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Ofsted: 'A Broad Curriculum' Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

12/10/2017 16:02 | Updated 12 October 2017

It's important to understand why Amanda Spielman is at OFSTED, in order to understand her recent contradictory, and occasionally bizarre, announcement about the curriculum. Her predecessor's colossal ego had led OFSTED into conflict with education ministers, particularly over the right of the inspectorate to opine on the efficacy of the private academy chains whose owners so often fund the Tory Party, and indeed sit on the DFE Board. Spielman was appointed as a safe and reliable pair of hands to bring the DFE's enforcement arm back on to the reservation.

This is why her announcement yesterday was greeted with waving pompoms by the Govian cheerleaders of the education system. No sooner had the ink dried on her report, than spokesmen for right-wing Govian think tank Policy Exchange, and right-wing Govian astroturf group, Parents and Teachers for Excellence (the Taxpayers' Alliance of the education world), were promoting the HMCI's announcement as unchallengeable wisdom. Indeed, parts of her commentary read like a checklist of a Gove speech: "knowledge-based curriculum" - tick; "social mobility" - tick; "International competitiveness with Asian students" - tick; and so, tediously, on.

In education, teachers have long known that when the Govians are united in praise, something bad is on the way. And so it is here.

On the face of it, the headline that narrowing the curriculum is a bad thing, is unarguable. Teachers have been saying this for many years, and not a few read the headline and leapt to express their gratitude that Ofsted had finally admitted it. However, perhaps they should have read more carefully what Spielman was actually saying. Because for many teachers, Spielman's idea of a narrow curriculum is what they would consider a broad one, and vice versa.

Spielman's definition of a broad secondary curriculum is Gove's Ebacc. Indeed, much of her announcement is given over to a criticism of heads who seek to offer children - particularly lower-attaining children - any qualifications which they deem more likely to allow those children to succeed at school. She notes: "I believe studying a full set of Ebacc subjects is a desirable and achievable prospect for all but a small minority of pupils". In other words, what most teachers would see as the one of the main causes of narrowing the curriculum - the Ebacc - is Spielman's definition of a broad one.

Confused? There's more.

Spielman is dismissive of vocational qualifications of the sort schools often try to find for their students, in order to provide them with a useful experience beyond failing at Ebacc subjects. She describes them contemptuously as "badges and stickers". She explicitly challenges the views of heads that the DFE's Progress 8 performance measure has limited their scope for finding high-quality vocational alternatives for their students. Instead, she merely demands that they teach all students the Ebacc subjects, and goes further in a Guardian interview, claiming "If a pupil gains valuable knowledge, for instance in history, but does not get a grade four [C], they will still be better educated for having studied it". This will be news to parents of lower attaining children all over the country, who might consider obtaining a useful vocational qualification rather more valuable than failing a GCSE.

This Orwellian redefinition of a narrow academic curriculum as "broad", and a broad vocational curriculum as "narrow", stems from one of the central tenets of the Govian faith, that there is what Spielman refers to as "the essential body of knowledge for any pupil": a canon of approved information which exists to be poured into students' heads as the main purpose of education. This is the front line in an ongoing culture war in education concerning what the purpose of education is. Spielman places herself well and truly on the neo-Victorian traditionalist side which Gove, and his disciple Nick Gibb, have been pushing for years.

One of the advantages, of course, of an education system in which a "broad" curriculum is redefined to mean: "everyone must be taught the same narrow academic gobbets of knowledge", is that it opens up some very lucrative opportunities for selling resources filled with the approved knowledge. It was no surprise that Policy Exchange's education spokesperson was quick off the mark to praise the potential of the big private edubusinesses, Ark, Harris et al to fill this handy gap in the market. Some might have been surprised that Spielman herself also claimed that only the private edubusinesses "clearly place a high premium on thoughtful, comprehensive curriculum planning". However, anyone who thinks the chance for well-connected Tory businessmen to be given government license to make millions out of state schools is an unplanned coincidence, hasn't been watching education policy closely enough these last seven years.

The critique of Spielman's stance doesn't end in the weird Orwellian world of doublespeak which exists on the right of the education world. Perhaps a far more glaring problem with her piece, and the let's-hope-nobody-notices-the-contradiction response of the Government's supporters, is that she resolutely fails to ask the question "Why?"

Why are schools teaching to the test? Why is KS3 being shortened to allow more time on GCSE courses? Why are non-Ebacc subjects being squeezed?

The answer is, of course: Ofsted.

The English education system is a high-stakes, punitive accountability system. One wrong move, and people lose their jobs, with whole schools being ripped from their communities and forced into predatory private companies like those waiting to cash in on Spielman's new narrow/broad curriculum. In addition, ambitious types who fancy an executive title and the Moynihan-style salary to go with it, know that the way to rise up the corporate pole is to deliver whatever performance measure is currently in vogue. And who determines a school's "success" or "failure"? Ofsted do.

The influence of the inspectorate is so great that there is even a three-letter acronym instantly recognisable in all schools: WOW, or What Ofsted Want. Ofsted often claim that the perceptions of what they want are not the same as the reality. However, the data speaks for itself. Ofsted judgements are directly related to exam outcomes in whatever subjects the government has deemed important. The lower the school's collective grades, the more likely to be deemed 3 or 4, the higher the school's collective grades, the more likely to be deemed 1 or 2. The only strange exception to this rule are Free Schools, which Ofsted has recently taken to giving Outstanding grades to, without any results at all (as I said at the beginning, Spielman was given a job to do).

This isn't a startlingly original observation. Everyone who works in education knows that Ofsted judgements drive behaviour in schools, particularly with regard to exams. Indeed, Spielman herself implicitly acknowledges this in her statement when she references the pressures felt by heads. Yet there is not a word of acknowledgement about Ofsted's role in driving this narrowing of the curriculum. This is a bit rich. For her to complain about schools' focus on test results is akin to the CEO of Betfred moaning about gambling addiction.

Those who are reading her statement as a mea culpa, or a suggestion that Ofsted will in future focus less on test results, I'm afraid you are deeply mistaken. Even though the kindly headlines emphasised Spielman's apparent citing of arts subjects as worthy of inclusion in a broad curriculum, those words ring hollow when she comes to her stance on KS2 SATs. When the HMCI says "I believe the new SATs play an important role in highlighting how well schools are delivering the primary curriculum", it will be a brave, or professionally suicidal, head who decides to stop worrying about test results in order to do a bit more music and art.

As all parents and teachers know, what we do is a much more powerful lesson than what we say. Ofsted have several options available to them. They could stop judging schools by test data. They could abolish the ridiculous four-level judgements (which have come to be understood as "outsanding"= "acceptable", while the other three grades are seen as degrees of failure), and replace them with two : 'fine' and 'not fine'. They could explicitly accept that subjects outside the Ebacc are as valuable as those inside it. Spielman does none of these things.

Her statement should be read not as a critique of Government policy which has undoubtedly narrowed the curriculum, or her own organisation's role in driving that. Rather it is a public statement of loyalty to the Government's continued policy of imposing a uniform, anachronistic curriculum on all our children, in an education system where the only diversity or breadth is enjoyed by the well-connected corporate chums already cashing in. This is a critique not of Government policy for narrowing the curriculum, but of schools for not narrowing the curriculum fast enough in the way the Government wants. It is a warning that Ofsted will from now on be interpreting its "broad and balanced" criteria to mean whatever Sanctuary Buildings, and the forthcoming publications from private edubusinesses, would like it to be.

Ofsted is well and truly back on the reservation.

You can read more of Julian's blogs here.

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