Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, discusses findings from recent research into the primary and secondary curriculum.

Amanda Spielman and Ofsted’s report for GOV.UK. What do we understand to be the real substance of education? When we think about what the core purpose of education is, what comes first to our minds?

In recent years, we have thought a great deal about the role of leaders and the importance of teaching.We have also given a great deal of our collective time to exam grades and progress measures. These are undoubtedly important. However, at the very heart of education sits the vast accumulated wealth of human knowledge and what we choose to impart to the next generation: the curriculum.

Without a curriculum, a building full of teachers, leaders and pupils is not a school. Without receiving knowledge, pupils have learned nothing and no progress has been made – whatever the measures might indicate. This is why exams should exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way round. Exams are our best measure of what has been successfully transmitted to the pupil’s cognition. We must not forget, however, that any test can only ever sample the knowledge that has been gained. It is the whole domain that is of matter to the pupil.

Earlier this year, I commissioned a research programme to broaden our understanding of how curriculums are implemented in our schools, particularly the national curriculum as a key government policy. This was one of the main research priorities of my first year as Chief Inspector. One of the aims of this work was to challenge ourselves, as well as schools, about whether Ofsted has always recognised what is best in curriculum design, development and implementation. If we have not, I wanted to know whether inspection has played a role in bending the curriculum out of shape.

There has been great interest shown in this work from the wider education sector. I have been surprised and pleased by the level of interest and by how positive people are about this work. In the light of this response, I want to share some of the emerging findings.

We have seen 3 important consequences of a reduced understanding of curriculum.

  1. First, the primary curriculum is narrowing in some schools as a consequence of too great a focus on preparing for key stage 2 tests.
  2. Second, leaders have often misunderstood the purpose of key stage 3 and the new GCSE assessment criteria.
  3. And third, the intended curriculum for lower-attaining pupils in some secondary schools was often associated with the qualifications that count in league tables but not with other knowledge they should be acquiring.

It seems unlikely that any school has prioritised testing over the curriculum as a deliberate choice. It is likely that, in some quarters, testing has come inadvertently to mean the curriculum in its entirety. If it is true that curriculum knowledge has weakened across the sector over time, it would explain why there has been a merging of the concepts of testing and the curriculum. If this is the case, it is despite the concerted efforts of the Department for Education (DfE) to make performance measures more nuanced, with the development of Progress 8 and the EBacc, for example. Inspection may well have unintentionally contributed to the shift by reinforcing the focus on measures. Measures only ever provide a partial picture: inspection should complement, not duplicate, that picture.

Read more findings and comment Ofsted’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, discusses findings from recent research into the primary and secondary curriculum.

Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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Categories: 1st POST, Exams, Further Education, Learning, Primary, Secondary and Teaching.


  1. This paper by Amanda Spielman HMCI highlights some of the worries that many of us have (from a distance in my case) about the way in which schools have become increasingly focused on test and examination results. She asks, “What do we understand by the real substance of education? When we think about what the core purpose of education is, what first comes to our minds?” Her answer is “the curriculum”.

    In my view this is a limited answer. Education is much broader than the curriculum. I have recently put the following on the Labour Party website and in a letter published in the Guardian (11 October). It is based on many years of teaching, research and cogitation.

    The great purpose of education is to enable individual citizens to be capable of thinking for themselves, to be moral beings well equipped with the many and varied attributes that they learn in their years of schooling, including the wherewithal to earn an honest living and so contribute to the national economy, and able to continue to develop and learn purposefully throughout their lives in a contented pursuit of worthwhile life, liberty and happiness.

    In my “Education for the Inevitable” (Book Guild 2011) I made a rather ponderous attempt at defining education:

    Education embraces (1) the experience and nurture of personal and social development towards worthwhile living; (2) the acquisition, creation, development, transmission, conservation, discovery and renewal of worthwhile culture; and (3) the acquisition, development, transmission, conservation, discovery and renewal of skills for
    worthwhile survival.

    “Worthwhile culture” is, of course, the curriculum, but I argue that “personal and social development towards worthwhile living” is also an essential part of education – particularly in primary schools and nurseries, as is “worthwhile survival”. The latter may be less obvious but think of parents teaching safety rules to their children or a country coming to terms with global warming.

    So, while welcoming HMCI’s report, I recommend a wider view of “the core purpose of education”.

  2. jon le fevre

    You can have a broad and creative curriculum and get good results if focus on good quality (adventurous) teaching and learning.

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