Guest Post: The new Ofsted reports: focus on curriculum design, depth and progression

NACE Challenge Award Adviser Elaine Ricks-Neal reviews emerging trends from the first round of Ofsted reports under the new education inspection framework (EIF).

There’s certainly a very different feel to the new Ofsted reports. Whilst they are clearly written with parents in mind – reflected in the use of accessible terminology and avoidance of too much detail in the published reports – there is no doubt that schools’ curriculum design and delivery is under forensic scrutiny. And although there is little explicit reference to more able learners, the importance of high-quality provision for this group is implicit in the strong focus on curriculum planning, subject-level provision, and breadth and depth of learning.

Style and structure of the new reports

The reports are written in a surprisingly simple style which Ofsted has said is intended to be parent-friendly, getting right to the point and largely steering clear of education jargon – for example, “The school is not a results factory.”

Both section 8 and section 5 reports look very similar, each opening with a short paragraph addressing the question “What is it like to attend this school?” – summing up the school ethos, behaviour, attendance and day-to-day opportunities. In most cases, the report’s opening statements are positive, but any issue linked with behaviour or low standards will be simply – even bluntly – highlighted; for example, “Pupils enjoy school, but they should be doing much better.”

The reports then move on to the main section: “What does the school do well and what does it need to do better?” – bundling together judgements for the quality of education, personal development, and leadership and management. This can make it quite hard to tease out the reasons for any difference in section 5 judgements of any of these strands.

Finally, there is a paragraph on safeguarding, followed by improvement points.

What key themes are emerging?

  • Focus on curriculum design and subject plans

The reports may have a simple style, but it’s clear that curriculum plans and schemes of work have really been unpicked to check how well “subject leaders plan the curriculum so that pupils build on their knowledge so that they know and remember more”. If your curriculum is not coherent and well thought-through, there is no hiding place. Not surprisingly, a very frequent weakness is that subject planning is not “precisely planned and sequenced.” In primary schools this is often in foundation subjects. There is also real drilling down into phonics, the reading curriculum, mathematics and the quality of SEND provision.

If standards are referred to, which is not the case in all reports, it is usually a simple broad comment – for example, “pupils achieve well” – and linked back to how well subjects are planned and taught. This doesn’t mean results are not deemed important, and schools which have dropped a grade will usually have a critical comment about standards, but the emphasis is on the impact of curriculum and the way it is planned and taught in bringing about those outcomes.

  • Warnings against curriculum narrowing

In secondary schools, there is the same focus on sequential planning, but also criticism of any perceived curriculum narrowing or lack of entitlement, especially for SEND and disadvantaged pupils. Also under scrutiny are the two-year KS3, low EBacc uptake and sixth-formers who are not accessing work experience. This may be unsettling for many secondary schools who might feel they will now need a curriculum rethink to avoid Ofsted disapproval.

In primary schools, if pupils miss lessons for intervention sessions, a judgement may be made as to whether they are missing out too much on the full curriculum.

What about more able learners?

There is no doubt that breadth and depth of learning is highly valued in this framework and that must be good news for more able learners. Though there is not much explicit reference to able learners, there is a strong focus on how well plans build on what learners already know, and where schools do less well, there is typically a reference to work being “too easy for some” or lack of challenge.   

A good deal of attention is also paid to the depth of teachers’ subject knowledge and the need for learners to have access to “demanding” reading texts. Schools which do very well are complimented for adapting lesson plans well, having an “ambitious curriculum”, or learning being sequenced to develop “deep understanding” with teachers “building on what pupils already know to achieve the highest standards” (examples from an outstanding school judgement).

So, the focus on more able learners is there, though not as we saw it before due to the new “general audience” style of the reports. It is clear that inspectors are digging much deeper than the brevity of the reports might suggest, with a strong focus on the substance and quality of the curriculum and the day-to-day experience. This should ultimately benefit all learners, including the most able.

New tool to support curriculum review

Launched this term, the NACE Quality of Education Curriculum Audit Tool© offers a comprehensive framework to support curriculum review at whole-school or departmental level, with a focus on high-quality provision for more able learners and challenge for all. It is aligned with the key curriculum aspects which Ofsted will consider in inspection.

Available free of charge for NACE members, the Audit Tool is also available for purchase with accompanying consultancy. Find out more.

This article was originally published on the NACE website. To find out more about NACE and becoming a member, click here or watch the video:

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