August 2017

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In its new review, Ofsted must tackle the distorting effect that accountability has on the curriculum, says Stephen Rollett.

Context counts

At ASCL Annual Conference 2017, Ofsted HMCI Amanda Spielman announced an investigation into the state of the nation’s curriculum.

As former chair of Ofqual, Amanda Spielman understands that greater accountability has placed the curriculum under extreme pressure.

There is also concern, as highlighted in the March update by Sean Harford, Ofsted National Director, Education, regarding Key Stage 4 entry issues, including suggestions that some schools have been ‘off-rolling’ underperforming pupils in order to improve their data (see

It is against this backdrop that Ofsted’s curriculum review is being conducted, although the scope is far larger than KS4 entry patterns. Ofsted has set three core aims for the project:

  1. To inform national policy development.
  2. To inform school and college level practice through sharing of best-practice effective curricula.
  3. To inform inspection policy and, specifically, to determine how inspectors can better assess the quality of education being delivered in a school or college.

Curriculum inspections, carried out in collaboration with schools and colleges, will focus on gathering evidence of current curriculum practice. Inspectors will not be making judgements about individual schools and colleges and there will be no published letters or reports on the schools and colleges involved.

Ofsted has recognised the role of accountability in shaping the decisions that schools and colleges make, albeit within a narrative that places them at the mercy of performance tables.

Yet it fails to recognise that Ofsted itself is, perhaps, the biggest accountability factor influencing leaders’ curriculum decisions. Very few members seek advice from us on how to climb league tables; far more seem concerned by the risk of adverse inspection. Some of the less ethical curriculum behaviours for which schools and colleges have been criticised may have been driven by a desire to drive up results in order to strengthen their position for inspection.

No meaningful conversation

Another challenge is that government policy has reduced the flexibility of the accountability system to take context into account. For example, consider how important Progress 8 has become in shaping the secondary curriculum; talk of ‘filling buckets’ is rife among school leaders.

Add in the possibility of a 70% to 90% English Baccalaureate (EBacc) entry intention and it is clear that the dialogue around curriculum choice has been shaped by national, rather than local, policy. Inevitably, schools and colleges in certain contexts will find it easier than others to perform against broad national comparators. It is no surprise, then, that some have tried to maximise their outcomes using some of the tactics that Ofsted has identified.

This is not to say that we should not have national comparators or that we should return to CVA (contextual value added); rather, it is to the detriment of the system that some inspectors return to ‘the national’ as some sort of immovable bottom line. Doing so has starved some inspections of a meaningful conversation about the curriculum.

Interestingly, in her conference speech, Amanda Spielman spoke about a school that achieved an outstanding judgement for outcomes, despite its data being broadly average. The inspector “recognised that the leadership had stuck to its guns, continued to insist on modern foreign languages for all pupils, including in its sixth form, and provided an exceptional curriculum. Those ‘average progress points’ were hard won by a courageous leadership team, who, by the way, were also judged outstanding as a result.”

There is little to argue with here, other than to say that this nuanced interpretation of the inspection framework can feel like the exception rather than the rule.

It will be interesting to see what conclusions are drawn from Ofsted’s curriculum review. As Amanda Spielman indicated, the curriculum is just one of 18 points for consideration when judging a school’s leadership and management. It may be tempting to focus more on the curriculum in future frameworks.

However, if we have learned anything from Ofsted’s useful ‘mythbusters’ work it is that schools and colleges are at risk of being created in the image of what is inspected. Any changes have to be considered against this litmus test.

ASCL PD Events

Ofsted Seminars: How to be Prepared for Inspection

18 September, Manchester (more dates available)

A full and comprehensive overview of the latest Ofsted framework will be provided in this whole-day seminar. There will be a focus on explaining how judgements are made, current issues to be aware of and how to approach inspection and effective self-evaluation. Both the shorter and fuller inspections will be covered. Book your place:

Stephen Rollett is ASCL Inspections and Accountability Specialist.