The ‘curriculum’ has exploded. The word is everywhere you look in education at the moment. At the recent ResearchED national conference in London, ‘curriculum’ was mentioned in the title of 10 different talks. Blogs by teachers and others who work in education are springing up left, right and centre – and rightly so. As HMCI has said many times over her time at Ofsted, the curriculum is the real substance of education. We should be talking about it.
Today, we’ve published Ofsted’s latest contribution to the discussion in the form of HMCI’s commentary on the second phase of our curriculum research. This follows on from a commentary on the first phase, published almost a year ago. That first phase provided us with some really worrying findings about the state of curriculum thinking in schools. So in this second phase, we set out to find out what a high-quality curriculum looks like. We had in-depth conversations with curriculum leaders in 23 schools that we had identified as being particularly invested in curriculum design (there is a full methodological note in the commentary itself). We wanted to find out what these leaders were saying and doing around the purpose and design of their school’s curriculum.
Of course this does not give us full representation of schools across the country or of every different type of school, but it does allows us to gain some insight into different approaches to curriculum design and to find common themes among high-performing schools.
We found that almost all of the school leaders we talked to spoke about the importance of their local context. They talked about their curriculum as a vehicle for filling gaps in knowledge and experiences that their pupils might have because of their background. It was less convincing, however, when one or two leaders used this to justify lower expectations for some pupils or to prioritise pupils’ engagement in the curriculum over what leaders thought they needed to know.
All schools bar one had a clear focus on subjects as units to deliver the curriculum. Even in primary schools, where the curriculum was often delivered in topics (particularly in the humanities), they had subject specialists and thought about progression in terms of subjects. We found that it was easier for schools to talk about their pupils’ progression when they considered how much knowledge had been learned than when they talked about how far pupils had developed a skill. We also found that most of the schools talked about using assessment as a tool for evaluating the success of their curriculum and then reviewing its content and their teaching. The leadership of curriculum thinking was also important. Distributing leadership and responsibility for the curriculum across the school appeared to be a more sustainable model than entrusting it to one or two individuals. This also seemed to be aiding teacher retention in some schools.
Our findings have allowed us to develop some more detailed indicators of high-quality curriculum design. The next phase of our research is to test these indicators to work out which ones are most useful for assessing curriculum intent, implementation and impact on inspections. Phase 2 focused on how we might assess curriculum intent through conversations with curriculum leaders, so phase 3 will focus on implementation. Does the leaders’ intent flow through into teaching?
I hope it’s not blowing our own trumpet too much to say that we think this work is a vital contribution to the debate about curriculum. Some people have said that Ofsted should not be doing research and that we should stick to inspections. Some worry that by producing research we are inadvertently signalling a preferred approach. Let me be clear, this is not the case. I hope this study shows that our research will contribute to a better way of inspecting schools, informed by evidence and thoroughly tested.