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A glimpse into Ofsted’s thinking on the curriculum and its implications for schools in 2019


Reading time: 5 minutes. Relevant event: SSAT School Improvement 2018


Matthew Purves, Ofsted’s deputy director for education inspection policy, led a session at SSAT’s recent curriculum conference in London. Colin Logan reports on what he had to say

Since becoming Ofsted’s chief inspector in January 2017, Amanda Spielman has made clear that curriculum will be a key focus. This focus, on curriculum intent and breadth and balance, is encouraging schools to take a fresh look at their curriculum model and the principles that underpin it. We were pleased that Matthew Purves from Ofsted was able to join us at our recent curriculum event to support us in exploring this focus further.

Referring to the current Ofsted review of curriculum in schools, Matthew stressed that ‘curriculum’ referred to all the learning that goes on in schools, including what we normally refer to as ‘extra-curricular’ activities and the daily interaction between and among pupils and staff. Dylan Wiliam talks about curriculum in this way, encouraging us to see it as the ’lived daily experience’ of our pupils. Amanda Spielman has spoken about the need for a deep body of knowledge, but HMIs have been told not to have any preconceived ideas when collecting evidence for the review.

Preliminary findings from the review suggest that some school leaders lack skills in curriculum design and development. Similarly, schools involved were found to lack a common language about the curriculum. While they often spoke of developing ‘skills’, there was little consensus around what this meant. And there was remarkably little discussion of the knowledge that they wanted pupils to acquire or the sequence in which it is most effective for them to do so. It is important to remember that the curriculum is not the timetable or a list of qualifications. There is a concern that the ‘what’ of the curriculum has been lost in recent years.

Ofsted’s initial findings have identified substantial impact of this weakened curricular thinking in three areas: the narrowing of the key stage 2 curriculum; shortening of the key stage 3 curriculum without sufficient consideration of the intended impact on pupils’ learning; and curriculum design that limits the choices of low attainers. Key stage 2 tests should serve the curriculum and should not be the exclusive focus. Matthew asked whether the time used for weekly test papers in years 5 and 6 in some schools might not be better spent on encouraging wider reading.

Matthew Purves asked whether the time used for weekly test papers in years 5 and 6 might not be better spent on encouraging wider reading

Concerns about key stage 3 follow on from the 2015 Ofsted report ‘Key Stage 3: the wasted years?’ and, in particular, the move towards a two-year key stage. What is the rationale for this? Has the school thought carefully about the fact that key stage 3 may be the last point at which many pupils study a wide variety of subjects, including the arts? Is it to improve performance at GCSE? Is it to provide more time to cover content?

Matthew emphasised that Ofsted has no set view on the appropriate length of key stage 3 at this time. He did, however, point out that GCSEs are designed to be studied over two years and that schools need to carefully consider the consequences of their decisions if their students’ curricular experience is limited after year 8.

Low attainers have restricted access to some subjects in many schools across the country as they are moved into curricular pathways that are felt to be more appropriate for them. But a student might be better educated, Matthew suggested, if they took more of these subjects even if they did not achieve a grade 4 in them. He admitted that in the past, Ofsted has appeared to reinforce the impact of performance tables. However, its role is recognised as properly to counterbalance them by recognising the value of students having the opportunity to take a certain subject even if this has a negative impact on a school’s accountability measures.

Under the current inspection framework, Ofsted’s inspectors are expected to focus on the progress of students currently in school, and this carries greater weight than performance tables and accountability measures (which are necessarily based on previous cohorts of pupils). He said that the new Ofsted framework, which is due for implementation in September 2019, will look at the richness of what young people are being taught and recognise breadth of experience.

It is likely that the 2019 Ofsted framework will look at the richness of what young people are being taught and recognise breadth of experience

He asked delegates what they understood by the word ‘progress’. He suggested that it is not simply what we used to measure with levels, but rather that it comprises knowledge that has been learned and then retained in long-term memory. This is a current focus in Ofsted’s training. Progress goes beyond a collection of marks in a tracking document; it is much more complex than that. It depends on having a network of inter-related ideas that learners draw on to make sense of what they’re doing. It requires us to go back and think in detail about what it means to get better at a subject. ‘Progress means knowing more and remembering more.’ It is about connections and schematics, not isolated information.

Vocabulary is another key component: there are large differences in vocabulary size and range between disadvantaged young people and their peers. To what extent does this hamper students’ access to the curriculum – and what are schools doing to address this?

Phase 2: listening to schools

Phase 2 of the Ofsted curriculum review will be based on listening to schools. What is the theoretical basis behind their curriculum? What attention have they paid to the sequencing of ideas, concepts and knowledge? How are they identifying and measuring progress?

Although there will be some specific visits to gather evidence, there will also be greater discussion of the curriculum during inspections before the new framework is introduced. Until then, judgements will remain the same although inspectors will use Ofsted’s working definition of the curriculum and explore the three key areas of intent, implementation and impact:

‘A framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (intent)

…for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (implementation)

…and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (impact).’

In other words, what is a school trying to achieve with the curriculum it has designed, how is it being delivered (discrete subjects/cross-curricular?), and what difference is it making to students’ learning?

Matthew was at pains to emphasise that the inspection framework and handbook has not changed. There is no new approach or set of criteria; instead Ofsted’s current thinking about the curriculum is meant to help shape the lens through which inspectors and schools view the existing criteria that relate to the curriculum under leadership and management and teaching, learning and assessment.

Looking towards September 2019, the whole of the current inspection framework is under review: its purpose, the format of inspection, what constitutes effective practice in schools, what elements might contribute towards an overall judgement (eg teaching and learning, leadership), what scale might be used to express that judgement (eg outstanding/good) and how any additional factors might need to be taken into account before a final judgement is made. All that is before decisions are made on inspection activity and evidence-gathering.

However, it is clear that the curriculum will be at the heart of inspection. It is also likely that aspects of the way Ofsted reports will be adapted, to address more directly what parents prioritise and value in inspection reporting. Certainly the ‘outstanding’ judgement will be reviewed, partly as a result of the pressure some schools feel that it places on them and also because the notion that outstanding schools might not be inspected for 12 years or more is ‘probably unsustainable’.

Since our SSAT conference, Ofsted has conducted training with its inspector workforce across the country, focusing on curriculum and progress and the need for inspectors to discuss with school leaders the thinking that lies behind their curriculum (“intent”) and its implementation and impact. Following the final regional event on the 20th April, Sean Harford has written a blog outlining the key areas discussed which is available here.

Four pillars of principled curriculum design

Matthew’s session was an excellent keynote that prepared the way for presentations on SSAT’s ‘Four pillars of principled curriculum design’ and from Ricards Lodge High School and the Harris Academy South Norwood on how they use this approach to design and review their curriculum. The ‘Four Pillars’ resource, free to SSAT members, is designed to support schools in reviewing their curriculum intent.

Plans are already underway for our 2019 conference, which will build on this year’s and will look at successful approaches to transition between primary and secondary school. It will also provide an opportunity to share more detailed information about what will then be an imminent new Ofsted framework.

Colin Logan will be picking up on some of these themes in his session at the SSAT School Improvement Show 2018, in London – more details of which are here.


Read on the SSAT blog: Four pillars of principled curriculum design, to articulate and evidence curriculum intent


 Colin Logan, Senior Education Lead

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