The Primary Curriculum: where has Ofsted been all these years?

… Or stating the bleeding obvious

A shortened version of this article appeared on the TES website on Wednesday

As an HMI who advised on the introduction of the national curriculum and later its implementation in primary schools I find Angela Spielman’s commentary on the curriculum jaw-dropping. Where have she and Ofsted been all these years? Why does it take a research programme to reveal what everyone knows and in the case of the primary curriculum has known for years and years and years? How is it that Ofsted present their findings as if they were new in some way? It’s as if the author has been in a time-warp for thirty years and has returned to schools to find what to her are astonishing  developments.

As far as primary education is concerned the commentary is right but ages too late and naïve to boot.

Of course, as it points out the primary curriculum has narrowed and is still narrowing in a large majority of schools (not in ‘some’ has it indicates) as a consequence of too great a focus on preparing for key stage 2 tests. Of course Ofsted has played a ,major part (not ‘ may have helped’) in that process. Those messages need to be stated but they needed to be stated long ago –before so many primary aged children became test-fodder and were denied   their broad curriculum entitlement. But no genuine mea culpa from an inspection agency fully complicit in the miseducation of so many children by failing to draw sufficient attention to that narrowing of experience..

Pre-Ofsted HMI reports on primary schools contained evaluations of all aspects of the primary curriculum. Albeit in a rough-and ready-way, they commented on standards in those subjects as well as commenting on teaching, learning and curriculum content. In addition there were publications drawing on interesting practice in a variety of subject areas. There were also comments on whole school curriculum planning.

Post-Ofsted standards in non-core subjects were deliberately not reported upon and with the introduction of the national strategies   subjects other than mathematics and English started disappearing from reports. So much so that by 2010 in a survey of 40 inspection reports I undertook mathematics and English were the only subjects referred to in 39 of those cases. In addition no publications were issued about practice in non-core areas based on specially conducted surveys. How could they when they didn’t feature as important components in a succession of inspection frameworks and so were ignored by inspectors.

Just as significantly inspection reports failed to draw attention to an imbalance in the curriculum arising from schools’ understandable need to meet accountable measures in just mathematics and English- one fifth of the supposed national curriculum. Instead Ofsted focussed on test data in two subjects only when forming overall judgments; schools, understandably but regrettably, did likewise.

Tellingly, the curriculum has not featured as a separate section in Ofsted reports since 2010. It was downgraded in importance by Gove and did not feature as one of the main judgments in a number of inspection frameworks. Yet there is no mention of this omission in Spieleman’s commentary; she may not have been there personally to preside over that startling omission but some of her senior colleagues were. Her comments on the narrowing of the curriculum and the extent of test preparation come over as incredibly naïve.

The commentary is right in pointing out that there has been, and still is, too little debate and refection about the curriculum, both primary and secondary. Implicitly school leaders are taken to task for it. But why did it happen? Because of government fiat in imposing, rather than negotiating, a national curriculum and in instigating a testing regime that in primary schools focussed on two subjects only.

It’s true too that there is a lack of clarity around the language of the curriculum – as witnessed in inspection report after inspection report and also in the laboured language of her commentary.

Rather than conducting more research visits to uncover the obvious or the already known, HMCI could do worse than revisit HM Inspectorate’s contribution to the debate preceding the national curriculum. A series of well-received discussion papers in the aptly named Curriculum Matters series covered the whole curriculum and all its component parts and tried to provide a language for discussing the curriculum. But beware of special pleading on my part since I was the editor of the series!


Professsor Colin Richards was formerly staff inspector for the curriculum and editor of the Curriculum Matters series…


Don’t forget you can sign up to receive our daily email bulletin (around 7am) with all the latest schools news stories. Your details will never be given to anyone else and you can unsubscribe at any stage. Just follow this link 

We now have a Facebook page - pls click to like!


More recent posts...





How a local school in Whitby hopes to save Britain's fishing industry
Schools urged to take advantage of free alcohol education resources
Categories: Columnists.


  1. “Where have she and Ofsted been all these years?”

    The difference now is that academies and MATs exist, so curriculum and testing regimes could be devolved to privatised MATs so they could make even more money by selling their tat to their captive schools.

Let us know what you think...