Ofsted’s much-heralded report on the state of the primary curriculum is now long-overdue despite a robust interim signal about its findings. What could be detaining it?
It has taken a lot of hours for Ofsted to discover that the primary curriculum is skewed by SATs, that the foundation subjects are being squeezed and creative teaching is not as widespread as they hoped. They find that timetabling is conservative, priorities are focused on the acquisition of knowledge and there is a lack of flair in some of the teaching. And, apparently, we don’t know what we mean when we say ‘skills’.
Few teachers will have been surprised by these findings of the interim report. Ministers, however, might be feeling uncomfortable about the implication that the 2014 curriculum that it is too focused on a narrow band on knowledge, and not on application, range, creativity or depth. They may also be wondering if it is Ofsted’s job, to lay down a new vision for the curriculum rather than the Department of Education.
My own guess is that the report and its findings will end up as a muted challenge to the dominance of English and Maths.
To be fair, Ofsted has been a liberal force in illiberal times for education. It has stayed fixed on assessment for learning and the tracking of progress whilst the government has stared steadfastly at summative objectives and terminal testing. Similarly, Ofsted has waved the flag for a rich, interesting curriculum whilst every accountability measure is bent towards a very particular wing of English and Maths centred on phonics and number. Schools are trapped between two mighty armies.
If we had infinite time, we could simply say that pupils should have both. Indeed, every teacher I know is supportive of secure literacy and numeracy as well as a rich, varied curriculum. If we had infinite money, we could offer choices and a more tailored and targeted curriculum. But cash-strapped and accountable only for literacy and numeracy, schools feel they must deliver on those first, and accommodate the rest as well as they can.
Can it all be delivered by ultra-clever planning-and-cramming? Some energetic schools are giving it a go. They have coalesced subjects into a topic-based curriculum, and even more have done this partially, outside English and Maths. The prize is a certain amount of freshness in the curriculum and economical overlaps in delivery, but also a certain amount of shoe-horning.
The challenge of the topic-based curriculum lies first in smart planning and then in maintaining the crispness of subject objectives when they are embedded in the topics. Historically, this is where most primary schools were in the 70s and 80s and I think it would be fair to say that many objectives got dissolved in the topic, were exercised but not quite taught and lost focus. Writing is a case in point: lots of practice but not a lot of teaching.
Before I left the Department of Education, in the reign of Gove, I visited schools in Denmark where the primary curriculum in KS2 is largely subject-specific. Primary teachers train in major and minor specialisms which they can deploy more or less each year as the school’s needs change. They can also develop new specialisms as they go on, adding more strings to their bow and making them more employable. Children are eased gradually from the ‘one and only’ teacher early on to a small but tight group of teachers who work as a team in KS2, which struck me as a more effective unit than our tiny year teams.
Each year, Danish schools consider how well the curriculum delivered results and flex the hours given to each subject to remediate dips and explore brave new topics. They are less fixated on the idea that everything has to be taught a little bit every week in every year. Instead, they sometimes create substantial but irregular blocks of time to develop themes in the foundation subjects. Numerous English schools are experimenting in a small way with carousels, limited-time ability grouping, options and cross-curricular projects.
The vast majority of schools have realised that the foundation subjects sometimes offer a better context for developing English and Maths than the literacy and numeracy hour, or for securing learning that is introduced there. History offers a great place to learn the stages of extended writing, for example. Science is the ideal place to consider root words, retrieval skills and measurement. The strength of having the single teacher for a single class is that the person teaching extended writing is the same person teaching history: we are all free to exploit the synergies between subjects.
But on the whole, most schools are conservative in the way they manage the curriculum, and this includes schools that do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Their pupils have to sit the tests, so the same forces are holding them to the old routine.
We must look to Ofsted’s report to provide realistic examples of what is achievable by the ordinary school and not just the celebrity schools. My worst fear is that an evasive report might rewrite the inspection framework as a series of challenging questions which cannot easily be reconciled.
We also need to look to the government to diversify the ways in which a school is judged, for example by expanding accountability to include learning behaviours, the cultural offer made, parental involvement, participation in extra curricular activities and its success in closing gaps. Indeed, schools have done so well in reaching stratospheric literacy and numeracy targets, shouldn’t many of them be thanked and praised, and then moved on to pioneer the harder stuff: equality between classes and gender?
Ministers might consider releasing curriculum time by scraping away some of the vast detail in certain subjects. Science and SPAG spring to mind, but history is also exhaustive and exhausting. Education is not so much about how many facts you know, but how you mobilise them, for example, thinking like a geographer rather than simply stacking inert factoids. The universities tell us over and over again that they long for entrants who speak the discourse of the disciplines and whose knowledge is active and integrated, not atomised. Thanks to the SPAG test, I know plenty of children who can spot the subjunctive mood at 100 metres, but fewer who can use it effectively.
The interim report has raised expectations that will be hard to satisfy. What’s needed now is something that reduces the level of demand and pressure, is pragmatic, and sounds like something one would love to try. But please, please, make it workable.
Rising Stars have a range of non-core resources that are packed with cross-curricular links and can be purchased for a one-off cost (with no subscription attached)