Blog > Shackles off?

At first glance the draft Ofsted framework looks like a step in the right direction. Finally, the curriculum is the key and so it should be.

The word itself appears more than three times as often in the proposed framework as the current one. Examination results will potentially matter less, with outcomes wrapped up in the overall ‘quality of education’ judgement. It feels as though there will be very few schools who receive an overall effectiveness grade higher than the one for quality of education and at face value that is pretty reasonable.

As was always going to be the case, there is much to reflect on the detail. Are headteachers really going to be able to put into place what they think is ‘broad’ and ‘rich’? The framework states that

‘Schools taking radically different approaches to the curriculum will be judged fairly. The inspectorate recognises the importance of schools’ autonomy to choose their own curriculum approaches. If leaders are able to show that they have thought carefully, that they have built a curriculum with appropriate coverage, content, structure and sequencing and are able to show that it has been implemented effectively, then inspectors will assess a school’s curriculum favourably’.

On its own this would be enough to make a lot of people, including myself, sit up and take notice. I like the word ‘built’ in particular, indicating an iterative process taking place over a number of years (albeit with half a year of school weeks between now and the start). A reminder of ‘autonomy’ is entirely welcome. The rub appears two paragraphs later.

‘At the heart of an effective key stage 4 curriculum is a strong academic core: the EBacc…It is therefore the government’s ambition that 75% of Year 10 pupils in state-funded mainstream schools should be starting to study EBacc GCSE courses nationally by 2022 (taking their examinations in 2024), rising to 90% by 2025 (taking their examinations in 2027). It is important that inspectors understand what schools are doing to prepare for this to be achieved, and they should take those preparations into consideration when evaluating the intent of the school’s curriculum.’

Ofsted is not in a position to ignore or pay lip service to the government of the day. In fact, it quite reassuring to see they are aware it exists and is in fact supposed to set the agenda. Whether it actually does or not has been covered in many other blogs. That is not necessarily a criticism of Ofsted, someone needs to set the agenda.

75% of students from the 2019 intake taking a language GCSE in 2024 feels particularly ambitious whatever a school might wish to do. Good luck in recruiting the staff, let alone to achieve 90% two years later. Finding a teacher coming into the profession at 22 (ambitious in itself) in the year 2022 would most likely mean they are started their degree last autumn. It is not enough time to get people through the system and matters like the ‘severe grading’ issue at GCSE do not help. The horse has bolted, and it is not going to happen in ten years let alone three. The only EBacc subject where there does not appear to be a critical shortage is history. It would be good to see the government show more ambition for addressing this given what is expected of the schools. It is one thing offering an EBacc focused curriculum, but another feeling like you can only do it badly.

The final sentence of the quotation above really matters. What else could schools be doing ‘to prepare for this to be achieved’ other than basing a very large chunk of their key stage 3 on EBacc subjects? It’s EBacc or broke folks. Do not consider even looking at the various buckets for Progress 8. Compliance comes from an EBacc starting point.

The following paragraph is entitled ‘Cultural capital’. It can only be assumed that it was deliberate to select the actual title of the actual book by ED Hirsch. Surely they have missed that both words should have a capital C. One of William Hague’s best lines as Leader of the Opposition was to describe Prime Minister Tony Blair’s efforts to make it easier for people to stand in elections as the ‘only policy ever introduced entirely as a practical joke’. This was because it was so contrary to his other efforts to prevent Ken Livingstone becoming the candidate for London Mayor (which he did, as a Labour candidate anyway). This feels the same, provoking the image of a Monty Python foot landing on the school which was planning a different approach.

‘As part of making the judgement about the quality of education, inspectors will consider the extent to which schools are equipping pupils with the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. Ofsted’s understanding of this knowledge and cultural capital matches that found in the aims of the national curriculum. It is the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’.

Does this mean that schools are able to select what they consider to be the ‘best that has been thought and said’? As a statement it could not be more loaded. Twenty five years ago I interviewed a theatre director as a university student who told me that “of course Shakespeare is fantastic, but it is also overdone. There is a lot of other great stuff out there, and much of it has been written in the last fifty years.” Is the intention to prepare them for life or a mythical appearance on University Challenge?

How many different interpretations are possible of what students should appreciate ‘of human creativity and achievement’? Or does it just matter that schools have ‘thought carefully’ and ‘implemented carefully’? To what extent can approaches truly be ‘radically different’?

There is a difference between students having a sufficiently broad and rich curriculum that makes them ‘educated’ and training them to be ‘middle class’. I am not saying that an EBacc curriculum is a middle class one, but there is enough about the tone of what I have heard and read already about what is proposed that makes me feel uncomfortable. I was at a presentation this week which made me veer between head nodding affirmation to eyes widening in horror, often within the same minute. At some point I will need to blog again about that.

There will be some balances to strike, and schools can at least look forward to some of the most important work they ever do gaining more attention in the whole process. In the meantime it would be good to tease out from the inspectorate their actual intent in the whole implementation.