Dear Chief Inspector,
Thank you for giving public recognition to the importance of a broad and balanced curriculum in your recent speeches and reports. You are absolutely right to be saying that the curriculum is about so much more than examinations and expressing concern about the fact that important subjects like the arts and technology have been squeezed as a result of government policies such as the E Bacc.
I do nevertheless experience some mixed emotions when reading about this welcome change of direction in Ofsted. After all people like me and those I represented warned about this ever since Michael Gove announced the E Bacc and the accompanying reforms to qualifications which you were instrumental in implementing in your role of Chair of Ofqual. It was not that anyone denied the importance of the subjects included in the EBacc or the fact that all schools should offer them. Our concerns were about the impact on the rest of the curriculum.
When the National Curriculum was amended to its current form Michael Gove was clear and quite explicit with me and others that the Key Stage 4 curriculum was effectively GCSE. The deregulation of broader aspects of the curriculum added to the impact of this. Ofsted has focused sharply on data and there has been a strong correlation between examination outcomes and Ofsted grades. Your recent commitment to look beyond those and recognise their place as an important part of the picture but no more is welcome and I have been pleased to see this approach reflected in some recent inspections of schools with high levels of disadvantage which I have been supporting.
Nevertheless I urge you to avoid yet another extension of the culture of denigration that has pervaded our education system for too long. It is not the fault of schools that they are teaching in the way you criticise. The current Secretary of State appears to have recognised that fact and seems to be trying to change the discourse.
Those of us who spoke out in defence of a broad and balanced curriculum were ignored. Though their arguments were strongly supported by many highly experienced and knowledgeable educationalists as well as then Director General of the CBI who argued for a curriculum that enabled young people to be ‘grounded and rounded’ they were accused of being enemies of promise or labelled as the ‘blob’. In fact the last thing they were doing was undermining the importance of a strong academic basis to the curriculum. Since then the discourse around the curriculum has remained highly polarised. An unhelpful distinction between ‘knowledge’ and ’skills’ implies that one school of thought is in support of one but not the other. Nothing could be further from the truth. Such distinctions are both unhelpful and damaging.
During the ensuing years examinations have been at the heart of a high stakes accountability system. School leaders have lost their jobs on the back of one set of results and continue to do so. School teachers’ pay is determined on the basis of performance which is more often than not judged against examination results. Performance tables are big news in the summer and affect school choice. Meanwhile schools are doing everything they can to prepare their students for examinations that are far more difficult that the ones that preceded them. At the same time they are trying, often in spite of policy levers, to do everything they can to address really important broader aspects of education.
In order to achieve your worthy aims I would urge you to consider the following.
First, please do not perpetuate yet more denigration by publicly criticising teachers who, in order to do what government policy has told them to they are focusing their teaching sharply on preparation for examinations. I do not know of any driving instructor who fail to teach people how to perform in that test. Why wouldn’t they? I am fearful that another ‘Ofsted myth’ is about to be created – eg. plan your lessons in a particular way when inspectors are in don’t mention markschemes or be seen to be teaching to the test.
Instead please keep demonstrating through your inspections what is valued and please advise policymakers to emphasise this. Perhaps it is time for the inspectorate to draw on the vast wealth of evidence it has gathered over many years and present this to a department that has recently made an explicit commitment to using evidence more effectively.
Second, please look very carefully during your curriculum review about the impact of the current focus on linear exams. We need to gather evidence about the impact of this policy as it continues to be implemented. The absence of any form of continuous assessment that counts towards them due to a lack of trust in a profession that has been driven by external accountability can only add to the pressure to teach to the test. Plenty of other jurisdictions combine their forms of assessment.
Third, please engage as much as you can with government to broaden the criteria according to which they judge schools and the way in which it is done. The respective and sometime contradictory roles of RSCs and inspectors will need to be part of that conversation.
I wish you well. There has never been a time when our country has had a greater need to equip all of our young people with a broad and balanced education. I can assure you that those people like me who are working with large numbers of schools are absolutely committed to helping them to achieve that. We all want the same thing. The best possible outcomes for our young people.
With all good wishes,
Brian Lightman (Former General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and now a freelance education leadership consultant working with numerous schools)