It’s arguably at primary school where the interventions of successive governments have had most influence on the curriculum. With accountability pressures dictating the importance of tests at the end of key stages, is it any wonder that Ofsted found some schools were spending a disproportionate amount of time preparing children for SATs?
Ofsted’s new inspection framework and its focus on the curriculum has the potential to be a positive step in the right direction – although we need to maintain a healthy degree of caution until we see the detail. For now, let’s examine what it might look like and what it might mean for primary schools.
From September 2019, inspectors will be encouraged to go beyond data, though this isn’t to say that they’ll ignore it. The key component will be the ‘quality of education’, largely framed by exploring the school’s curriculum. Ofsted has tried to fill what it sees as a national gap in how we think about the curriculum by asserting that inspectors – and arguably schools – should be concerned with the three ‘i’s’ of curriculum development: ‘intent’, ‘implementation’ and ‘impact’.
The danger with such an appealingly pithy definition is that it can lead us to think the task at hand is relatively simple, yet high-quality curriculum thinking can be challenging. Part of Ofsted’s argument is that curriculum expertise has been lost from the system, as a result of centralised government strategies over many years.
So, what should leaders do ahead of September 2019? A good starting point would be to establish a strong foundation – what Ofsted calls your ‘curriculum intent’. Your curriculum intent must be built on values, of course – but values based on what? They need to be rooted in more than just intuition, and while your curriculum intent should be ambitious, it should also be informed and deliverable.
For example, expressing an aspiration to ‘develop 21st century learners’, is laudable – but what does that actually mean for the curriculum makers in your school? Does it mean teaching transferable skills? If so, what’s the body of evidence concerning how best to teach these skills? Leaders need to grapple with such issues and reach an informed view.
Many schools will (rightly) say that their curriculum intent is to reduce the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and other children. But in doing so, it’s important to make use of the evidence which suggests that vocabulary and knowledge is key to closing that gap.
The first step in preparing for the new inspection system may therefore be less about ‘doing’ anything, and more about deepening the quality of curriculum thinking within your school, so that the curriculum intent is well constructed and understood.
The smaller size and sometimes more remote locations of primary schools add an extra layer of challenge when improving curriculum expertise. Leaders will need to think carefully about how they support and nurture curriculum thinking.
Leaders could do a lot worse over the next two terms than make time for themselves and colleagues to read about and discuss the curriculum. Challenging existing thinking may be uncomfortable at times, but doing so and drawing on useful research summaries will help to ensure the curriculum you shape is rooted in more than intuition alone.
And regardless of Ofsted, that’s likely to be good for children.
Stephen Rollett is inspections and accountability specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.