The Journal for Executive and Governance Leaders

Evidence-Informed Inspection: Curriculum Research and the Education Inspection Framework

Without a curriculum, a school is just a building full of teachers and pupils.

Curriculum matters and is key to defining the knowledge and experiences that pupils receive beyond their home environment. There are many extant definitions of curriculum, but at Ofsted our working definition is: ‘a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (intent); for translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (implementation) and for evaluating what knowledge and understanding students have gained against expectations (achievement). As such, the curriculum lies at the heart of education, determining what pupils will get out of their educational experience.’

There are currently concerns across the sector that for a variety of reasons curricular thinking is not as strong as it could be. For many years, schools and teachers have had to follow a prescribed national curriculum. Now non-maintained schools are exempt, there is a tendency to conflate curriculum with qualifications and exam board specifications, in large part due to the focus on attainment in the accountability system.

Without a curriculum, a school is just a building full of teachers and pupils.  Curriculum matters and is key to defining the knowledge and experiences that pupils receive beyond their home environment.

Daniel Muijs

To counter these developments HMCI Amanda Spielman has put curriculum at the heart of the draft Education Inspection Framework. To aid this work we undertook a research programme on curriculum, that to date consists of 3 phases.

In the first phase we conducted a study of 41 schools. This confirmed that there was limited evidence of a thoughtful approach to curriculum, which was often equated with the timetable and discussed in a rather generic fashion. Schools reported that few teachers were trained in curriculum development or theory. There was evidence of narrowing curricula, particularly in Key Stage 2, of teaching to the test, and, in secondary, of equating curriculum with the exam board syllabus.

Clearly, however, there are also schools which are highly invested in curriculum development and thinking, and in the second phase of the research programme we therefore sought to collect evidence from 23 such schools, visited between January and March 2018.

The findings from this phase of the study showed that there was no one-size-fits all approach to curriculum design in these schools. Most of the curriculum leaders stressed the importance of the subject as a discipline and provided pupils with subject-specific vocabulary and knowledge that allowed them to build links and enhance their learning across subjects, even where they employed topic-based approaches. They stressed local needs and context, and ensured that where knowledge and skills may not have been acquired at home these were developed in the school. Pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds were not provided with an impoverished curriculum, but instead given the tools, not least reading, to access a broad and rich curriculum.

The sample here was by definition not representative of schools more generally, so in the third phase of our research programme we looked at a larger and more representative sample of 64 schools and colleges in which we are also testing curriculum inspection models. We used 25 indicators of curriculum quality which we tested in schools.

The main factors that distinguished schools that scored particularly highly on our indicators were:

  • The curriculum being at least as ambitious as the National Curriculum
  • Subject leaders having clear roles and good subject knowledge
  • Effective curriculum planning
  • All pupils having access to the curriculum
  • The curriculum having sufficient depth and coverage of knowledge
  • A thought out model of progression through each subject’s curriculum

A particularly interesting finding was that there was no correlation between the quality of the curriculum and levels of deprivation, which suggests that it is possible to have a strong curriculum regardless of intake.

This research programme has influenced what we are doing on inspection in the draft Education Inspection Framework. Inspection is not the same as research, so it is not appropriate to use the same methods. For example, we will not be using the curriculum indicators on inspection. As we all know, checklists used for inspection purposes tend to have some very negative unintended consequences in how they shape what school leaders do. Rather, what we are doing is using this research to inform the inspection framework, and you will find many of the concepts we have discussed in our research report in the framework and handbook. As such the link between our curriculum research and the framework is one example of how we have made EIF the most evidence-informed framework in the history of Ofsted.