Ofsted and the Curriculum: what you need to know

There has been a paradigm shift in curriculum thinking at Ofsted. It began on the 23rd of June 2017 at the Wellington Festival of Education. In a speech entitled ‘enriching the fabric of education’, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Speilman delivered these words:

“One of the areas I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum.”[i]

She continued, asking educators to consider carefully the knowledge, understanding and skills they provide for their pupils, dust off their curriculum documents and look at them with fresh eyes. She wanted schools to ask hard questions about whether they are providing the content their pupils need to enable them to flourish in the twenty first century.

Let’s take a backwards step and consider some key questions: Why have Ofsted changed focus? What did their recent research find? How can schools prepare for the new inspection framework? In this post, I’ll try and answer all three by pulling together their latest publications, speeches and articles to make some sort of coherent sense of their new approach.

Why have Ofsted changed focus?

First, Speilman bemoaned the fact that in their preliminary research they found preparation for SATs beginning in Year 4 and assessment criteria for GCSE’s traced back to Year 7 in some core subjects[ii]. This focus within some schools resulted in the narrowing of the curriculum to hone in on only the things that would increase attainment on exams. With the pressure to improve data outcomes and progress scores for pupils, there is certainly an inclination to focus on the content of the curriculum that is tested, especially if a large amount of pupils in a cohort are struggling to make ‘the expected standard’. In situations such as this, subjects such as Design and Technology or Art are not the priority – English, Reading and Maths are. However, Speilman is very critical of this approach (and understandably so). The squeezing out of subjects that are not externally assessed in favour of more curriculum time for core subjects is one pillar in the change of Osfted’s focus. Narrow curriculums are out. However, their shift in focus isn’t only about making sure schools comply to teach a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’, it is also based on recent research.

Second, due to developments in cognitive science, research showing the issues with ‘skills led’ curriculums and good examples of schools who are opting for knowledge rich approaches to their lesson content, Ofsted have sat up and taken notice. It seems they are listening to the wellspring of thoughtful voices in our profession. They are watching what’s going on and engaging with the good practice that is already happening across the country. As a slight deviation to the point I’m trying to make, I think it is enormously brave for free schools such as Michaela to opt for the knowledge rich curriculum they deliver. Also, I think it has been very courageous of people like Daisy Christodoulou to write books such as ‘Seven Myths about Education’ and challenge the authority of Ofsted in deciding what good education looks like. I think educators such as these ought to be applauded. With the research and excellent examples of knowledge rich curriculums going on in our nation, Ofsted have clearly had a lot to think about.

The final nail in the coffin of the old skills-led models that Ofsted vouched for is the curriculums of top performing systems around the world. I reviewed Lucy Crehan’s book on this and it is evidently clear that curriculums are meticulously designed with clear progression models in world leading systems.

What did their research find?

Ofsted’s research found two notable trends of concern in the curriculum of schools they visited: a lack of understanding of the curriculum development process and exam focussed teaching. However, they were able to group the overall ‘approaches’ of the curriculums of the schools they visited into three strands (I will summarise all three of these briefly).

First, they noted in their commentary“that there was a dearth of understanding about the curriculum in some schools. Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it”.

After doing a masters dissertation focussed on this very subject, I’d agree. I knew so little about curriculum before I had begun my studies, yet I had jumped through the hoops to become a teacher: a PGCE and NQT year. None of my preparation to teach in the classroom ever helped me consider the sort of curriculum that will best meet the needs of my pupils. It was only through the opportunity to study and my devouring of blogs and books on the topic that I was led to develop my knowledge and skills of curriculum development[iii]. Curriculum development should be a core skill of teachers across our nation.

Linked to this supposed famine of curricular understanding is the finding that primary schools are teaching in a way that is too shallow at the expense of preparing for tests. In their words:

“Those of us who work in education should be clear that these practices do not represent a substantial education. The curriculum is not the timetable. Nor is it what we think might be on the exam. We all have to ask ourselves how we have created a situation where second-guessing the test can trump the pursuit of real, deep knowledge and understanding of subjects.”[iv]

Aside from the dearth of understanding and narrow testing, when schools were clear about their curriculum approaches, Ofsted were able to group them into three broad strands.

The Knowledge –Led approach

Leaders in these schools saw the curriculum “as the mastery of a body of subject-specific knowledge defined by the school”. Skills were a by-product of learning the content that needed to be covered across a variety of subjects. Without a doubt, acquiring knowledge is the core aim of this sort of curriculum above all else.

Frequently referring to cognitive science and theories of learning, many leaders attempted to show inspectors how their teachers were applying the latest theory to their classroom practice. In addition to this, leaders saw a key discussion in curriculum development as what the most valuable knowledge that their pupils need to learn ought to be.[v]

The Knowledge Engaged approach

In half of the schools visited, leaders saw knowledge and skills as two key aspects of curriculum design that should be taught together within a framework. Often research was not the driving force of the curriculums of these schools. The overall aims of a knowledge engaged curriculum was that pupils ought to develop both knowledge and skill alongside each other. One advantaged to this sort of design was that there was more of an emphasis on cross-curricular teaching. Leaders often cited that this was an important aspect of their curriculum since it was important to make learning relevant to the daily lives of their pupils.

The Skills Led Approach

A much smaller category of schools identified as having skills-led curriculums, emphasising problem solving, resilience, growth mind-sets and perseverance as key outcomes of their curriculums. There were explicit aims of these curriculums. Knowledge was not seen as particularly important; it was far more significant to these approaches that the skills were developed – knowledge was seen as something that wouldn’t necessarily contribute to the skills that were cultivated. Because of this, subject content was very fluid and changed varying on the topics being studied and pupils’ preferences.

How can schools prepare for the new inspection framework?[vi]

Without a doubt, the new inspection framework will focus on what the curriculum of a school is like and how it is being taught. Here are three things I think schools can do to prepare for this.

  1. Ask hard questions about your current curriculum and be prepared to change it.

 Critically analyse current curriculum models, how they are being used and taught. Be prepared to change them. This is a big step and could take a long time to put in place and develop. However, I think now is the time, more than ever, to consider how the current curriculum can be developed or whether it needs to be changed completely. Ofsted will not only be looking at curriculum plans and overviews but also how it is being delivered in teaching. This will mean that if schools are not teaching their curriculum in a coherent and balanced way, the watch dog could come down hard on them. It looks like ‘teaching to the test’ at the expense of delivering a broad and balanced curriculum is a definite no under the new framework. I want to write far more on this in the coming weeks.

2. Think carefully about the ‘I’s’ of your curriculum

Sean Harford, National Director of Education for Ofsted, delivered training on the three I’s of curriculum to inspectors just over a year ago. He said they should look out for:

  • Intent (what curriculum is trying to achieve)
  • Implementation (what is being done to put it into place)
  • Impact (how well are children learning )

Harford explained in an interview with Melanie Moore that schools ought to ask themselves the curriculum questions of: ‘Why do we do what we do? How do we know we’re doing it right? And, if we’re not doing it right, how do we do things differently?’

  1. Carefully consider the research base for what makes great teaching and curriculum

 Ofsted have also noted that they are looking to align their inspection frameworks with research evidence about teaching and curriculum design[vii]. This means schools ought to carefully consider which teaching practices have an evidence base behind them and which do not. Schools are definitely not alone in attempting to plough the research for what makes good teaching. There is a vast wealth of resources out there. The first post research informed strategies on this blog is here, on retrieval practice.

I’d go further here and say that schools ought to consider not only what the evidence says ‘great teaching’ is but what the evidence says about what makes great curriculum. To teach using strategies that are research based yet have an incoherent and poorly structured curriculum will not maximise impact on attainment: they both must be considered together closely.

So, there’s my round up of Ofsted’s new focus on curriculum. Below are some links to what I have cited here.

Key Reports from Ofsted:





Archived Ofsted Reports on Curriculum that are worth a read

Ofsted (2001) ‘The curriculum in successful primary schools’, http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4564/1/Curriculum%20in%20successful%20primary%20s

chools%20%28The%29%20%28PDF%20format%29.pdf, accessed 10 February 2018.

Ofsted (2011a) ‘Art, Craft and Design Education: Making a Mark’, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/art-craft-and-design-educationmaking-a-mark, accessed 10 February 2018.

Ofsted (2011b) ‘history teaching in schools: strengths and weakeness’, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/history-for-all-strengthes-andweaknesses of-school-history-teaching.

Ofsted (2016) ‘Science and foreign languages in primary schools’, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/hmcis-monthly-commentary-may-2016, accessed 10 February, 2018.

More like this from this blog

Curriculum as narrative

Problematic approaches to curriculum

On wasted afternoons in the primary school

Powerful Knowledge




[iii]Within my own experience, I’ve realised that when I say the word ‘curriculum’ amongst colleagues, there can be as many ideas about what that means as people who hear the word. I sense that this might well be the same for many other teachers and leaders across the country: curriculum has been an elusive term that has meant many things: the timetable, the thing the government gives us to teach, the ‘topics’ we study in the afternoon, the planning we prepare, even what we teach everyday. What is clear, is that Ofsted think teachers and leaders ought to see the term ‘curriculum’ as ‘the substance’ or ‘the fabric’ of the schools we find ourselves in…this to me sounds equally elusive.



[vi]I am not an Ofsted inspector or expert on the watchdog. These are just thoughts I have had as a fledgling humanities leader and what is forming the curriculum I am trying to develop.


6 thoughts on “Ofsted and the Curriculum: what you need to know”

  1. In February 2017 Colin McKenzie and I published a scathing critique of Ofsted–we argued that inspectors would be less than human if they didn’t vary greatly in their educational philosophy, and that this will inevitably have a major effect on which matters they choose to emphasise, and how they interpret Ofsted guidelines. Thus, schools have to prepare for a wide range of expectations; not only does this greatly increase workload, but it prevents schools from developing the sort of integrated curriculum that Ofsted is now demanding.

    Nonetheless, when I was invited to join Ofsted’s Maths Advisory Group, I understood that they were keen to promote curricular progressions with very strong emphasis on automatic recall of number bonds and fluent use of standard algorithms. This is a sea-change that is long overdue–tests that Colin and I had devised for his comprehensive revealed that the less-able pupils were coming up from primary school virtually innumerate. Any notion that these children could solve problems–let alone engage in ‘mathematical reasoning’–were sheer fantasy. Yet all these pupils came from ‘Good’ primary schools that had very few negative comments on their maths programmes from Ofsted.

    I have no doubt that the guidelines that I helped shape will cause chaos, and I only hope that eventually primary schools in England will develop more rational curricular progressions in maths. Yet I can’t help but feel that we were right in our 2017 paper–school inspections are a British innovation which–unlike railroads, tanks and televsions–have not been copied around the world. There’s something a little unlikely about the notion that a small team consisting of former teachers– who for one reason or another are no longer teaching–can uncover a school’s strengths and weaknesses after a short inspection. We advocated an optional system of annual tests in academic subjects, using computer adaptive tests with massive question banks that would eliminate ‘teaching to test’.

    Sadly, I think it will always be a tall order to get all teachers to take control of their curriculum and their lives. For far too long, they’ve been told what to do, and it’s career death to dissent. By all means give them access to a full range of research–and not just the guff produced by the EEF. But until teachers are allowed to think for themselves, we are unlikely to see major improvements in our children’s education.


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