Ofsted’s new curriculum framework has the potential to transform workload and bring education back to where it should be.
Exam grades and test results are hugely important – they are a mark of knowledge and achievement that young people can use as the collateral to win university places, secure apprenticeships and get great jobs. Yet our education system is so heavily weighted on results that they drive everything.
The essence of what happens in every school every day, and what leads to knowledge and understanding, is the curriculum. Ofsted’s focus on this is contributing to a re-balancing of our system and it has huge potential to reduce workload. To deliver on that, the framework to follow in 2019 must be implemented properly.
Many schools, often achieving stellar results, already have broad curricula that foster a love of learning, a wonder of books, a deep understanding of numbers and the principles of mathematics, a cherishing of the arts and an enthusiasm for sport. I believe that not only do they have nothing to fear from the new framework but that – with the proviso that Ofsted gets this right – they will continue to flourish.
The focus on fine-grain data makes teachers less inclined to teach with freedom
But in schools with more challenging intakes – including many of Ormiston’s academies in post-industrial or coastal towns – teachers are under results-driven pressure. A teacher’s job in these circumstances is hard enough. We don’t want them obsessing over data. We want our brilliant teachers to be supported to teach the subjects in which they are specialists.
But it is the system’s focus on fine-grain data that makes teachers less inclined to teach with freedom and much more likely to do “the extra stuff” that adds hours to their days in the hope that it will shift the results dial. The tyranny of the numbers is dispiriting.
One of the products of Ofsted’s new focus is that it has the potential to challenge an unspoken assumption of many years: that it is the classroom teacher who does curriculum on the side. This is hugely problematic for workload. We would not expect teachers to create new data systems, even though many of them could do aspects of this work and should be involved in getting it right. We recognise the labour involved in this kind of technical work.
Re-designing a curriculum also demands much time, capacity and expertise. If schools or academy trusts have the capacity and enthusiasm for this, they should be free to do so. But it isn’t something to be picked up in the minutes in and around the timetable.
The system as a whole should also be enthusiastic about adopting curricula that already exist. As with a number of other trusts, Ormiston Academies Trust is trialling Ark’s Mastery programmes in English and maths, and they are looking very positive. With Ofsted turning the dial, I believe that adoption rather than creation will become increasingly commonplace.
Will Ofsted rule that Ark’s curriculum, or other curricula, are “preferred”? I don’t believe they should, or will, make that judgement at all. Instead they should look at whether a curriculum has a clear rationale showing coherence and sequence, and whether it delivers knowledge, skills and understanding. There are many, widely different curricula available which meet those criteria. Where curricula are narrow and weak, inspectors should be able to say so, because young people are not being imparted with the required breadth of knowledge.
Test and exam results will still, rightly, remain critically important – the performance tables will continue to be published, and young people will still open their results in August.
But what all schools, and especially those in challenging positions, need from the inspectorate is a framework that moves away from data-driven accountability and teaching to the test, which increases teacher workload, and moves towards the evaluation of clear curricula built on sound principles.
Developing the framework will be difficult – turning something complex into something simple enough for inspection risks losing the nuances and identifying a crude set of principles to judge it by. Supplementing the inspector workforce with subject specialists will be crucial – inspectors, like the rest of the sector, have been raised within a data-driven culture.
But the new framework has the potential to transform workload and bring education back to where it should be. Ofsted needs to get this right.