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Why I fear for our curriculum

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One of the things that we’ve done really well across our trust has been the curriculum. And now I fear for it because Ofsted want to get their hands on it. With their relentless pursuit over the years of teaching, outcomes, standards and compliance, the curriculum has been left alone by and large. This has meant that we have been able to quietly get on with taking risks, being innovative and by and large enjoying ourselves. Stealth is a wonderful thing.

What I’ve learnt more than anything is that Ofsted crave consistency. They love similarity and sameness. Conformity is King. In lessons and books and on the walls they want to see that everyone is doing the same thing. The fact that it might lack excitement or flair is neither here nor there. So long as everyone is doing the same. As we know, as soon as they find someone – anyone – doing something different, then all bets are off.

During an inspection for example, you find yourself having to justify why it is that Class 4A do not use their teaching assistant in quite the same way as in 4B. You find yourself caught up in a mindless argument about why it was that a TA thought it was right to remain in a chair for a few minutes longer than the one across the corridor.

Ofsted would hate having to operate within the commercial sector. Heaven forbid if they found themselves in silicon valley or the land of the dot.commers. Any new or established tech company craves originality and adaptability – they actively encourage employees to think differently and to apply new approaches and ways of thinking to solve problems. But in teaching, when you get the call, it’s all about conformity; being the same, day-in, day-out, regardless of whether it best suits the needs of the children.

In a recent inspection in one of our schools, teaching and learning was on the cusp of being judged outstanding at the end of day one. We pushed for it but on day two the team appeared to make it their mission to find examples of where the teaching in one class was not identical to the teaching in the other. They found something eventually and so we were doomed. As a result, we were saddled in the inspection report with ‘pupils may not make as much progress as they could.’ Correct: they ‘may’ not, but then they ‘might’. The point is no-one knows so why even bother writing it?

It’s lazy inspecting: Any one of us can go into a school, pick up two different books from two different teachers, see that one has slightly fewer gap tasks per week than the other and smugly conclude that one is better than the other. Still far too often the inspection process is based on the principle that the ‘exception proves the rule’.

It is no surprise that schools are reluctant to move away from tried-and-tested methods for fear of getting caught off-piste. Across out trust, every teacher is undertaking a year-long piece of action research looking at marginal gains. Each classroom is a living research centre in which teachers are pioneering new ways of working. The teacher’s pedagogical palette is therefore rich and varied, each with their own blank canvas. As with all art, we don’t want our paintings to all look the same.

But the minute we get the Ofsted call, all that goes out the window. It has to because at best we’d do well to get an RI. Even if as leaders we proclaim that staff are to carry on as normal, teachers are human after all and in times of stress we revert back to our default position. Better to be seen to play it safe and do it well – and  to not stand out – than get caught doing something risky and wrong. It’s about safety in numbers as no-one wants to be singled out for letting the side down.

So this is why I fear so much for the curriculum. Ours is very risky. It’s risky because it’s based on children’s interests and takes the principles of EYFS right through to Year 6. It’s like Marmite. When people visit our school they either love it or hate it. They ask me how do we measure it and I say I don’t know. I tell them that from experience when I come across something that’s hard to measure, it’s probably a good thing to do. Take growth mindset for example.

Our curriculum is full of elements that we can’t measure and quantify, such as entrepreneurship, critical thinking, meta-learning and play. I have no idea what ‘expected’ looks like in Year 4 or whether or not a Year 5 pupil is making better than expected progress in his ability to think critically. But I’m pretty sure that for Ofsted I’m now going to have to.

When done right, the curriculum is so deeply embedded into the life and soul of the school that it becomes almost impossible to find. At best, all you can do is scratch the surface if you are only popping into school for a day. Anyone who says you can is wrong and has obviously never spent years trialling, refining and crafting a worthwhile curriculum.

A truly great curriculum can’t be boxed up and quantified unless of course the type of curriculum you offer is the boxed-up and quantifiable type. The kind that is formulaic, churned out year after year, is utilitarian and based on what the teachers want to tell the students as opposed to what they want (and need) to learn. In the words of the song (Panic by the Smiths), ‘it means nothing to me about my life’. QCA anyone?

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