Ofsted is right about the knowledge-rich curriculum

The inspectorate doesn’t always get things right, says Mark Lehain, but its latest review is important

Ofsted gets a lot of hate from teachers. It’s just so easy to blame it, and wish it wasn’t there, especially when school leaders cry “it’s what Ofsted wants” when introducing a new initiative. (Spoiler alert: it isn’t.)

While I have long been dubious of Ofsted’s ability to do what is asked, I don’t doubt that it does have an important purpose. And that’s not to be the scapegoat for SLT decisions made on a whim – it’s to be our Jiminy Cricket.

Schools shouldn’t need her majesty’s chief inspector to tell them what to do or how to do it, but we do sometimes need someone to remind us what is important, and why we’re here in the first place. Everyone gets a little lost sometimes (as I know from experience, having almost completely ignored serious thought about curriculum in my first couple of years as a head), and Amanda Spielman should be there to remind us what it’s all about.

Amanda Spielman has very much joined a chorus now reading from the same hymn sheet

She has done this again today with her update on the curriculum research she’s been carrying out. After pupil safety and behaviour, it is more important than anything else we contribute to as educators, and Amanda is on our shoulder once again reminding us of that fact. To some it will seem intrusive, but to others it will be a timely intervention, and one that could just influence the direction their school travels in.

What is interesting is that she has very much joined a chorus now reading from the same hymn sheet: where once it was Nick Gibb dad-dancing to his own tune in the corner, now he sings in full voice with Amanda, Justine Greening, the DfE and headteacher unions such as ASCL. They’re all saying the same thing: curriculum is crucial, and you have the power to shape it.

We at Parents and Teachers for Excellence are fully behind this sing-along. The curriculum is the most important tool a school has, and it must be broad, balanced, stuffed full of knowledge and appreciative of the culture surrounding it. Schools have a moral duty to ensure that the curriculum they give their children does this, and if classroom teachers think it doesn’t they have a right to ask why.

At our conference last month, Paul Hammond suggested that if teachers could ask their superiors one question about curriculum, it should be “What is distinctive about our curriculum?”, while Martin Robinson suggested “What is our curriculum’s narrative?” These are two of the many important questions teachers should be regularly asking those above them. As Amanda Spielman points out, too many schools feel like they simply haven’t thought about the curriculum anywhere near enough, but now we have explicit permission to do so.

Ofsted and others are being as clear as they can possibly be: providing a rigorous, knowledge-rich curriculum needs to be a major priority. Once you’ve got that, almost everything else will flow from it.

Yes, this is tough. Creating a knowledge-rich curriculum from scratch is a time-consuming, labour-intensive process, and arguments over what should be included could stretch on forever (PTE is looking to do some work on the practical implementation of a knowledge curriculum in the coming months). For my part, one of my last acts as head of Bedford Free School was to put our latest KS3 curriculum online for people to use and give us feedback on.

Lots of other places are doing far more impressive work, including the Inspiration Trust out east, Turner Schools in coastal Kent, West London Free School, St Martin’s in Stoke Golding, and so on – and I know they and others are only too happy to share where they have got to so others can take them on and tweak them to make a curriculum in their own image. We’re a sharing profession, we can do this together!

All of this sounds hard, and that’s because it is. But it’s worthwhile, important, and necessary. It’s also far more interesting considering what and how to teach than which qualification will boost our league table position the most. What are we waiting for?

Mark Lehain is the director of Parents and Teachers for Excellence

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  1. I disagree with Mr Lehain.
    Schools have thought plenty about the curriculum. Personally I have spent more than 20 years leading on the curriculum of state secondary schools.
    Then Mr Gove, a Times journalist with zero experience of managing a school curriculum, told us we were “The Blob”. Mr Gove then proceeded to dismantle the curriculum along with teacher morale.
    So Mr Lehain, you may have thought little about the curriculum in the short time you were a headteacher, but I can assure you that many others have agonised over its distortion and manipulation for political purposes.
    And no, I do not praise Mr Gibb for anything!

      • Exactly. PTE is stuffed with supporters of Michael Gove who imposed his curriculum on English schools. It’s disingenuous of PTE and Spielman to argue for schools to design their own curricula when schools have to follow this centrally-imposed national curriculum. Academies are theoretically exempt but they’re kept in line by testing.

        PTE supports CoreKnowledgeUK – there’s a link on PTE’s website under its ‘research’ paper ‘Why we need a knowledge-based curriculum’. This plugs ‘direct instruction’ but the research base (3 citations) are old and one, the US-based National Reading Panel, refers only to teaching reading and vocabulary. It recommended that ‘Vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly’.
        I critiqued PTE’s other research papers under this Schools Week article. https://schoolsweek.co.uk/vote-leave-campaigner-and-tory-donor-behind-parents-and-teachers-for-excellence-campaign/
        I’m not against direct teaching when appropriate. But as Laura McInerney argues in her last editorial, pupils need skills as well. Nick Gibb’s support for knowledge blinds him to the merits of anything else. This also applies to PTE.

  2. James Mook

    I welcome the sharing of the curriculum from Bedford Free School becsue any opportunity to share curriculum ideas is a good one,but I am not convinced that a “knowledge-rich curriculum” is anything new or innovative. Just becuase people say it is does not make it true. What I think you mean is the memorisation of key facts as a technique to develop knowledge and that is different to the curriculum. The techniques of learning (rote learning, investigation, direct instruction etc) are elements of the actions that arise from a curriculum.
    The BFS curriculum (admittedly, at first glance) does mix up concepts of success criteria and actions to meet those objectives. For example, Drama: “By the end of this unit students will: [To] use hot seating to explore several characters in the play”
    Is this an objective for all to meet? A required part of this series of lessons? An observable outcome that has a measurable impact?

  3. To place ‘skills’ and ‘knowledge’ as ‘counter approaches’, misunderstands effective learning, which is about the development of cognition and how this can best be facilitated and supported.

    In the behaviourist ideology of the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM) that is increasingly dominating the English school system through the expansion of Academies and Free Schools, the validity of general cognitive ability (intelligence) is denied. What is taught to school pupils is considered to be ‘facts’ and/or ‘skills’. The assumption is that there is nothing that cannot be learned through the behaviourist methods of instruction and remembering facilitated by disciplined silent listening, lots of practise with similar examples and regular testing, all incentivised through formal regimes of rewards and punishments.

    However, the most effective approaches as researched by EEF, are quite different. For example EEF finds ‘dialogic teaching’ to be particularly effective.

    “Dialogic Teaching aims to improve pupil engagement and attainment by improving the quality of classroom talk. Teachers are trained in strategies that enable pupils to reason, discuss, argue and explain rather than merely respond, in order to develop higher order thinking and articulacy. The programme uses video review, print materials and in-school mentoring to support teachers’ practice across English, maths and science lessons.

    This trial found consistent, positive effects in English, science and maths for all children in Year 5, equivalent to about 2 months additional progress.”

    This is consistent with other EEF trials focusing on cognitively challenging talk, such as ‘Philosophy for Children’, and ‘Thinking, Doing, Talking Science’. The consistent results across subjects and the lack of any subject specific content in the training suggest that the approach may improve children’s overall thinking and learning skills rather than their knowledge in a given topic.”

    This EEF conclusion is important as it recognises that the approach is not based on the learning of factual content but on stimulating and supporting the development of cognitive ability. Put simply, the pupils made more progress because the teaching and learning methods used made them cleverer. It is important to note that pupil’s confidence and performance improved in all subjects, not just the ones directly relevant to what the ‘classroom talk’ was about. This is the claim of the long-standing ‘cognitive acceleration‘ movement led by Michael Shayer and the late Philip Adey, backed by a huge amount of peer reviewed research.

    Knowledge and skills are of course always involved, but this vocabulary misses the point. It would be like doctors discussing how to cure patients by arguing about which of the ‘four humours’ needs to predominate. See