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