The curriculum has been lost “as a needle in a haystack” within Ofsted inspections despite being the “real meat” of a good education, the chief inspector of Ofsted has said.

Amanda Spielman, speaking to delegates at the Festival of Education this morning, said too many schools are teaching to mark schemes, SATs and GCSEs rather than considering the actual content of lessons being delivered to pupils.

School leaders and teachers often simply consider “the curriculum” to mean what’s in their timetable or what’s in qualifications, rather than thinking about how they can deliver a truly “civic education”, including learning about ancient civilisation or hear classical music.

But the current common inspection framework “doesn’t fully yet capture this core substance of education,” she admitted.

“Rather than carrying the weight it should, the curriculum can often end up as the needle in the haystack.”

However Spielman denied that schools would now be inspected on whether they were delivering an “Ofsted-approved curriculum”, instead that inspectors would look more closely at whether they were properly thinking about their curriculum, planning it well, and delivering it effectively.

Ofsted does not want to “get into the space” of defining the curriculum, she confirmed in conversation with Schools Week editor Laura McInerney following her speech. “It’s to make sure what the school is setting out to provide and how effective it is in providing that – but not saying this is or isn’t an Ofsted-approved curriculum.”

Too often the curriculum had been reduced to a function of getting pupils into employment or higher education, she said, adding this was “rather wretched” and the country could be “ashamed” this had become the case.

“I question how much school leaders really ask what the body of knowledge is that we want to give to our young people.”

The chief inspector said she had seen SAT practice papers being started in year four, lessons where “everything is about the exam”, where teaching the mark scheme had become more important than “teaching history itself”, and where EAL pupils had not been entered for a second language because they could “tick the box” of speaking another language already.

Instead, an education should be about imparting a curriculum, including the spiritual, cultural and moral development of pupils, which created a “better civilisation” and “left the world a better place.”

The words come as Spielman is part-way through a review of the curriculum, begun this year, to see curriculum practice taking place across schools, advised by experts including Tim Oates, group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, and Samantha Twiselton, director of Sheffield Institute of Education at Sheffield Hallam University.

“This is not a coded announcement of a sneaky new change. Perhaps this is a little bit of a reminder to inspectors to keep looking at the curriculum,” she added.

“And is what Ofsted looks at really making sure that the best things happen for children.”