Why I fear for our curriculum

Art palette

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?

It’s called teaching

I don’t blame ministers for wanting to test children more. I’d probably do the same thing if I was Education Secretary. It’s an easy one to introduce as it’s essentially a bureaucratic exercise. I think I’d do the same if I was Health Secretary. I don’t know enough about how to raise standards of healthcare, so I’d start by measuring something, like mortality rates or waiting times. It would be the same if I was Home Secretary – I’d probably look at crime statistics or arrest rates in each authority. I’m not entirely sure how it would improve services on the ground, but it would certainly make me feel as if I was making a difference. The premise must be, that the more I collect data, crunch it, rank it, publish it, then surely something will improve.

So I genuinely understand the reasoning behind the desire to want to test more. The problem I have with this, is that there are better and more sophisticated ways of achieving the end goal and it’s something that we are already doing. It’s called teaching. Since the removal of assessment without levels, never before have schools had the freedom to develop truly innovative and worthwhile ways of measuring how well our nation’s youth are performing, not just once a year, but day-in day-out. So why can’t we use this? We have a perfectly good system of teacher assessment in place at the end of key stage one. Sir Michael Wilshaw is telling us all – quite rightly – that never before have primary schools been so good. So why all the fuss?

A more cynical person might think that it’s down to a lack of trust – that teachers over-inflate their assessments and that we don’t have a true national picture. My experience suggests that this is not the case, as we are very good at moderating our judgements. Others may claim that introducing tests reduces teachers’ workload because we will no longer have to mark the tests. This again misses the point, because the current system of KS1 teacher assessment does not rely on a set ‘test’ but is formative with a bit of summative mastery (call it what you might) at the end. And what is the point of spending millions of pounds testing and externally marking scripts so that we can be told where each and every child is at nationally, only to not have a clue for the next three years, as nobody knows what expected progress looks like anymore? Maybe I missed the memo.

Assessment and testing must not be confused. They are two very distinct beasts. Assessment literally means ‘to sit next to’ (as in the French verb s’asseoir). This is what teachers spend a lot of their time doing – sitting next to children, either individually or in groups, to find out what they can or can’t do. Throughout the day, the best teachers flood the children’s senses with engaging stimuli in rich and dynamic immersive learning environments. They encourage them to ‘envoy’, ‘swagbag’, ‘splat’, ‘snap-in’ and ‘magpie’, always looking for opportunities to steal ideas and learn from their classmates. They teach children to collaborate and think actively in social contexts. Teachers quite literally, get down on their hands and knees and practically beg the children to fail, time and time again, so that they can develop reciprocity, resilience and bouncebackability.

And then we take all that away from them by putting them into a no-fail-zone, high-pressure, working-on-your-own-without-any-help-whatsoever situation, by giving them a test. For us as adults, it would be a bit like learning to drive in a Clio in England, but then having to take the test in France, driving on the other side of the road, in a Bedford van. Pretty pointless really.

At least with a driving test, you can take it when you are ready. (Isn’t it great, how as adults we change the rules of testing and have as many goes as we like? Not so for our children.) Testing would therefore be far more meaningful if it could be taken when ready; stage-related as opposed to age. I can’t remember ever a time – when teaching a class of 8 year olds to swim – that it would have been a good idea to throw them all in the deep end on a set date to see if they could swim 50 metres, regardless of whether they were ready or not. So why do we do it to young children in school?

No matter how well we try and dress it up, tests for some young children can be brutal. I had to go through some timed Ofsted assessments recently and I was hyperventilating after about five minutes. I hated it as a parent to see all three of my own children go through SATs at age 11, especially when the results that came back were exactly as predicted by the teachers.

We know that children do not learn in a linear fashion and that it is perfectly acceptable and normal not to learn as quickly at some points than others. It’s no different when growing or putting on weight – children don’t get taller at a precise rate each week, but instead have spurts. Learning is the same. To test every child in the country on a given day – some of whom may just have had a spurt (or not) – and to then say they’ve not met the national standard is unfair and unhelpful.

Regardless of how it is spun, a parent will need to be told that a 7 year old has ‘failed’. Of course, we won’t tell it that way, but they will know. How can this be helpful? It’s great for all those parents with clever children, but what of the others? What about those children who do not speak English, or who are refugees, or are starving hungry, abused, scared, unloved? Do we need to put them through a test or can the teacher not sit next to them and skilfully find out what the child can, or can’t yet do and then plan some activities that helps them move forward?

Classrooms are wonderfully complex places. I imagine a live operating theatre being much the same. I bet it’s awash with equipment and experts at the top of their game, all using a myriad of tools that measure progress. There will be continual collaboration, feedback and teamwork amongst all those in the room. Everyone will be in a heightened state of flow, resourceful, resilient and responding continuously to the needs of the patient, changing direction as they go. No different to Class 4M yesterday really. And yet, we’d never dream of taking a snapshot part-way through a medical procedure to see how well things are going. Instead, we’d try and rely on a range of sophisticated data and contextual information provided throughout the course of the year.

Testing does have its place in school. It should be administered by the teacher, as and when he or she chooses, with the single purpose of informing the next stage of learning, especially with young children. At a push, I can live with national tests at age 11, because by then children have been taught to be resilient and resourceful learners. Key Stage 3 and beyond? Bring it on.

But please leave our 7 year olds alone.