Ofsted has begun consulting on a revised draft inspection framework.
The inspectorate wants to move away from an over-reliance on results and to focus on how these have been achieved – ‘whether they are the result of broad and rich learning, or gaming and cramming. ’The aim is to ‘‘rebalance inspection to make sure that young people are being taught the best of what has been thought and said’.
Ofsted’s focus on whether a school has a good curriculum is welcome. If taken seriously, it should lead us into deep and complex issues about what education should be about. But, bound as it is by current legislation, Ofsted has a very specific interpretation of this. Its references to knowledge and skills and nod to Matthew Arnold’s well-known dictum show its reliance on the current National Curriculum aims, introduced by then Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2013:
‘The national curriculum provides pupils with an introduction to the essential knowledge they need to be educated citizens. It introduces pupils to the best that has been thought and said, and helps engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement’
This makes short work of the question: what should schools’ aims be? Gove’s statement is not really about this at all. Its first sentence does not tell us what knowledge is essential for the educated citizen. Its second sentence is too general to cut any ice. It is not in fact an aims statement, but more accurately Gove’s personal précis of the content already embodied in the National Curriculum, that is, the clutch of subjects going back to 1988.
Ofsted’s remarks about ‘broad and rich learning’ also reflect the aims laid down in 1988 and still in force:
‘Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which
- promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society
- prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.’ r a ‘balanced and broadly based’ curriculum, just as we need to know how to interpret words like ‘spiritual’, ‘cultural’ and ‘mental’. The last sentence in the 1988 statement is platitudinous. Indeed, all the aims now in force are too empty of content to be a guide.
What strikes one above all is their brevity. The 1988 ones and the 2013 ones are 46 and 40 words long respectively. How can so few words tell us what a school’s purposes should be?
Coherence is also a problem. How is Gove’s emphasis on ‘essential knowledge’ related to a ‘balanced and broadly based’ curriculum that deals with a whole range of concerns (‘spiritual, moral …..development’)? How does a curriculum of largely traditional subjects promote these various kinds of development? We are not told.
The official aims in force are not fit for purpose. We need to start afresh. A problem is that it has been educationministerswho lay down aims and curricula. The rationale is that these should be under democratic control rather than the professional control that existed before 1988. This is sound in principle. The shape that school education takes affects how fulfilling students’ own lives and others’ will be, and on the future well-being of society more generally. Teachers are not in a privileged position over other citizens to say what a good society or a good education should be like. It is a cornerstone of democracy that everyoneshould help determine these.
But the danger of ministerial control is that ministers may impose their own views of what schools should be for. In 1988 Baker imposed his preference for a broadly-based grammar school education. In 2013 Gove narrowed this in the direction of knowledge acquisition.
The proper vehicle for democratic control is a Curriculum Commission at arms-length from ministerial interference, made up of people from interested sectors across society chosen for their impartiality. After wide consultation, its task would be to construct a full and reasoned statement of school aims, to be revised at intervals.
The Commission will arrive at its own conclusions but it is reasonable to expect these to include equipping students to be members of a modern, democratic society who enjoy a fulfilling life of their own choosing, help others to do so, and engage in satisfying work.
The Commission will want to generate more determinate aims. The civic aim, for instance, points to acquiring some understanding of what living in a democratic community involves; and to strengthening dispositions necessary for democratic life like concern for others, cooperativeness, personal autonomy, tolerance and treating others with equal respect. Another example. Seeing the role of STEM activities in the economy, the Commission will want students to have sufficient grasp of these to hold down a job in the area if they want this.
The Commission will no doubt make its aims, perhaps including those just given, more determinate still, but there its remit ends. This brings us to a crucial distinction – between deciding what the aims should be and deciding how those aims are to be pursued, ie by what curricular vehicles (eg subjects, whole school processes etc) and by what pedagogies. This distinction marks the watershed between the work of the Commission and the work of schools – between the political and professional spheres.
The National Curriculum has always transgressed this limit, framing curricular content mainly within a particular kind of vehicle – the school subject. Since 2010 ministers have reinforced this in their EBacc initiatives and also encroached into pedagogy by, for instance, policy on synthetic phonics. Ofsted’s new framework also stresses a subject framework, and the framework’s reliance on cognitive psychology to conclude that ‘progress…means knowing more and remembering more’ suggests it may also have its own views on how things should be taught.
Ofsted has turned our attention back to what makes a good curriculum. We now need a more adequate answer to this question.