Ofsted Phase 3 curriculum research published

19 December 2018

Arts curriculum quality higher at secondary than primary level

On 11 December Ofsted published Phase 3 of their curriculum research which is supporting the refresh of the Ofsted inspection framework due in September 2019, and Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector’s commentary. This research was seeking to test if there is a reliable way to inspect the quality of school curriculums.

From the previous two rounds of research Ofsted had identified three key elements they wanted to inspect to enable them to understand the quality of a curriculum: intention, implementation and impact. Ofsted developed 25 indicators linked to these three areas and tested them across a range of different school types, asking inspectors to judge schools on a scale of 1 to 5.

The indicators were not subject-specific and Ofsted has said:

‘In time, we would like to be able to use subject-specific curriculum indicators, because we think that this will be even more powerful in assessing the quality of education.’

Inspectors looked at four subject areas per school in the trial. One subject was English or Maths, not both, and three other foundation subjects. Although 25 indicators were used in the trial the plan is to be able to refine down the indicators to a more manageable number to fit current inspection practice.

Difference in quality between Primary and Secondary

The research found that at primary ‘schools visited generally had weaker aspects of curriculum quality’ compared to secondary schools. There were large variations between maths and English and the foundation subjects.

‘It is disappointing to see so few higher scores in technology subjects, humanities and arts.’

The report notes that primary schools mostly used topics or themes to teach foundation subjects. A key difference in how these topics are taught in schools that have higher curriculum quality was ‘the ones that were most invested in curriculum design had a clear focus on the subject knowledge to be learned in each subject and designed their topics around that’.

At secondary ‘there was much less difference between the quality of implementation of the foundation subjects and the core subjects.’ Arts subjects (art, music and drama) appeared particularly strong, with 10 out of 13 arts departments scoring a 4 or a 5 for curriculum quality. 

Curriculum quality not always related to current Ofsted level

While the research did find a relationship between curriculum quality and pupil progress and attainment scores, it also found that schools with more disadvantaged intakes, who did not fare well when their pupil outcomes were the main basis of an Ofsted judgement, did much better when curriculum quality was looked at. Conversely, some schools with more affluent intakes and Good or Outstanding Ofsted ratings were assessed as having a weaker curriculum.

‘Curriculum quality … does not appear to be correlated with deprivation. This is encouraging because it suggests that having a deprived intake is not a barrier to offering a rich and broad curriculum to pupils, even if this is not reflected as clearly in attainment and progress data. Conversely, it also suggests that some schools in more affluent areas are providing a low-quality curriculum offer to their pupils or gaming or coasting on the back of more affluent pupil intakes.’

High quality curriculum = high quality arts delivery

The evidence showed that senior leaders in the schools that were assessed as 4 or 5 for curriculum quality ensured that the planned curriculum was implemented across a wide range of subjects, including the arts. The research specifically noted:

'The timetabling and the organisation of curriculum delivery in some of the schools with weaker curriculum quality also limited pupils’ knowledge and understanding in technology and arts subjects in key stage 3. Practical and creative subjects were sometimes marginalised. It is important, however, to note that headteachers in the schools with a band 4 or 5 for curriculum quality were often passionate advocates of the benefits of subjects such as music, drama and technology. A wide range of subjects tended to thrive in these schools.'

Importance of teacher Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

The evidence bases for both primary and secondary schools showed that strong teacher subject knowledge is essential to high-quality curriculum planning. Key actions Senior Leadership Teams took in schools with high curriculum quality included ‘providing high-quality professional development to develop teacher subject knowledge beyond the core subjects; in the primary schools, leaders were often facilitating development through the subject associations and internal information-sharing if there was an expert in the school’.

In Primary schools which scored 1 or 2 for curriculum quality the research found ‘leaders typically did not prioritise subject-specific professional development.’ Another issue that the CLA has previously flagged was that at Primary level non-specialist leaders and staff did not know who to contact to provide subject-specific training and CPD.

Next steps

Ofsted is clear that the new framework that will be used from September 2019 is a refresh, not a complete change, as they do not want to over burden schools with more changes to the system.

‘We recognise that curriculum thinking has been deprioritised in the system for too long, including by Ofsted. We do not expect to see this change overnight. The new framework represents a process of evolution rather than revolution.’

Their next steps are to trial a smaller set of the indicators used in this research in pilot inspections, and their report details which indicators they believe will be most effective in making an accurate assessment of curriculum quality. Read the full report for all the detail.

You can also read Schools Week analysis of the research and Amanda Spielman’s commentary.