Ofsted publishes curriculum review preliminary findings

Schools are narrowing the primary curriculum by placing “too great a focus” on preparing for SATs, an investigation by Ofsted has found.

The watchdog has questioned the intensity of preparation of pupils ahead of exams, and warns some schools are shortening key stage 3 to focus on GCSEs, meaning some pupils never study history, geography or a language after the age of 12 or 13.

Ofsted has today published the preliminary findings of its review of the school curriculum, which was announced in March in response to what has been described as a “gaming scandal”.

The review found there was “a lack of shared understanding” of what the school curriculum actually means, and a “lack of clarity” around the language of the curriculum.

There is a serious risk of schools not fulfilling the promise and potential of the 2014 national curriculum

This has resulted in lower-attaining pupils being deterred from entering EBacc subjects, instead taking subjects that score more highly in league tables.

The preliminary findings have been set out by chief inspector Amanda Spielman in commentary published this morning.

Spielman said it was “unlikely” that any school had prioritised testing over the curriculum as a “deliberate choice”.

However, it is likely that testing has come “inadvertently to mean the curriculum in its entirety” for some schools, she continued.

The review has also identified problems with recruiting the right staff to help schools develop the curriculum, which in turn point to issues with teacher training.

“Primary school leaders reported that recruiting staff who could design a curriculum was becoming increasingly difficult,” Spielman warned.

“Some headteachers thought that too much of what trainee teachers currently learn is focused on teaching to the English and mathematics tests.”

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said it was “hardly surprising” that schools focus intensely on KS2 tests and GCSEs, “as that’s how their performance is measured”.

“If Ofsted wants them to focus less on these assessments, we would suggest it lobbies the government for a change to the accountability system rather than criticising schools,” he said.

Announced by Spielman at ASCL’s conference in March, the review was commissioned in response to what she described as a gaming “scandal”.

Spielman said at the time that a conflict had emerged between a head’s desire to give pupils the right education, and to improve their league table position.

“We know that there are some schools that are narrowing the curriculum, using qualifications inappropriately, and moving out pupils who would drag down results,” she said. “That is nothing short of a scandal.”

It follows extensive investigations into gaming by Schools Week – including revealing how some school leaders were being urged to enter vulnerable pupils into a qualification that could be “taught in three days”, but was worth the equivalent of a GCSE.

Ofsted told its inspectors earlier this year to crack down on schools found to be gaming the system – which included entering whole cohorts of pupils into subjects with over-lapping content.

The first phase of Ofsted’s review included research visits to 40 schools, a review of inspection report and five regional focus groups with headteachers.

It also involved questionnaire responses from Ofsted’s parent panel and retrieval of information from school websites.

Spielman says the first phase has revealed “the depth of the challenge”, and says school leaders need to recognise “how easy it is to focus on the performance of the school and lose sight of the pupil”.

She does, however, acknowledge that Ofsted inspection “may well have helped to tip this balance in the past”.

“The substance of the curriculum is a matter for government policy,” she said. “Ofsted has a role in judging how well schools reflect the government’s intentions and don’t distort the aims that have been set.

“This is complex and is why this is a long-term investigation for us. It is one that I have no doubt will shape how we inspect in future.”