If I did follow the twitts, I’d apparently be in a proper state about OFSTED and the application of their spiffy new framework. After not being interested in it for years, the clipboard brigade are very keen to uncover the intent, implementation and impact of a school’s curriculum and the first reports are piling up now. Schools have prepared, even retooled, to demonstrate their knowledge-rich curricula and their plans for a future liberated from the short-termism and exam fixes which OFSTED used to like under its previous pugilistic proprietor. Good news. What could possibly go wrong?
Thirty-odd years ago I used occasionally betake myself to Sheffield to hear a radical Methodist theologian of advanced years. He once said, woundingly, that there was nothing good that the CofE couldn’t get wrong and I sometimes, sorrowfully, feel this about OFSTED. These tweeted early reports have commented not so much on the curriculum, but on whether schools have a 2- or 3- year key stage 3 and what % are doing the EBacc. Hmmm. Key stage length is a school choice and the EBacc is the Department’s political ambition, not OFSTED’s. Righteous indignation enters stage right, to be met by obfuscation from the left. What exactly are OFSTED looking at? On whose behalf? Curriculum, or cheap-to-measure markers? Children’s learning or White Paper lunacy?
Our own visiting clipboards, you will recall, popped a similar question. Observing that we talked a good game about a broad curriculum entitlement but that we let too many drop arts, DT or languages at the end of year 8, they suggested that we might consider the impact of the 2-year KS3 on our claim of a broad curriculum until year 11. Fair point, but our lead inspector was a subtle and thoughtful man who took time over his words. Other reports have been rather more direct: change your key stages.
Ofsted are right to be worried about curriculum breadth and integrity and to look at it closely. They are responding to the madness caused by over-simplified high-stakes inspection measures which drove Heads mad and made some narrow the curriculum and dilute knowledge in order to meet performance metrics. Originally, lengthening KS4 to three years was a way of doing this. Hothouse the GCSEs for longer, get better results. About half of secondary schools did it.
Undoing it will be troublesome because GCSEs are now much heavier in content and harder in assessment. Doing them in two years rather than three is fine for those who are fully attuned to education and assimilate book-learning easily. It’ll require wall-to-wall didacticism, and I’m not sure that the research on how children learn values that so highly. Doing them over three years gives a bit of space for unpacking the context of particular learning and for imagination and discovery – and other things that the current captains and the kings particularly don’t like. We’ve been thinking about this here since January. We’re not stupid: if there was a simple answer, we’d have found it.
But is this thoughtful uncertainty a luxury? It’s not as if our GCSE results couldn’t be improved. Shouldn’t we just do as we’re told and follow the instructions of the regulator and the DfE?
The confusion in the system, from which OFSTED suffer, is deeply rooted. We have a system that bizarrely prizes autonomy above almost everything else. Making the right curriculum decision is a matter therefore for the school, not the state. Only LA schools are actually still bound by the National Curriculum (wrongly, mistakenly). School curriculum decisions are a matter for schools, except when there’s a political panic. Then the independent regulator – OFSTED – is put to the service of the manifesto promises and the whole structure is revealed, shaky as a weak jelly.
If we knew what schools were for, then we’d make better decisions. If we could agree about what children should learn, then we could have a real, proper, broad National Curriculum that schools could adapt to their circumstances. If we trained and supported Heads properly rather than measuring them cheaply we’d have a system second to none. But that takes time and money, cool longitudinal research and a realisation that twitter-feeding isn’t the same as educational leadership.
We are the advocates for the nation’s young. Ethical leadership demands that we hold trust on their behalf and should use our wisdom, knowledge and insight wisely and kindly. We should seek to serve justly, courageously and optimistically and continue to argue calmly and in detail for the best curriculum for our schools.
I looked out of the window and couldn’t work out why flags-of-the-nations bunting was being put up inexpertly by some sixth form, helped by every passing advisor. Then I remembered today was our Black History Month festival at lunchtime, the nearly-end of three weeks of activity. First lunch was sunny and dancy, second lunch wet and huddly, but never mind, we’ve had a lovely time; informative, challenging and interesting. Just like a good curriculum...
A teacher comes to visit and tells me she’s wearing her geek trousers. I think we should all put some on, take a breath and think calmly and professionally - preferably behind closed doors for a while. OFSTED evaluation frameworks usually take a while to bed in and there’s no need to panic. We’re way off getting this right, but the system is thinking better and about the things that matter. As we say in every room here: we know we are learning when we are thinking very hard.