NC18: Memorandum submitted by Ofsted

1 Summary

 

1.1 The main points of Ofsted's written evidence to this inquiry

 

1.1.1 A National Curriculum ensures entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum for all pupils.

 

1.1.2 Prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989, HMI reports highlight the variability and often restricted nature of the curriculum.

 

1.1.3 The National Curriculum raised expectations in relation to the proportion of pupils who would achieve accreditation in external examinations in a range of subjects.

 

1.1.4 The National Curriculum was instrumental in widening the curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities and raising expectations of what they could achieve.

 

1.1.5 The attainment targets signpost appropriate expectations for teachers to have of their pupils and the levels clarify progression and differentiation.

 

1.1.6 A combination of general principles (rather than detailed specification) and clear aims enables schools to plan a curriculum that is matched to pupils' needs and interests.

 

1.1.7 The best schools work within the framework of the National Curriculum, taking advantage of flexibilities and matching the curriculum to the needs, interests and prior attainment of pupils.

 

1.1.8 Some primary schools have missed opportunities to broaden the curriculum.

 

1.1.9 Teachers' weak subject knowledge continues to have a negative impact on provision.

 

1.1.10 In some schools testing has been allowed to affect the balance of the curriculum particularly in Years 6 and 9.

 

1.1.11 Assessment continues to be an area of weakness.

 

1.1.12 The general features common to all diplomas should build effectively on skills developed through the National Curriculum.

 

 

2 Principles of whether there should be a National Curriculum

2.1 The arguments for and against having a National Curriculum

 

2.1.1 The strongest argument for having a National Curriculum is the entitlement argument. It is the best possible way of ensuring that all pupils, irrespective of the schools they attend, follow a broad and balanced curriculum. If there is no notion of entitlement we are at risk of creating greater inequality as the curriculum offered would be at the whim of individual schools.

 

2.1.2 HMI reports from the period prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum in 1989 highlight the variability and often the restricted nature of the curriculum experienced by many young people, and the consequent impact on achievement. For example:

a. many girls not following science or technology courses in the later secondary years, and some not taking external exams in mathematics;

b. variable exposure to different subjects in primary schools; and

c. low expectations of the lowest quartile of pupils, who experienced a narrow curriculum and were not entered for external examinations.

 

2.1.3 The National Curriculum brought with it the expectation that pupils should take external examinations, and achieve accreditation, in all the subjects studied. This is now regarded as the norm, but it was certainly not the case prior to the introduction of the National Curriculum.

 

2.1.4 Entitlement to a National Curriculum was instrumental in widening the curriculum offer for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities especially for those with complex needs. This in turn helped to raise expectations of progress for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities. This links with the Disability Discrimination Act when it was extended to cover education, obliging schools to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled pupils were not disadvantaged in any area of school life. Admissions, exclusions and access to the full and extended curriculum are all governed by this amendment.

 

2.1.5 We hope any curriculum would pay special attention to the most vulnerable children in our society, particularly those that rely on corporate parenting to support and encourage them to take full advantage of education.

 

2.1.6 The revised Key Stage 3 curriculum balances entitlement to a core offer with greater flexibility for schools to shape their own curricula. The attainment targets offer further entitlement in that they signpost appropriate expectations for teachers to have of their pupils. The National Curriculum ensures progression and continuity; it provides structure to assist progress over time in both curriculum content and also the development of skills. The National Curriculum has never prescribed how the curriculum should be taught or addressed and therefore provides schools with considerable opportunity to organise and teach it alongside local and personal need. The corresponding levels of attainment provide a scheme for progression and differentiation as well as providing teachers with a clear system for assessment.

 

2.1.7 Illustrative examples:

 

a. Science provides a clear example of the benefit of the National Curriculum. The introduction of the science National Curriculum, together with a national initiative to train primary teachers, raised standards to a point where England was amongst the top few nations in international comparisons. In secondary schools, the National Curriculum entitlement resulted in significant improvements in provision, with around 90% of pupils following courses that led to the award of two GCSEs in science. (Ofsted's subject report on Science to be published summer 2008)

 

b. More girls have successfully followed design and technology GCSE courses since the introduction of the National Curriculum and the subject's redefinition as a broad combination of designing, making and evaluating functional products and systems, which is an improvement on what went before. However a negative feature is the weakened attention given to the teaching of practical cookery. (Ofsted's subject report on Design and technology to be published summer 2008).

 

c. Citizenship was introduced into the National Curriculum from 2002 as a major thrust of government education policy. Before that time, as a non statutory cross curricular theme it was not taken seriously in most schools. While the introduction of citizenship has proved to be a major challenge for schools, some of which have yet to respond fully to meet the requirements, it now has a high profile and is taken very seriously in the majority. This would not have happened without a national curriculum. Evidence of this is to be found in our recent report, Towards consensus? (HMI 2666, 2006)

 

d. RE is worth considering as an example of the impact of not including a subject in the National Curriculum. Ofsted's most recent report on RE, Making sense of religion (HMI 070045, 2007) expressed concerns about whether the current local determination of the subject is fit for purpose and recommended that serious consideration be given to making the current non-statutory National Framework for RE the basis for the inclusion of RE in the National Curriculum. The evidence indicates that the exclusion of RE from the National Curriculum has, in many ways, been a barrier to success in the subject.

 

e. The position of PSHE is like that of RE in that it has never been statutory. This has resulted in obvious difficulties with a few schools not doing it at all, and many doing it badly with no discrete timetabled time and little tracking of progress or outcomes. Evidence of this is to be found in our recent report, Time for change? Personal, social and health education (HMI 070049, 2007)

 

f. Business education is not specifically part of the National Curriculum but aspects of enterprise education, economic and business understanding and personal finance education are included within work-related learning and citizenship education, both of which are statutory at Key Stage 4. However, there is not a statutory programme of study for work-related learning, so schools can choose to do anything they want in the way of enterprise, economic and business understanding and personal finance education. This is one of the reasons why provision is so variable between schools. Furthermore, the new subject area of Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (divided into Personal Development and Economic Well-being and Financial Capability), to be introduced from September 2008 at Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4, is not in itself statutory but the careers education and work-related learning aspects are (careers education at both Key Stage 3 and Key Stage 4 and work related learning at Key Stage 4 only). All this is confusing to schools.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 How the fitness-for-purpose of the National Curriculum might be improved

3.1 What the purpose of a National Curriculum should be (for example, whether it should set out broad principles or detailed aims and objectives)

 

3.1.1 This question goes beyond Ofsted's remit to report on things as they currently are. However our evidence shows that a combination of broad and general principles rather than detailed specifications (e.g. which novels to read and which person to study in History) together with clear aims and objectives enables schools to plan a curriculum that is matched to the needs and interests of their pupils.

 

3.1.2 Illustrative examples:

 

a. Our recent report on history, History in the balance (HMI 070043, 2007) recommends: a balance of compulsory core of knowledge and skills with more flexible elements to respond to local needs. This recommendation lends itself well to other foundation subjects. This is particularly important given Ofsted's evidence that teachers' subject knowledge is weak and skills in assessment remain fragile. "...important weaknesses in the curriculum, largely as a result of the way it is interpreted, have an impact on standards. Too great a focus on a relatively small number of issues means that pupils are not good at establishing a chronology, do not make connections between the areas they have studied and so do not gain an overview, and are not able to answer the 'big questions'."

 

b. The geography report Geography in schools: changing practice (HMI 070044, 2008) reports on the negative effects of a narrow curriculum and the benefits of fieldwork arranged by individual schools. "In many secondary schools, a narrow range of textbooks and a focus on factual recall rather than on exploring ideas fail to capture pupils' interest".

 

c. The mathematics community is divided on the level of detail that should be provided in the National Curriculum. In an ideal world, the important mathematical processes should be uppermost and the content used as a context for learning mathematically, and this is the way the new Key Stage 3 curriculum is presented. However, it is questionable whether most teachers are equipped to base their planning on this. The National Curriculum is no longer used in most schools, especially secondaries, for planning the mathematics curriculum. The level descriptors, teachers' experience of National Curriculum tests and GCSE examinations, examination specifications, text books and the old Key Stage 3 medium term plans define coverage for almost all schools, and they use these to guide what they teach to particular groups of pupils. In primary schools, it is usually the Primary National Strategy framework that underpins planning. Indirectly all of these things stem from the National Curriculum.

 

3.2 How best to balance central prescription and flexibility at school/classroom level

 

3.2.1 Our evidence shows that the best schools, in terms of enabling pupils to make rapid progress and fulfil their potential, are those which work within the framework of the National Curriculum, take advantage of flexibilities and match their curriculum to the needs, interests and prior attainment of their pupils. In the schools where this flexibility is exploited, this work is driven by a headteacher or senior management team who understand curriculum issues and the importance of a focus on outcomes and subject leaders and others, particularly middle managers, who recognise the importance of providing a curriculum which is coherent, makes links across subjects and is developing the whole child or young person to play a full and productive part in society. The classroom teacher will be supported by detailed school schemes of work based on more general National Curriculum principles and objectives. A simplified and age appropriate version of what is being taught and learnt will have been shared with pupils and parents/carers.

 

3.2.2 Illustrative examples:

 

a. The Key Stage 4 curriculum (HMI 070113, 2007) report provides clear evidence of how increased flexibilities with the National Curriculum in Key Stage 4 have enabled schools to re-engage many students, to improve behaviour and attendance and raise achievement. They have done this largely by introducing vocational programmes which pupils have found interesting and relevant to their needs.

 

b. This issue is particularly challenging in relation to pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities as highlighted in our report 'Inclusion: Does it matter where pupils are taught' (HMI 2535, 2006) which found that:

i. an increasing number of schools of all types were successfully developing innovative approaches to the curriculum. However, the quality of the curriculum was generally less important for pupils' enjoyment, engagement and progress than good individual assessment, planning well matched to needs and good teaching. This was true across all subjects and settings, except with regard to young people who required a more vocational curriculum. Here, the match of the curriculum to the pupils' interests and abilities was more important.

ii. most mainstream schools provided good access to an appropriate and interesting curriculum, tailored to the needs of pupils. This ranged from full access to available lessons, with some adaptation according to needs, to a completely individual curriculum. There were good examples of personalised learning programmes which, when combined with good teaching of subjects, moved pupils' learning on very rapidly from a low starting point.

iii. progress was not as good in schools where lower attaining pupils were expected to fit in with a less flexible approach to the curriculum. This happened in more secondary than primary schools. In additionally resourced mainstream schools, access to additional specialist staff increased the flexibility of the curriculum.

 

 

4 The management of the National Curriculum and its articulation with other policies and strategies with which schools must work

4.1 The extent to which the National Strategies are effective in supporting the National Curriculum

 

4.1.1 The National Strategies were not intended to support the National Curriculum, though there is some evidence that they have. For example, the report on English 2000-05 (HMI 2351, 2005) makes reference in its main findings to the literacy strategy helping schools to teach the full programme for National Curriculum English. The strategies were initially intended to improve standards of literacy and numeracy and more recently have spread to most aspects of school life.

 

4.1.2 The focus of the strategies has caused some primary schools to focus on literacy and numeracy sometimes at the expense of other subjects. For example HMCI's 2004-05 Annual Report (paragraph 168) said that "Primary schools have been reluctant to risk losing hard-won improvements in English and mathematics and have missed opportunities to broaden the curriculum by not giving enough emphasis to other subjects."

 

4.1.3 The report Primary National Strategy (HMI 2396, 2005) (Paragraph 33) reports that the impact of Primary National Strategy on improving provision and achievement in National Curriculum foundation subjects is limited. It also found that in the drive to improve national test results in Key Stage 2 curriculum time, particularly for Foundation subjects, had been eroded. Despite many years of National Strategies there are still, "Concerns about the future of the one in five pupils who transfer from primary to secondary schools without adequate skills in literacy and numeracy have been widely voiced. The impact of the National Strategies has been reported by Ofsted since the days of the early pilot projects on literacy and numeracy. There have been some notable successes; but the fact remains that in terms of raising attainment further we have much more to do and quickly." (HMCI's commentary, HMCI's 2006-07 Annual Report)

 

4.1.4 HMCI's 2006-07 Annual Report (Paragraph 71) said that, "in other areas of the primary curriculum, weak subject knowledge continues to have negative impact on provision. This sometimes leads [teachers] to rely on mundane tasks that focus too much on knowledge and content and not enough on understanding that underpins it. It also leads to weaknesses in assessment and poor matching of learning objectives to pupils' needs." (Paragraph 72) "Within and between schools, there is an unacceptable range in the quality of provision for subjects other than English and mathematics."

 

4.1.5 There is evidence of a decline in the status of science as a core subject in primary schools and a consequential lack of priority as schools focus on literacy and numeracy developments. This has been reported on over several years in science reports and will be in the forthcoming triennial report on science.

 

4.2 The impact of the current testing and assessment regime on the delivery and scope of the National Curriculum

 

4.2.1 Assessment (including testing) is an essential component of a curriculum in order to know what pupils have understood before planning the next learning. However, in some schools testing has been allowed to affect the balance of the curriculum although the best schools avoid this. As Ofsted reported in its submission to the Select Committee on assessment and testing, based on evidence gathered during subject inspections:

 

"In some schools an emphasis on tests in English, mathematics and science limits the range of work in these subjects in particular year groups (Years 6 and 9) and more broadly across the curriculum in some primary schools. Consequently teaching can become narrowly focused at these times."

 

4.2.2 HMCI's 2005-06 Annual Report said that, "For some pupils, however, the experience of English had become narrower in certain years as teachers focused on tests and examinations; this affected pupils' achievement in speaking and listening in particular," and that, "Weaker teaching [in mathematics] was too narrowly focused on proficiency in examination techniques at the expense of building understanding of concepts and their relationships."

 

4.2.3 More recent evidence suggests the continuance of these trends. For example, in Year 6 mathematics there are fewer opportunities than in other years for practical work because of the emphasis given to practising skills and techniques in preparation for national Key Stage 2 tests. Similarly, in some secondary schools, routine exercises and preparation for tests impair the development of understanding as well as enjoyment of mathematics particularly but not exclusively in Year 9. The best schools buck these trends.

 

4.2.4 The recently published Poetry in Schools (HMI 070034, 2007) report also discusses the significant impact of tests on the teaching of poetry in English, particularly in Year 9. However the best schools found ways to continue to teach poetry.

 

4.2.5 HMCI's 2006-07 Annual Report comments that learning for skills for life training offered by colleges, learndirect and other providers, "was often too narrowly focused on simply passing a test, rather than on the value of the learning process. Providers still offered insufficiently individualised learning packages. These concentrated on dealing with the gaps in learners' skills, rather than laying the secure foundations needed to support them effectively in employment and their personal lives."

 

4.2.6 Current external testing is only of English, maths and science apart from at the end of Key Stage 4. This has focused disproportionate attention on these three core subjects at the expense of ICT and the foundation subjects. The development of ICT assessment tasks currently being designed by QCA and National Assessment Agency will begin to restore some balance. This will be reported on in our forthcoming ICT triennial report.

 

4.2.7 For older pupils studying mathematics, Ofsted has previously reported on teaching that emphasises a focus on success in examinations in the report Evaluating mathematics provision for 14-19 year olds (HMI 2611, 2006) which said that, "teaching which presented mathematics as a collection of arbitrary rules and provided a narrow range of learning activities did not motivate students and limited their achievement. Focusing heavily on examination questions enabled students to pass examinations, but did not necessarily enable them to apply their knowledge independently in different contexts."

 

4.2.8 Without the shared language of assessment expectations of progress cannot be challenged as easily. This is the situation for pupils with the most complex learning difficulties and disabilities. Teaching to the test is not confined to national tests. For pupils attaining below National Curriculum levels, in the absence of national tests, a plethora of commercial assessment tools have developed and there are still many examples where assessment leads the curriculum.

 

4.3 The likely impact of the single level tests currently being piloted

 

4.3.1 Ofsted does not have specific evidence on these. However, assuming the tests are accurately pitched and marked, the notion of testing when ready is sound provided it does not lead to further fragmentation of the curriculum and more teaching to the test. For it to work properly it is essential that teachers have high expectations, assess accurately and enter pupils for the appropriate test at the appropriate time. A recent survey inspection of assessment for learning in a sample of schools found that assessment for learning was no better than satisfactory in 28 of 43 schools visited. It was inadequate in 8 schools. (Report to be published summer 2008). These findings echo earlier reporting on weaknesses in assessment in the Chief Inspector's Annual Reports. Such tests may be particularly helpful for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities, as teachers who know their pupils well will match the test to the pupil's abilities more accurately than is possible at present.

 

4.4 The likely impact of the current 'root and branch' review of the primary curriculum by Sir Jim Rose

 

4.4.1 This requires speculation, so goes beyond Ofsted's evidence base. It will be important to retain notions of breadth and balance and to build on the Early Years Foundation Stage as well as ensuring that a greater proportion of pupils attain the national expectation in literacy and numeracy. Matching the review of the primary phase to the new Key Stage 3 curriculum will be a challenge.

 

4.5 The implications of personalised learning, including the flexibility introduced by the new secondary curriculum (from September 2008)

 

4.5.1 An as yet unpublished survey report on Assessment for Learning shows secondary schools in particular are not well prepared to provide for personalising learning. Assessment, planning and teachers' own understanding of Assessment for Learning is weak. This report (to be published summer 2008) will say that too many teachers still fail to see the connection between accurate and regular assessment and good teaching which leads to learning. Primary schools are generally further ahead because headteachers have ensured consistent practices across their schools and most primary teachers come to know pupils very well over the year.

 

4.5.2 The most effective curriculum for pupils with learning difficulties and disabilities identified through S5 inspections and survey inspections personalises learning but it only works when teaching and assessment are good. Personalising learning should not narrow the breadth of coverage for pupils, especially in younger age groups, but should enable the curriculum to be designed in way that engages their interest, makes links between subjects and enables pupils to progress at different rates.

 

4.6 How well the National Curriculum supports transition to and delivery of the 14-19 Diplomas

 

4.6.1 The introduction of the 14-19 Diplomas will bring wider choice to the curriculum in Key Stage 4, and result in fewer students following National Curriculum subjects to age 16. Most of the first 14 lines of learning (vocational areas), to be introduced in 2008-2010 do not match the subjects of the National Curriculum. However, the general features common to all diplomas - the functional skills, personal, learning and thinking skills and projects - should build effectively on skills developed through the National Curriculum, particularly if such skills were made explicit in the National Curriculum subjects. The revised Key Stage 3 curriculum should be better preparation as it is more general and, if properly implemented by schools, should enable them to match their school's curriculum to the needs of the particular pupils.

 

4.7 The role of the new style Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in relation to the National Curriculum

 

4.7.1 Splitting the regulatory function of the QCA into a separate body leaves the remainder of QCA with a responsibility for the curriculum and assessment which will need to be defined carefully in terms of the overlap with the DCSF's responsibilities in these areas. Coming after the revisions of the Early Years Foundation Stage and Key Stage 3, the review of the primary curriculum will need to link coherently to both.

 

4.7.2 The role of QCA in relation to the awarding bodies also needs definition as these have huge influence over what and how subjects are taught. At present, QCA's influence seems to mainly be at the development stage and post-examination rather than a watch-dog throughout the life of an examination. Around functional skills, there is a danger in mathematics that awarding bodies' narrow interpretation of functional skills as mathematics that relates to everyday life will prevail over genuine functionality of learners in mathematics. In essence, the awarding bodies are focusing on content whereas the National Curriculum at Key Stage 4 and the functional skills criteria promote the key processes of representing, analysing, interpreting and evaluating, communicating and reflecting. It is important that QCA rigorously ensures parity between different subjects. For example if "double award" ICT examinations are offered, QCA must ensure that these do in fact equate to two separate subjects elsewhere in the curriculum.

 

4.8 The role of teachers in the future development of the National Curriculum

 

4.8.1 Teachers should be consulted, enthused, trained and held to account for appropriate delivery in terms of the National Curriculum.

 

March 2008