Amid the seemingly never-ending train of events affecting schools over the past two years, it’s easy to forget that this term marks the second anniversary of the launch of a new education inspection framework (EIF).
Ofsted’s aim was to put curriculum back on centre stage in our efforts to educate children well and boost their life chances, and it made every school leader a curriculum leader. But only months later, Covid came along and made us all into home-learning leaders and community leaders. Amid that ongoing disruption, the killing of George Floyd brought increased calls to decolonise the curriculum, requiring us to become social justice leaders too.
Not only that, but with the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi, we are on to our third education secretary over the same period. So whatever else can be said about the EIF, we know that it has adapted to an unprecedented number of challenges and still operated as a framework for evaluating overall school effectiveness and quality of education.
However, the EIF has not been operationalised for a continuous period. With lengthy pauses in Ofsted inspections and constantly shifting priorities, it is unclear that its key principles – a huge departure from what came before – have fully embedded.
When it launched, it was to concerns that it could cause tensions between Ofsted’s focus on curriculum offer and the DfE’s focus on delivering exam results. Somewhat ironically, there have been no exam results as such since, but the best answer to that point is that an excellent and ambitious curriculum will by default produce excellent examination results.
The question of decolonisation is much more sensitive. It is concerned with promoting an inclusive curriculum which critically assesses different viewpoints and assumptions as well as giving students access to a range of diverse voices. It leaves curriculum leaders to grapple with difficult decisions about curriculum content.
This seemingly new tension is just a reformulation of the concern about quality of curriculum vs exam results: are the expectations of exam boards broad enough to accommodate local curriculum decisions? We may all want our pupils to know about the origins of algebra and the impact of the work of black academics and scientists, such as Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson, but when can we fit it all in?
There are no easy answers. There is certainly no one-size-fits-all model. But if anything, these challenges demonstrate that Ofsted’s “curriculum turn” was timely and correct. This is curriculum leadership, and it is dynamic. It requires us to consider questions around entitlement, ambition and the intellectual journey our schools take pupils on. What is the role of our key stage 3? How do we provoke curiosity? How well are the big ideas identified and sequenced?
Such questions ignite professional interest in subjects. They shape thinking about purpose and practice. But of course, the challenge is not equal for all schools and leaders. Schools without strong subject experts will struggle, and it is not uncommon for staff to teach outside their specialism. That means some curriculum leadership challenges can only find their solutions through recruitment. And while that might seem impossible for some, it’s actually inconceivable for others. In small schools, for example, leaders are usually responsible for multiple subjects for which they lack the expert knowledge they need to confidently drive improvement.
All of which puts the onus on another curriculum: professional development. It also brings us back to the real pressure that undermines effective curriculum leadership: lack of time. Again, this is no bad thing. It forces us to take a brutal view of our activities and to rethink those that are least likely to have the greatest impact on outcomes.
Like the events of the past two years, aligning our ambitions with our enacted curriculum seems to be never-ending. But unlike them, the outcomes should be joyous.
Two tumultuous years in, that bodes well for this framework long outliving its short-lived predecessors.