Guest post: Reconsidering breadth, balance and the inspection of the primary school curriculum – Professor Colin Richards

Colin Richards

Colin Richards

Professor Colin Richards, himself a former HMI, writes on the problems of Ofsted passing judgement on the implementation of the primary curriculum.

The chief inspector’s latest monthly commentary (May 2016) stresses that “we need to put as sharp a focus on the other subjects (of the primary curriculum) as we do on English and mathematics.” He goes on to remind inspectors that “they should be looking closely at the subjects of the wider primary curriculum, including science and modern languages as set out in the inspection handbook.”

Yet scrutiny of that handbook reveals that no subjects other than mathematics and English are mentioned by name. What we have is a vaguely-expressed requirement that inspectors “evaluate the design, implementation and evaluation of the curriculum ensuring breadth and balance (my italics)”.

Given the reference paid explicitly to breadth and balance in the handbook and implicitly in the commentary it is perhaps time to reconsider those well-worn concepts . The formulation in the handbook is wide open to interpretation.. and misinterpretation. “Breadth” and “balance” are value-laden terms but Ofsted does not acknowledge that fact. To be meaningful the first of these terms requires political and professional consensus over the criteria by which the breadth or otherwise of schools’ curricula can be judged.

Thirty years ago HMI attempted to forge such a consensus by arguing that primary and secondary schools should involve all children in nine areas of experience and learning throughout the age-range 5 to 16. Placed in alphabetical order to emphasise that all were essential to a child’s education, these were (a) aesthetic and creative,(b) human and social;(c) linguistic and literary;(d) mathematical, (e) moral, (f) physical,(g) scientific, (h) spiritual, and (i) technological. These were not seen as timetabled subjects or areas but as together constituting a planning and analytical tool which schools, teachers and inspectors might use to assess current or proposed curricula.

Thirty years on, if inspectors’, including the chief inspector’s, comments on breadth in the primary curriculum are to have any meaning and carry any conviction, they ideally need to be underpinned by a parallel professional consensus. Revisiting, and where necessary revising, those areas of learning and experience (or similar concepts) would be a first step to establishing this.

A second step would involve characterising those areas or concepts in sufficient (but not exhaustive) detail for them to form an explicit focus for inspection on which sound judgments about breadth offered by a particular school can be founded. If such a curriculum consensus proves impossible to achieve, then Ofsted would need to establish it its own view, to inspect a school in relation to those criteria and to comment on the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum inspected, while acknowledging the school’s own view of the curriculum it provides.

If “breadth” is problematic, “balance” in the primary curriculum is even more so, yet the inspection handbook does not recognise this. Even more than breadth, balance is in the “eye of the beholder” or, more accurately, in the mind of the observer. It involves giving due weight, appropriate consideration, suitable attention, to the various components of a school’s curriculum.

Those involve judgments of value that are unlikely to be – probably cannot ever be – settled by any professional consensus. Perhaps the only reasonable requirement on inspectors would be to report the school’s view of curriculum balance and to indicate whether or not the inspection team concurs with that view.

Ofsted is not legally responsible for the illogicality and arbitrary nature of current curriculum policy. However, the chief inspector’s commentary and the current inspection handbook fail acknowledge, let alone address, the value judgments involved in inspecting the curriculum. Breadth and balance are contested concepts and need to be recognised as such.

To discuss further you can email me at [email protected] or tweet me @colinsparkbridg

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  1. Well said.  Yes.  Breadth and balance should be determined by the staff of each primary school responding to the nine elements that Colin Richards remembers (from a more educational past) and in the light of the staffing and resources of the school.  Government edicts and Ofsted inspections are trammelling the professional insights of primary school teachers and thus narrowing the educational development of our children.  Teachers should be trusted.

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