It’s the curriculum, stupid

Roy Blatchford reflects on the Year of the Curriculum which lies ahead…

 

A secret garden

Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 presidential campaign slogan memorably read ‘It’s the economy, stupid’. His lead strategist James Carville hung a sign with these words in the Little Rock campaign headquarters: what was intended for an internal audience rapidly became the election signature tune.

For the 2018 – 19 academic year, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector has hung up the sign: ‘It’s the curriculum, stupid’.

HMI began visiting schools last term to seek views on how the curriculum should best be inspected when the new Ofsted framework comes into force in September 2019. And the curriculum focus is already being played out in HMI monitoring visits to schools. Take this example from a recent letter to an improving secondary school: ‘The school should ensure that the extent and depth of knowledge that pupils gain in each subject by the end of each topic is consistently clear’. This is evidently the way the inspection wind is blowing.

The fickle curriculum wind has blown in various directions over the past decades. In 1976 Prime Minister James Callaghan, in a speech at Ruskin College, Oxford, ventured to suggest that for too long schools had operated within a ‘secret garden’. He put forward the then-daring notion that there might be a child’s entitlement to some kind of national curriculum.

Carefully harnessing the words of R.H. Tawney – ‘What a wise parent would wish for their children, so the state must wish for all its children’ – Callaghan moved on to say:

The goals of our education, from nursery school through to adult education, are clear enough. They are to equip children to the best of their ability for a lively, constructive place in society, and also to fit them to do a job of work. Not one or the other but both.

 Thus began more than ten years of intensive and constructive debate.

Secretary of State for Education, Sir Keith Joseph, encouraged Her Majesty’s Inspectorate to nudge the educational establishment towards the acceptance of a nationally prescribed curriculum. The HMI ‘raspberry ripple’ booklets (named after the colours of their covers) on curriculum subject areas were a significant milestone. The 1988 Education Reform Act finally brought a national curriculum in England into the schools’ system – and successive governments have tinkered with it ever since.

 

Does the curriculum matter? 

Not according to many respected research studies and educational commentators. In McKinsey’s influential study ‘How the world’s best performing school systems come out on top’ (2007), the curriculum barely gets a mention. The key thrust of the report is that the quality of teachers and investment in their training are key determinants of great education.

Expectations are all. The curriculum – what we teach – is nowhere.

Ofsted itself has waxed and waned in its own enthusiasm for the curriculum. In the 2012 inspection framework, there was little prescription; rather a focus on educational outcomes, however schools chose to achieve them. Inspectors worked with a relatively loose yet comprehensive description:

A broad and balanced curriculum which meets the needs of all pupils, enables all pupils to achieve their full educational potential and make progress in their learning, and promotes their good behaviour and safety and their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development.

In the current 2018 framework, the word ‘curriculum’ does not appear as a key word in any of the section or chapter headings. Rather it features as one modestly worded aspect among many to be inspected under leadership and management:

The broad and balanced curriculum inspires pupils to learn. The range of subjects and courses helps pupils acquire knowledge, understanding and skills in all aspects of their education.

For teachers at the sharp end of leading curriculum development in schools, Ofsted was in my view at its descriptive, enabling best in the 2009 framework, defining an outstanding curriculum as follows:

The school’s curriculum provides memorable experiences and rich opportunities for high-quality learning and wider personal development and well-being. The school may be at the forefront of successful, innovative curriculum design in some areas. A curriculum with overall breadth and balance provides pupils with their full entitlement and is customised to meet the changing needs of individuals and groups.

Authors of the next framework will do well to better this narrative, reminding us at it does that a school’s curriculum is the sum of many parts, including the national curriculum.

 

The fun and fundamentals

 In steering Ofsted ahead it will be fascinating to watch the extent to which the Chief Inspector steps into the ‘secret garden’. How prescriptive of curriculum design and related outcomes for pupils will the September 2019 framework be? Will depth trump breadth? Will Ofsted avoid an either/or approach?

My profound wish is that whatever direction is signalled, the national inspectorate generously encourages leaders and teachers to hold onto the fun and fundamentals of learning which lie at the heart of great classrooms.

Schools making the most of this year of the curriculum will, in a spirit of self-review, look afresh at what they teach and why they teach it. If Ofsted’s renewed focus on the curriculum has this benign effect then pupils and teachers will be the beneficiaries. And along the way schools should take every opportunity with a passing inspector to shape the 2019 framework’s final text.

Roy Blatchford CBE is a former HMI and founder of www.blinks.education. He is the author of ‘The Restless School’ and his latest book is ‘Success is a Journey’, both published by John Catt Educational and available on their bookshop.

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