Nearly half of primaries score poorly on curriculum quality, new Ofsted study shows

Nearly half of all primary schools scored poorly in Ofsted’s latest curriculum study – with an apparent focus on English and maths sidelining foundation subjects.

For instance, seven of the 33 primaries schools visited by the inspectorate under phase 3 of its curriculum study, published today, had a “complete absence” of curriculum design in humanities.

Overall, the research found that 15 of the 33 primaries schools inspected by Ofsted scored either a 1 or 2 for their curriculum (based on a five-point scoring system, where five is the highest).

In a commentary published alongside the study, chief inspector Amanda Spielman said primaries mostly fell down on humanities, arts and technology.

The schools that were most invested in curriculum design had a clear focus on the subject knowledge to be learned in each subject

Just one primary scored a 1 for its curriculum in either English or maths. And conversely, just three of 31 secondaries scored poorly for curriculum design.

Spielman said: “In phase 2 of our research, we saw that almost all of the primaries used topics or themes as their way of teaching the foundation subjects.

“However, the ones that were most invested in curriculum design had a clear focus on the subject knowledge to be learned in each subject and designed their topics around that. What appears to happen more often, though, is a selection of topics being taught that do not particularly link together or allow good coverage of and progression through the subjects.”

Spielman did write the findings on primaries were “disappointing but unsurprising”, adding: “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.”

Ofsted used 25 indicators of curriculum quality as part of the study. However they admitted this would be too many for inspectors to use in the new inspection framework.

We have accepted that inspection itself is in part to blame

Inspectors had conversations with senior leaders and subject leaders and collected “first-hand” evidence of implementation, with inspectors then able to make “focused assessments” of schools, against each of the indicators. Inspectors used a five-point scale to help distance thinking from the usual Ofsted grades.

Inspectors looked at four different subjects, one core and three foundation.

33 primary schools, 29 secondaries and two special schools were selected, based on previous inspection judgments (no inadequate schools were included), deprivation level, and school type. The inspectorate over-sampled secondaries that were judged outstanding.

Secondary schools score favourably on Ofsted curriculum measures

Only 8 of 33 primaries scored highly (a 4 or 5), compared to 16 of 29 secondaries (over half).

15 of the 33 primaries scored poorly (a 1 or 2), and just three secondaries.

Spielman stated that most lesson time and curricular attention from leaders is spent on English and maths. As previous research found, some primary schools were practicing SATs as early as Christmas in year 6, and focusing on comprehension papers rather than actually encouraging children to read.

At secondary, arts subjects “appeared particularly strong”, with 10 out of 13 arts departments scoring a 4 or 5.

However, some subjects were still being implemented weakly compared with English and mathematics, Spielman said.

“In modern foreign languages, many of the features of successful curriculum design and implementation were absent or limited due to the lack of subject specialists.

“History was also less well organised and implemented in a number of schools, often to the detriment of a clear progression model through the curriculum. A lack of subject expertise, especially in leadership roles, contributed to these weaknesses.”

Spielman: We won’t downgrade vast numbers of schools

But Spielman has insisted the inspectorate will not be “downgrading vast numbers of schools”, and reiterated her “commitment to keeping the overall proportions of schools achieving each grade roughly the same between the old framework and the new framework”.

She wrote: “We are not ‘raising the bar’. That means explicitly that we will not be ‘downgrading’ vast numbers of primary or secondary schools. Instead, we recognise that curriculum thinking has been deprioritised in the system for too long, including by Ofsted.

“We do not expect to see this change overnight. The new framework represents a process of evolution rather than revolution.

“To set the benchmark too high would serve neither the sector nor pupils well. Instead, we will better recognise those schools in challenging circumstances that focus on delivering a rich and ambitious curriculum. At the same time, when we see schools excessively narrowing and gaming performance data, we will reflect that in their judgements.”

The curriculum indicators:

No. Indicator
1a There is a clear and coherent rationale for the curriculum design
1b Rationale and aims of the curriculum design are shared across the school and fully understood by all
1c Curriculum leaders show understanding of important concepts related to curriculum design, such as knowledge progression and sequencing of concepts
1d Curriculum coverage allows all pupils to access the content and make progress through the curriculum
2a The curriculum is at least as ambitious as the standards set by the National Curriculum / external qualifications
2b Curriculum principles include the requirements of centrally prescribed aims
2c Reading is prioritised to allow pupils to access the full curriculum offer
2d Mathematical fluency and confidence in numeracy are regarded as preconditions of success across the national curriculum
3a Subject leaders at all levels have clear roles and responsibilities to carry out their role in curriculum design and delivery
3b Subject leaders have the knowledge, expertise and practical skill to design and implement a curriculum
3c Leaders at all levels, including governors, regularly review and quality assure the subject to ensure it is implemented sufficiently well
4a Leaders ensure ongoing professional development/training is available for staff to ensure curriculum requirements can be met
4b Leaders enable curriculum expertise to develop across the school
5a Curriculum resources selected, including textbooks, serve the school’s curricular intentions and the course of study and enable effective curriculum implementation
5b The way the curriculum is planned meets pupils’ learning needs
5c Curriculum delivery is equitable for all groups and appropriate
5d Leaders ensure interventions are appropriately delivered to enhance pupils’ capacity to access the full curriculum
6a The curriculum has sufficient depth and coverage of knowledge in the subjects
6b There is a model of curriculum progression for every subject
6c Curriculum mapping ensures sufficient coverage across the subject over time
7a Assessment is designed thoughtfully to shape future learning. Assessment is not excessive or onerous
7b Assessments are reliable. Teachers’ ensure systems to check reliability of assessments in subjects are fully understood by staff
7c There is no mismatch between the planned and the delivered curriculum
8 The curriculum is successfully implemented to ensure pupils’ progression in knowledge – pupils successfully ‘learn the curriculum’
9 The curriculum provides parity for all groups of pupils