Ofsted and the curriculum

Ofsted yesterday published a blog by Sean Harford, and it was rather good. It said some very sensible things about the curriculum in schools, and it gave a helpful steer in terms of where Ofsted is going with this. My blog post here is a quibble with just one clause in the whole post, which does feel a little mean-spirited. The clause does, however, go right to the heart of what I see as a pretty fundamental issue in terms of how we think about the curriculum, and it is an issue which manifests itself in all sorts of unfortunate ways in the education system (in general) and in how inspections work.

The clause in question is the third part of a description of Ofsted’s approach to curriculum which involves examining the intent, implementation and impact of the curriculum. The clause addresses the question of the impact of a curriculum and it is phrased in this way:

…what difference is [the curriculum] making to pupils’ learning.

I am frequently inclined to think that one of the most powerful ways we have for improving the nature of educational discourse would be to insist that the words ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’ are always given an object. There is always something being taught and something being learnt. If an inspector were to ask “what difference is this making to the pupils’ learning?” the only reasonable response is the counter-question “their learning of what?”

The obvious and reasonable answer here from an inspector is “what you have taught them”. You are the teacher, you have taught your pupils something, and the inspector wants to know the extent to which those pupils have actually learnt this. As a teacher, I have taught my pupils all sorts of stuff that I was not supposed to be teaching them (including lots of terrible puns). Generally, however, inspectors are (quite rightly) interested in the things I am supposed to be teaching them. For me, this is history. For another teacher, it is mathematics. And so on. How do I and my colleagues know what I am supposed to be teaching the pupils? The answer, of course, is the curriculum.

It is here, however, that we start to go down a rabbit hole. If what an inspector is interested in is whether my pupils have learnt what was on the curriculum, our formulation has now become:

What difference is the curriculum making to the pupils’ learning of the curriculum?

If this sounds like a very peculiar construction, then that is because it is. I have had to think long and hard about why this does not make sense, and I think the answer is that, in this construction, curriculum is both a factor being weighed and the tool being used to weigh it. We do not here have an independent variable: if we modify the curriculum, then by definition we would also modify what the pupils learn about the curriculum.

The problem here might just be a matter of phrasing: it is possible here that what is meant is the much more logical “have pupils’ learnt the curriculum?” This, for me, is the question an inspector should be asking, and it’s the question I would feel happy if it were used to hold me accountable. I expect to be asked about the extent to which my pupils have learnt the curriculum I have taught them: this is a very reasonable request from a parent, a manager or an inspector.

An alternative reading, however, might suggest that this question is getting at the suitability of the curriculum. I would imagine that trying to teach Part III of the Cambridge Mathematics Tripos to a Year 8 class would be very unsuccessful. It would be the wrong curriculum for those pupils: they would not able to learn any of it because they lacked heaps of prior knowledge that would open it up to them. The issue here is over what a pupils needs to know in order to begin a curriculum. As a subject lead in a school, I would expect to be asked “What are the prerequisites for your curriculum? How do you know pupils come with those? What do you do if they don’t already know those things?” These are not difficult questions to understand, but they might well be difficult to answer: those are, for me, important features of good accountability questions.

In both of these cases, the original formulation suffers simply from a lack of clarity in phrasing. With a few simple modifications, we can produce a set of questions that inspectors might quite reasonably ask. I want however to examine in the last part of this post another possible interpretation of this construction which I think is particularly troublesome.

A quick reminder of the formulation. The line of inquiry an inspector is being asked to pursue is

“What difference is the curriculum making to the pupils’ learning?”

You will remember that we ‘fixed’ this question by specifying what it is that the pupils are learning. By assuming this was what the teacher intended to teach – that is, the curriculum – we pinned down the logical problem in the question, and fixed it by rephrasing the questions. There is, however, another possibility here, which is that this question is asking whether pupils have learnt something other than what was intended in the curriculum. This might particularly be the case if the thing being learnt in a fairly generic idea such as “reading” or “numeracy”. This might result in a construction such as:

“What difference is the curriculum making to the pupils’ learning numeracy?”

Now I do have a suspicion that this might be what was meant by the original construction, and I can easily imagine that this is exactly the sort of thing that inspectors might like to ask. It’s a seductive question for an inspector, as it allows him or her to establish a causal link between what the school does and a wider accountability measure, such as Key Stage 2 or GCSE Mathematics results. And it sounds like a very reasonable question.

But again, we should here be very clear about what is going on when this question is being asked. Let’s say an inspector feels that the curriculum is not resulting in pupils’ learning numeracy to a very high standard, perhaps indicated by the grades achieved in public exams being fairly low for the demographic. What our inspector is doing here is imagining what a better curriculum model would be which does actually teach the pupils what they need in order to do well in those exams. It could be, for example, that the school did not think it necessary to teach top-heavy fractions, and, unsurprisingly, pupils were failing to answer questions such as these. The key point here is that the inspector is now making a judgement about the quality of the school’s curriculum.

The problem here is that Ofsted are claiming not to have a ‘preferred curriculum’. In this case, however, the problems with a school’s curriculum are determined by comparing it to another (perhaps idealised) curriculum, in order to identify its deficits. This results in the same problem we had with quality of teaching. Until recently, although Ofsted did not have a stated preferred teaching style, its inspectors often did have one, and judged schools based on comparing what they saw with their own preferences. We could face a similar problem here with curriculum. If Ofsted do not state a preferred curriculum, but they are asking inspectors to comment on the quality of a school’s curriculum in the way I have described here, then we will end up with each inspector making a judgement of quality against his or her own model for what the curriculum should have been like. This is why I think Ofsted should steer clear of asking about the impact of curriculum on whether or not pupils have learnt things which are not specified in that curriculum. I cannot see how this can become anything other than a judgement on the quality of the curriculum.

So, this has been quite an involved blog post – it has certainly taken me a long time to write and given me a few conundrums to work through. Based on this analysis, but recommendations for Ofsted are as follows:

(1) Do not look for the impact of the curriculum, but rather use the curriculum as the tool for judging the impact of teaching. If children are learning what is in the curriculum, then teaching is effective.  This means asking questions such as “How well have children learnt this curriculum?” “How do you know they have learnt this curriculum?” “What do you do if a pupil has not learnt this curriculum?”

(2) Ask questions about the design of the curriculum in terms of what prior knowledge (or understanding, or skills, or whatever) is needed in order to study the curriculum. Ask how schools check pupils have these prerequisites, and what the school does if pupils do not.

(3) Please, please, always give ‘learning’ an object: “learning maths”, “learning the curriculum”, “learning content set out in the specifications”, or whatever is meant when the term is used. For all the reasons I have set out in this post, to talk of “pupils’ learning” without specifying what is being learnt  is to create considerable scope for confusion. The same is true of terms such as ‘progress’ (progress in what?).

(4) If you are going to get inspectors making judgements about the quality of a curriculum, ask them to do this by comparing it to published models. For Key Stages 1-3, this should be the National Curriculum. For GCSE and A-Level, this should be the exam board specifications. The risk of not doing this is that inspectors judge a curriculum based on their own preferences.

That’s all for now. At some point I shall return to this question of curriculum as progression model, which encapsulates many of the issues addressed in this post.

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