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Ofsted has turned our attention back to what makes a good curriculum. We now need better answers

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 23 January 2019

 John White.
Ofsted has begun consulting on a revised draft inspection framework.
The inspectorate wants to move away from an over-reliance on results and to focus on how these have been achieved – ‘whether they are the result of broad and rich learning, or gaming and cramming. ’The aim is to ‘‘rebalance inspection to make sure that young people are being taught the best of what has been thought and said’.
Ofsted’s focus on whether a school has a good curriculum is welcome. If taken seriously, it should lead us into deep and complex issues about what education should be about. But, bound as it is by current legislation, Ofsted has a very specific interpretation of this. Its references to knowledge and skills and nod to Matthew Arnold’s well-known dictum show its reliance on the current National Curriculum aims, introduced by then Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2013:
‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’
This makes short work of the question: what should schools’ aims be? Gove’s statement is not really about this at all. Its first sentence does not tell us what knowledge is essential for the educated citizen. Its second sentence is too general to cut any ice. It is not in fact an aims statement, but more accurately Gove’s personal précis of the content already embodied in the National Curriculum, that is, the clutch of subjects going back to 1988.
Ofsted’s remarks about ‘broad and rich learning’ also reflect the aims laid down in 1988 and still in force:
‘Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.’ r a ‘balanced and broadly based’ curriculum, just as we need to know how to interpret words like ‘spiritual’, ‘cultural’ and ‘mental’. The last sentence in the 1988 statement is platitudinous. Indeed, all the aims now in force are too empty of content to be a guide.

What strikes one above all is their brevity. The 1988 ones and the 2013 ones are 46 and 40 words long respectively. How can so few words tell us what a school’s purposes should be?
Coherence is also a problem. How is Gove’s emphasis on ‘essential knowledge’ related to a ‘balanced and broadly based’ curriculum that deals with a whole range of concerns (‘spiritual, moral …..development’)? How does a curriculum of largely traditional subjects promote these various kinds of development? We are not told.
The official aims in force are not fit for purpose. We need to start afresh. A problem is that it has been educationministerswho lay down aims and curricula. The rationale is that these should be under democratic control rather than the professional control that existed before 1988. This is sound in principle. The shape that  school education takes affects how fulfilling students’ own lives and others’ will be, and on the future well-being of society more generally. Teachers are not in a privileged position over other citizens to say what a good society or a good education should be like. It is a cornerstone of democracy that everyoneshould help determine these.
But the danger of ministerial control is that ministers may impose their own views of what schools should be for. In 1988 Baker imposed his preference for a broadly-based grammar school education. In 2013 Gove narrowed this in the direction of knowledge acquisition.
The proper vehicle for democratic control is a Curriculum Commission at arms-length from ministerial interference, made up of people from interested sectors across society chosen for their impartiality. After wide consultation, its task would be to construct a full and reasoned statement of school aims, to be revised at intervals.
The Commission will arrive at its own conclusions but it is reasonable to expect these to include equipping students to be members of a modern, democratic society who enjoy a fulfilling life of their own choosing, help others to do so, and engage in satisfying work.
The Commission will want to generate more determinate aims. The civic aim, for instance, points to acquiring some understanding of what living in a democratic community involves; and to strengthening dispositions necessary for democratic life like concern for others, cooperativeness, personal autonomy, tolerance and treating others with equal respect. Another example. Seeing the role of STEM activities in the economy, the Commission will want students to have sufficient grasp of these to hold down a job in the area if they want this.
The Commission will no doubt make its aims, perhaps including those just given, more determinate still, but there its remit ends. This brings us to a crucial distinction – between deciding what the aims should be and deciding how those aims are to be pursued, ie by what curricular vehicles (eg subjects, whole school processes etc) and by what  pedagogies. This distinction marks the watershed between the work of the Commission and the work of schools – between the political and professional spheres.
The National Curriculum has always transgressed this limit, framing curricular content mainly within a particular kind of vehicle – the school subject. Since 2010 ministers have reinforced this in their EBacc initiatives and also encroached into pedagogy by, for instance, policy on synthetic phonics. Ofsted’s new framework also stresses a subject framework, and the framework’s reliance on cognitive psychology to conclude that ‘progress…means knowing more and remembering more’ suggests it may also have its own views on how things should be taught.
Ofsted has turned our attention back to what makes a good curriculum. We now need a more adequate answer to this question.

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6 Responses to “Ofsted has turned our attention back to what makes a good curriculum. We now need better answers”

  • 1
    rogertitcombe wrote on 23 January 2019:

    We will need a lot more evidence of these welcome aspirations to have any confidence that much needed change on the ground will result.
    I have been in regular correspondence with OfSTED in relation to issues recently raised by Professor Becky Allen on this blog site. All I usually get is a bland PR type response devoid of details or significant information or evidence. You can read about the latest example here.
    The biggest flaw in OfSTED’s stated intentions relates to their inability or unwillingness to inspect Multi Academy Trusts (MATs), which is where most of the educationally unacceptable bad stuff has its ideological origins. Far from condemning these practices (eg off rolling, exam gaming and abuse of pupils through ‘imposition of silence’ and ‘solitary confinement booths’, OfSTED heaps praise on the offenders and protects them from scutiny through the awarding of ‘outstanding’ status. You can read more about this here.
    There is much to be concerned about in many ‘Outstanding Schools’ that haven’t been inspected for decades. Is OfSTED now intending to lift the veil of secrecy that hides the practices of these schools?

  • 2
    John Mountford wrote on 24 January 2019:

    Much to mull over in this piece, John. Nearly six years ago, you and I were in a brief correspondence on this very topic when you co-published “An Aims Based Curriculum” with Michael Reiss and I was campaigning for an end to party political governance of our education system. You may recall I was seeking support for establishing a National Education Commission. It was along the lines you sketch out here.
    In response to your column, I have to agree with you, Gove’s pronouncements on the aims of education did indeed make short work of the question: what should schools’ aims be? I further agree with your conclusion about this central question for any national education system and the attempt now by Ofsted to engage. You seem to suggest their input does not match the importance of this issue, any more than previous attempts at clarification did. “What strikes one above all is their brevity. The 1988 ones and the 2013 ones are 46 and 40 words long respectively. How can so few words tell us what a school’s purposes should be?” The question today, is, are we finally about to see this issue given the prominence it needs in a national debate? Form what I am reading, the answer is equally stark and brief – no!
    You write, “Teachers are not in a privileged position over other citizens to say what a good society or a good education should be like. It is a cornerstone of democracy that everyone should help determine these.” I would phrase this differently, making the claim that such wording is more than semantics.
    “Whereas teachers are certainly not in a privileged position to DECIDE what a good education should look like, they have a duty to SAY what it should look like as part of a wide decision-making process. The danger of ‘ministerial control’ is always evident and very costly in wasted resources and attrition of the profession and has to be reformed.”
    The teaching profession has been under threat from successive governments. It has weakened the resolve among its members to speak out against the tide of often harmful reforms. By expecting teachers to discharge their duty as primary educators to help clarify what education is for in our society, maybe we will see the emergence of a more confident, thoughtful and invigorated profession.
    I would certainly never frame the issue over aims in such terms but, if it is to be left to one group of citizens, I would far prefer that the profession made decisions about ‘what schools should be for’ rather than politicians. I believe, however, that it can be arranged otherwise. The system we labour under presently is deeply limiting and is failing our young people.
    A new mechanisms for arriving at consensus about the aims of education needs to be agreed. Ofsted’s new framework should indeed inform this but in my view should not be a determining factor.

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    OFSTED’s worst practice – its four-grade scale – undermines the real advances in its new draft framework | IOE LONDON BLOG wrote on 31 January 2019:

    […] Ofsted has just issued a draft inspection framework for consultation which puts the curriculum at its heart. This is a welcome return to what inspectors used to value, namely the curriculum, although some fundamental questions remain, as John White details in his recent blog. […]

  • 5
    A new way of inspecting schools? Er, no. | Faith in Learning wrote on 31 January 2019:

    […] John White (on the IOE blog) and Frank Coffield (same place) have both produced a good critique of the new framework and of the place of curriculum within it. Coffield’s piece is particularly helpful and reminds us of the basic courtesies which OFSTED does not observe – or rather, which their grading system allows into the conversation: […]

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