Ofsted 'worried' heads are failing to delegate curriculum design to subject leads

Some headteachers are doing “all the thinking” about the school’s curriculum when they should be delegating more responsibility to subject leads, according to a senior Ofsted figure.

Chris Jones, deputy director for research and evaluation at the inspectorate, said his team were “worried” by examples of schools in which heads had too much control over curriculum re-design.

The “best curriculums” involved subject leads taking charge of curriculum design in their specialist area, he told delegates at a Westminster education forum on the EBacc and secondary curriculum today.

He also promised Ofsted were aware some schools were further behind on their curriculum design and said the inspectorate was “not planning to send out a bunch of inspectors to downgrade schools” on that basis.

The finding about heads taking too much control of curriculum design emerged during Ofsted’s study into curriculum practice at 23 schools, which will be used to further its thinking about curriculum quality.

It comes as the inspectorate prepares a new inspection framework for next year that pledges to have schools’ curriculums at its core.

But Jones said that in some schools his team observed, it was “the headteacher who did all the thinking around vision and ethos, and how that translated into their curriculum intent”.

“Obviously that’s no good if the headteacher then leaves,” he said.

But more importantly, the research team found that many subject leads were “equally happy and willing” to take a leadership role in developing the curriculum for their subject as well.

Delegating curriculum design to subject leads was a “more sustainable” model given staff turnover, said Jones – but also resulted in the best curriculums.

The strongest examples of the curriculum we found were those where…subject leads were given responsibility

“The strongest examples of the curriculum we found were those where, yes, you have strong central vision, perhaps from a headteacher – but then everyone in the school understood that vision and the subject leads were given responsibility to then get on and implement the curriculum, using that as a starting point.”

Ofsted’s curriculum research ran into some controversy when it was published in September, because it admitted only a “small group” of the schools had a skills-led curriculum, and the rest a knowledge-rich or knowledge-engaged approach.

Critics asked whether all schools had been openly invited to take part and accused the research of “confirmation bias” towards knowledge-rich schools.

Jones said today Ofsted was not against skills, and pointed to the importance of a skill such as critical thinking.

“Knowledge is the enabler of skill”, he said, explaining that without a strong knowledge base pupils cannot develop many skills.

One delegate also warned schools might feel they would have to design their curriculum “in a summer holiday” given the new inspection framework will be published in summer 2019 before the new term.

Subject leads might suddenly receive emails from heads asking them to design their subject curriculums before September, when Ofsted inspectors could arrive to judge their efforts, she warned.

Jones said Ofsted was aware schools were “at different points on their curriculum journey” with some slightly further behind, but said the inspectorate was not planning to “turn up in September and send out a bunch of inspectors to downgrade a bunch of schools.”

“That’s not the intention here.”

He said more information would be coming out following further consultation on the framework in January.