commentary accompanying the third and final part of Ofsted’s curriculum research project, Amanda Spielman admits that one of the legacies of the now much maligned national strategies is that you can walk into just about any primary school in England on a weekday morning and you will find all the staff teaching maths or English. The afternoon curriculum is the reserve of “everything else”.

She also notes that “what gets measured gets done”, and as English and maths are what are measured at key stage 2, “it is hardly surprising, then, that they get the most lesson time and most curricular attention from leaders”.

To her credit, the chief inspector has admitted Ofsted’s own role in this, saying: “we have accepted that inspection itself is in part to blame. It has played too great a role in intensifying performance data rather than complementing it.” In 2012 Sir Michael Wilshaw, her predecessor, announced that he would focus Ofsted “more sharply” on literacy. What gets measured gets done.

Without literacy, pupils cannot access the curriculum

So how, bemoan beleaguered primary teachers, can we be focused on literacy and have a broad and balanced curriculum? Well, for me, the secret is in indicator 2c of the inspectorate’s latest report.

The third part of Ofsted’s curriculum research is its most extensive and robust to date. It visited 33 primary schools, 29 secondaries and two special schools to test a list of 25 indicators. This, it reports, provided 71 data points for each school and allowed Ofsted researchers to carry out statistical analyses investigating the validity of their research model and identify the indicators that most clearly explained curriculum quality.

Overall the data shows that the 25 indicators in the model can be boiled down into two main factors – intent and implementation – but it is the detail of the intent that pleased me, namely indicator 2c: “reading is prioritised to allow pupils to access the full curriculum offer”.

This is a fact that, while seeming self-evident, is all too often missed. You can have the most broad and balanced curriculum in the world, but if you can’t read, you can’t access it. So, while it is undoubtedly important to have a broad curriculum, it is vital to get the basics right too.

One way to enshrine reading and literacy in a broad curriculum is to take a whole-school approach. This is not a new concept – “every teacher is a teacher of English because every teacher is a teacher in English” (George Sampson, 1922) – but it is sadly not prevalent in all schools.

A whole-school approach to literacy is neither extravagant nor exotic. There are quick wins that can embed this approach in schools, for example:

  • Involve all staff and demonstrate how they are all engaged in promoting literacy.
  • Identify the needs of all pupils in reading, writing, speaking and listening and use this data to inform how you will improve curriculum accessibility.

These approaches work for those already secure in their knowledge and for those that have identified literacy difficulties.

Without literacy, pupils cannot access the curriculum, and without access to the curriculum they cannot have equity. The Ofsted research notes how difficult it can be to ensure equity in the curriculum and cites some of the issues faced by schools in ensuring lower-attaining pupils or pupils with special educational needs and or disabilities (SEND) can access it. This is a challenging issue, but is one that can be overcome through high-quality teaching, targeted and specialist support and effective deployment of teaching assistants.

The real challenge will come not from embedding literacy in a balanced curriculum, but in ensuring that schools have access to the resources they need to ensure equity. All the indicators are that as budgets are getting squeezed, those often in the frontline of supporting equity – teaching assistants and specialist teachers – are the first to go