Amanda Spielman, Ofsted’s chief inspectors, welcomes the Association of School and College Leaders’ (ASCL) Commission on ethical leadership in her October Commentary. Many school leaders, she says, are ‘working to revitalise curriculum thinking to ensure that the content of young people’s learning takes precedence over performance tables.’
Earlier in her commentary she endorses recent reforms in primary and secondary exams. They were a ‘marked improvement on their predecessors’, she writes. This despite Ofqual’s recent ruling that the 2016 Reading SAT was ‘unduly hard’. And Spielman doesn’t seem alarmed about English pupils being among the most-tested in the world.
Although Spielman’s concern about how accountability measures can distort what is taught in schools is welcome, she shouldn’t be blaming schools. Geoff Barton, ASCL’s general secretary, told Schools Week it was ‘hardly surprising’ schools concentrated on SATs and GCSEs because ‘that’s how their performance is measured’.
‘If Ofsted wants them to focus less on these assessments, we would suggest it lobbies the government for a change to the accountability system rather than criticising schools.’
Spielman was right to say ‘teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed out and flimsy understanding’. This criticism isn’t new. Six years ago, the OECD warned that the excessive focus on GCSE results in England was worrying and risked negative consequences. As well as teaching to the test, these included ‘gaming’ and concentrating on the easily-measured at the expense of non-cognitive skills.
There is ‘little debate’ about the curriculum, Spielman said. Again, she shouldn’t be surprised. Former Education Secretary Michael Gove closed down debate by saying those who criticised his curriculum ideas were ‘Marxists’ or the ‘Blob’. But Spielman’s call for a debate is undermined by her support for the Gove curriculum – it has ‘promise and potential’ which many schools aren’t fulfilling.
One little-discussed aspect of a national curriculum is how far a government should impose its views on schools. ‘The substance of the curriculum is a matter for government policy,’ says Spielman. This is dangerous. Totalitarian regimes impose curriculum on their schools – governments in a free society should set a framework and leave it to schools to design a curriculum appropriate for their pupils. Spielman rightly highlights the importance of curriculum design by teachers but doesn’t seem to be aware that a centrally-imposed curriculum works against this.
‘Ofsted has a role in judging how well schools reflect the government’s intentions and don’t distort the aims that have been set,’ Spielman writes. This reduces Ofsted to a government poodle. Ofsted’s role should be to judge how well a school’s curriculum meets the needs of its pupils. Pupils are the centre of education not governments.