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.
- First, the primary curriculum is narrowing in some schools as a consequence of too great a focus on preparing for key stage 2 tests.
- Second, leaders have often misunderstood the purpose of key stage 3 and the new GCSE assessment criteria.
- 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.
Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin
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