What the new Ofsted framework says about the curriculum

2 Feb 2019, 5:00

Ofsted doesn’t need a new inspection framework, says Frank Norris. But as it’s here, he urges “all colleagues to analyse each word, sentence and paragraph closely”

In 2004, I was asked to join the development HMI team for the new school inspection framework that was implemented in 2005. I redesigned the joint area review framework in 2006 and led on the two school inspection frameworks introduced in 2012. So I know how challenging and difficult it is to develop, implement and review the introduction of a new inspection framework.

The stakes are high and the scrutiny intense.

I’ve made clear my belief that Ofsted doesn’t need a new framework, but needs to revise the current one and better train its inspectors to implement it more fairly. However, if I park that view, then I want to congratulate Ofsted on its communication strategy for the draft. It has been launched in good time and includes much more detail that previously. Frameworks are about detail and it is important that the consultation considers every aspect.

Let’s take the first bullet point in para 168 which is about how the curriculum is implemented. This is ostensibly about teaching, by the way.

Here it states “the most important factors in how the curriculum is taught and assessed are that: teachers have expert knowledge of the subjects that they teach and, where they do not, they are supported to address these gaps so that pupils are not disadvantaged by ineffective teaching”.

There is no doubt that subject expertise is a big aid for successful learning, but we have all been taught by experts with weak teaching expertise so subject knowledge alone is not enough. For me, the most important element is having secure knowledge, skills and expertise in how to teach – with strong subject knowledge. The consultation goes on to say that schools should be addressing the lack of subject expertise so that “pupils are not disadvantaged by ineffective teaching”. This statement reinforces a belief that subject expertise is what makes for effective teaching. It begins with a misplaced assertion and then repeats it at the end to sort of make it justified.

We have all been taught by experts with weak teaching expertise

I suspect primary teachers will feel aggrieved by the suggestion that their lack of expertise, say, in geography, will inevitably lead to ineffective teaching. I don’t think Ofsted wants to say this, but this is what it feels like. Let’s just create a secondary timetable model and employ university lecturers. That’s bound to make the teaching effective!

The second bullet point states “teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts, presenting information clearly and promoting appropriate discussion”. I don’t have an issue with the specific points. I like the reference to discussion (that’s my preference), but there is a sense of a preferred teaching style being developed here. The fifth bullet point uses the term “subject curriculum that classes follow” in such a way that I think there is a risk that some primary schools will feel the urge to go back to the heavily structured curriculum plans that were the vogue years ago.

I am not saying that there shouldn’t be a structured phonics programme or a clear route for learning mathematics, but only last week I observed amazing strides in learning take place in an early years setting when a child brought a fossil into the classroom. The children have for the past two weeks developed their learning guided by expert teaching staff with no clear end. My preferred practice is that we have a curriculum that excites, stimulates learning and opportunities for learning in one area to impact on another. It doesn’t at the outset have a “defined end point” in the way the fifth bullet point suggests it should have.

Finally, I am struck how some bullet points use words that convey a judgment such as “effectively” and “fluently” whereas others are rather more general. The key issue for everyone is to consider how they would be able to convince an inspection team that they have the evidence to support the “effective” and “fluent”. But that needs another article.

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