Guest Post: Professor Colin Richards: The Curriculum Matters After All

As someone involved in the curriculum development movement of the 1970s and 80s and in the development of the national curriculum post-1988 I am both gratified and bemused that the curriculum is suddenly and belatedly becoming the “favour of the month”.  It is no longer a ten-letter dirty word; it is being cited by Ofsted as the centre piece of its proposed new framework. It is in danger of becoming a shibboleth  proselytized by the Chief Inspector and others, some of whom  are prominent in the Academy sector- itself not subject to the national curriculum.

Certainly the curriculum matters (as it did in 1988) but as one wise person commented at the time “that is probably the extent of agreement about the curriculum”. Or will it be different from now on? Perhaps it might be given the prominence being given it by Ofsted and given the adage “Schools don’t do what you expect, they do what you inspect”!

Speaking personally I have considerable sympathy for the view of the curriculum put forward in the Chief Inspectors’ latest commentary. I do believe that in both primary and secondary schools (but not in early years) learners do need to be initiated into recognised disciplinary domains (not necessarily equated with subjects) involving knowledge of facts, powerful generalisations, fertile concepts and both domain-specific and generalizable skills.

They also need a developing understanding of how that content has been derived and  of how it can be applied and, as their understanding progresses, a developing appreciation of the uncertainties and value judgments involved in the  perennial search for truth and beauty.  

But I would also content that at times the insights of particular knowledge domains should be brought to bear on an understanding of complex inter-disciplinary issues or topics. Separate domain-specific teaching is very necessary but not sufficient. The commentary does not recognise this.

It is based on enquiries (“research” seems an inappropriate term) in 23 schools judged to be good or outstanding and understood (by whom?) to be “particularly invested (interested?) in curriculum design.” Three approaches are categorised – “knowledge-led approach”,” knowledge-engaged approach” and “skills-led curriculums”.  The chief inspector maintains “We make no value judgments about these categories”.  But note that two of the three are described as knowledge-based –implying that the third has less cognitive content ?  Though stating that “We observed strengths and weaknesses in each approach”, the “knowledge –led” one has fewer reservations, and more positive comments, expressed about it. Skills receive far less emphasis in the document compared with “knowledge”.

Ofsted maintains that it will have no curriculum model in mind when it inspects schools under the new framework.  Given the balance of comments in this commentary that is somewhat ingenuous. Unless schools are simply inspected in terms of how their curriculum fulfils their stated intentions , inspection like this commentary will inevitably smuggle in its own value judgments. 

In my judgment primary and secondary schools engaged on skills-based curricula need to be aware of Ofsted’s  semi-explicit stance. They are in danger of being found wanting if the only partially- hidden agenda in this document influences the final inspection framework and handbook.

 I have particular reservations about how under the influence of this document early years provision might be inspected. The recommendations of Bold Beginnings  were very much in tune with the tenor of this commentary. This will not allay, but will fuel, the fears of those concerned with preserving the culture and philosophy of early years provision. 

But in the final analysis no one has the monopoly of wisdom about the curriculum – whether Ofsted, DfE or the Inspiration Trust – yet paradoxically  it is through it that learners can develop  at least the beginnings of wisdom .

Colin Richards was formerly HM Inspectorate’s Staff Inspector for the School Curriculum and editor of the Curriculum Matters series.

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  1. Patrice Baldwin

    It seems there may be an agenda emerging and that in future Ofsted that would expect to see the teaching of subjects? This would unfortunately militate against a topic based curriculum in primary schools. Also, there is too much focus on knowledge and not enough on skills and understanding in this research. Topic based work can be great but it needs to be high quality. With the assessment driven dominance of English and maths, ‘the rest’ can too easily get merged and diminished but I still don’t want to see too much disconnected, knowledge based subject teaching in primary schools. That said, I think teachers teach core subjects well and have mostly not had much or any training in teaching the other subjects and this might change with the next framework.

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