Ofsted considers probing curriculum narrowing in beefed-up MAT evaluations

New beefed-up evaluations of multi-academy trusts could see inspectors examine whether the curriculum is being narrowed across groups of schools, Ofsted has said.

The watchdog’s annual report, released today, revealed its leaders are looking at a “methodology refresh” of “limited” trust summary evaluations to give a “a far richer picture” of how organisations run their schools.

The move is seen by the inspectorate as a “step further” towards formal inspections of trusts, which Ofsted has been pushing for for some years but would require legislation and additional resources. At present, evaluations are based on batch inspections of schools and limited access to trusts’ back office functions.

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national of education, told the launch that Ofsted is working with the Department for Education to develop a “themed approach” to MAT evaluation which “could well pick up” on issues such as the narrowing of the curriculum across a trust’s schools.

Ofsted has come under increasing pressure to change its inspection approach after a number of schools and trusts claimed they were being penalised for teaching GCSEs over three years, rather than two.

But chief inspector Amanda Spielman remained defiant in her speech this morning, insisting her team would not “turn a blind eye” to schools that narrow the curriculum.

She also warned of a “small but influential minority who think it’s okay to bend education out of shape in order to boost exam results and school league table positions”.

The leaders of prominent academy trusts have been among the most vocal opponents of Ofsted’s new regime. They claim it disadvantages schools that teach the poorest pupils.

But such trusts may soon find their approach to curriculum planning even more in the spotlight as Ofsted considers its options for extended summary evaluations.

Speaking to Schools Week earlier today, Harford said: “In the approach that we’re trying to set a course for, for the next stage of MAT summary evaluations, is to look at themes.

“One of those themes could be curriculum development, and in which case, then you would be into discussions around how it is developed, what’s the approach across the individual schools within the MAT, across the MAT itself.”

He said such an approach may “lead to a greater understanding of why those decisions are being made”, and help differentiate between decisions made at MAT-level and those made by individual schools.

“If we went into specific trusts and looked at that decision-making process, it could be that those kind of things being foisted onto schools are against the will of the school. I’m not saying that’s what’s happened so far, but getting underneath why those decisions are made and what the impact of those decisions is is really important.”

Harford said he understood why schools had moved towards three-year GCSEs under the previous system, which placed more weight one exam results, but repeated his assertion that Ofsted does not favour one approach.

“Around half of schools have convinced themselves that the thing to do is to extend the time it took to do GCSEs,” he told Schools Week.

“We are not in a position, nor would be want to be, to say you must do a three-year key stage 3. But what we are saying is that to do well by those children, with a high-quality curriculum, they need to be studying the breadth of it to the kind of age we’ve all got used to, age 14, rather than 12 or 13. You’ve got to be able to keep that breadth and depth so that children have got options.”

He added: “We have schools that have got two-year KS3 that have achieved all the grades, from ‘inadequate’ to ‘outstanding’.”