Speaking at the Telegraph Festival of Education, Amanda Spielman, HMCI, made clear that schools must focus more on the “real meat” of education - the curriculum.
Advocating the benefits of a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ is nothing new, with successive curriculum reviews and governments extolling its virtues. In fact, the need to provide such an education is enshrined in law, with the Education Act (2002) stating:
“The curriculum for a maintained school or maintained nursery school satisfies the requirements of this section if it is a balanced and broadly based curriculum which—
(a) promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society, and
(b) prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.”
Despite this and the National Curriculum’s very existence, Ofsted have recognised that some schools do not provide such a curriculum. Sadly, for some schools the accountability measure pressures are so great, that they feel they have no option but to narrow pupils’ education, particularly in end of key stage year groups, meaning that children spend the vast majority of their time focusing on English and mathematics. Even these subjects are pigeonholed by the content of the tests, with aspects such as ‘Speaking and Listening’ or ‘Reading for Pleasure’ given far less curriculum time than required, or than children deserve. Ms Spielman also explored the detrimental effect of beginning GCSE preparation too early, forcing children to choose and discard subjects which could have been studied in greater depth. She believes, quite rightly, that these schools are not providing their pupils with an education to be proud of, “Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation.” Regardless of this however, Spielman did make it clear that Ofsted would not be looking for schools to teach an “Ofsted-approved curriculum.” Instead she asks schools to think actively about their curriculum and ensure planning and delivery is purposeful and effective.
It is argued that the culture of high-stakes testing and accountability forces senior leaders to narrow the curriculum or ‘game the system’. Ms Spielman’s view is that by doing this, schools are putting their interests above those of their pupils. She does accept that the current system of accountability needs to be balanced in order to support the teaching of a wider curriculum. Nevertheless, it will take more than one speech to persuade school staff that it is the overall picture, not the headline data, which will most influence an inspection outcome. Only once schools see and experience this in action, will the curriculum be broadened for all.
So what can schools do to ensure a broad and balanced curriculum?
Interrogate the definition of the curriculum
To echo the HMCI, the curriculum is not merely about timetables and the content of specific qualifications. Schools must view their idea of curriculum objectively. Producing a school curriculum statement, in partnership with children and stakeholders, is one way of ensuring the curriculum holds the status it deserves and does not become ‘a needle in a haystack’.
Establish effective long-term planning
Long-term planning should set out the school’s expectations for a balanced curriculum. This should include planning specific cross-curricular opportunities and links to children’s own experiences. By setting out cycles of creative topics, schools can ensure that there is a clear progression between and throughout year groups.
Regularly check subject coverage
If coverage is checked regularly, additional curriculum opportunities can be planned in order to keep the balance. Many schools find assigning particular subjects a special week particularly helpful for this purpose. For example, a school could hold a ‘Spectacular Science Week’ where all learning is linked to a science topic.
Plan explicit opportunities for children to use their English, maths and science skills across the whole curriculum
Schools can support the delivery of an effective curriculum by ensuring teachers plan explicit opportunities for children to apply their core subject skills across other subjects. There are a wealth of possibilities for exploiting these skills, for example, using speaking and listening skills in science to persuade the government to do more to stop the destruction of the rainforest.
Ensure all subjects are actively assessed
Schools are very rigorous about assessing core subjects, so why do so many assess foundation subjects differently or not at all? Leaders must ensure teachers actively assess children’s attainment in all subjects to ensure children’s progress is supported across the whole curriculum.
Regularly audit and monitor provision for all subjects
Subject leaders should be supported to monitor provision, identifying strengths and areas to develop. Only by doing this and facilitating pedagogical development, will the status of foundation subjects improve. Developing middle leaders will give other subjects a voice within schools that will drive forward a broader curriculum.
It remains to be seen what changes the Ofsted review into the curriculum will bring to the school inspection framework. However, whilst we wait for the updated guidance in 2019, what is certain is the need for schools to review their curriculum provision and be clear about how it meets all the needs of all of their children. We must each ask ourselves the question, ‘What are we doing to provide our pupils with a broad and balanced curriculum?’
One Education’s School Improvement Team can support you to review and improve your curriculum. If you would like to speak to us about this, please complete our contact form. We are also running an event on this topic on 29 September 2017.