In October 2019 I attended an update for governing board chairs, organised by Herts for Learning, the partly school-owned organisation that provides a range of services to schools in the area where I am based (Hertfordshire in the UK), and where I serve as a governing board chair. Unsurprisingly, the new education inspection framework – applicable to schools in England and introduced by the school inspectorate, Ofsted, in September – had a prominent place on the agenda, notably in presentations from advisers Becky Cox and Caroline Luck.
Although their respective focusses were on special schools and the early years, their comments were more generally applicable, and chime with the analyses of others who I have had the privilege to learn from recently. In this blog I draw this thinking together, outline my own take on the new framework and offer a warning about an over-focus on the creative opportunities arising from what might be termed the curriculum’s return.
Curriculum had been conspicuously absent from several previous iterations of the framework, and curriculum’s return has rightly grabbed the headlines in the ensuing discussions. However, my sense is that we have lost some of the craft of curriculum development and the spirit of curriculum innovation since the introduction of the national curriculum in the late 1980s. Too often, at least in policy discourses, the curriculum is considered to be little more than a list of subjects (Breslin, 2018a, 2018b). I prefer the definition that Barry Dufour introduced me to at the University of Leicester over 30 years ago: curriculum is the total learned experience of the child: formal, informal, within the classroom and beyond. Such an approach would surely be favoured by many of the curriculum luminaries with which BERA members will be familiar: think Stenhouse, Lawton, Elliot or Whitty, and the richness of this tradition becomes clear.
The new framework works with a less expansive definition of curriculum – one that is more subject-focussed – but the directional shift, after a prolonged period of system-wide curriculum-austerity, is overdue. As a profession – researchers, teachers and system-leaders – we need to relearn the deeper language and substance of curriculum, and to rebuild a culture in which curriculum-literacy is core to our theory, discussion and practice. We should welcome the new framework as an invitation to do so. Four of the many questions that Caroline Luck posed might give us some pointers as we undertake this task.
- Why do we teach what we do?
- Does it enable our pupils to progress to the destinations that meet their interests and aspirations?
- How do our pupils experience this curriculum?
- What’s it like to be a pupil in our school?
The experience of the learner is, Luck argued, key to the new framework, as it ought to be for any educator: don’t expect the inspectorate to simply pore over a school’s written policies; do expect inspectors to engage in extensive conversations with pupils, to study their books, to test their knowledge, and to pose a second set of questions.
- Is the curriculum broad and balanced?
- Is it coherent and well-sequenced (not ‘tractors this week, weather next’ in Luck’s apposite phrase)?
- Is it sufficiently knowledge-rich (mastery over memory), such that pupils are developing the cultural capital necessary to prosper in the changing world they inhabit?
- Is it age and needs appropriate?
- Is it relevant and bespoke, while remaining aspirational and challenging?
As always, the challenge is to evidence a school’s curricular impact in the outcomes achieved by pupils. Here, the inspectors will want to know what progress pupils are making, where ‘progress’ equates to pupils’ success (in my paraphrasing of Luck) in building a body of knowledge that they are able to commit to long-term memory, draw from and build on. And this focus on the development of ‘cultural capital’ gives us some pointers to the curriculum orientation the inspectorate has in mind. Herein lies the cautionary warning that I alluded to earlier.
For, in spite of this new concentration on curriculum intent, implementation and impact and the freedom that this signals, and the stronger focus on the personal development of the whole child – which the profession and the wider education community have been right to welcome – this new framework is not the unqualified creatives’ charter that some have celebrated. It offers a very specific conception of curriculum while retaining an enduring concentration on standards, especially in areas such as reading, writing and mathematics.
Thus, while an engaging and inventive curriculum, albeit a knowledge-centric one, offers a route to ‘outstanding’, schools will need to ensure that they give sufficient attention to the mastering of what some persist in calling the ‘basics’ before they can be assured of being designated as ‘good’.
Breslin, T. (2017). Who governs our schools? Trends, tensions and opportunities. London: The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Retrieved from https://www.thersa.org/discover/publications-and-articles/reports/who-governs-our-schools
Breslin, T. (2018a, October 15). What governors know about the curriculum now matters more than ever [blog]. Modern Governor. Retrieved from https://www.moderngovernor.com/what-governors-know-about-the-curriculum-now-matters-more-than-ever/
Breslin, T. (2018b, October 15). The curriculum and beyond: What every governor needs to know [blog]. Modern Governor (CPD Module). Retrieved from https://www.moderngovernor.com/new-module-the-curriculum-and-beyond-what-every-governor-needs-to-know/
Cox, B. (2019, October 24). Ofsted – Special Schools. Presentation to Herts for Learning Briefing to Governing Board Chairs.
Luck, C. (2019, October 24). Getting to Grip with the New Ofsted Framework in the Early Years. Presentation to Herts for Learning Briefing to Governing Board Chairs.
Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills [Ofsted] (2019). The Education Inspection Framework. Manchester.