History Resource Cupboard – lessons and resources for schools

History Resource Cupboard - lessons and resources for schools

Teaching Issues

Ofsted’s research into the curriculum – a quick summary

As you know Ofsted are changing their focus. They are proposing they look much more closely at the quality of the curriculum in schools.

Over the last two years, they have conducted 3 research projects in schools. Knowing what their findings here are is really helpful.  We live in a world where arm’s length accountability measures mean schools jump to the Ofsted drum. Therefore, knowing what Ofsted have been saying about curriculum is useful to the subject leader.

Phase 1 research  (10/2017)

Lack of knowledge around curriculum

There was a lack of curriculum knowledge in many schools at many levels. Despite the fact that that the curriculum is what is taught, there is little debate or reflection about it.

Many thought about the curriculum in terms of the timetable or examinations. This is what Amanda Speilman said about this in 2018:

‘The curriculum is not the timetable. Nor is it what we think might be on the exam. We all have to ask ourselves how we have created a situation where second-guessing the test can trump the pursuit of real, deep knowledge and understanding of subjects.’

Also, there was a lack of shared vocabulary around curriculum  – different schools were using the same word but attaching a different meaning. For example, some schools used ‘skills’ to mean subject-specific skills, some meant personal skills, some meant critical thinking skills others meant life skills.

Many leaders felt that teacher knowledge in curriculum design had been lost over time.

Conflating curriculum with assessment and qualifications

Lots of teaching to the test took place in examined subjects. This is what Amanda Speilman said about this is 2017:

‘It seems unlikely that any school has prioritised testing over the curriculum as a deliberate choice. It is likely that, in some quarters, testing has come inadvertently to mean the curriculum in its entirety.’

Limiting time at KS3

In secondary schools they saw that KS3 was shortened without really thinking about the consequences in terms of knowledge pupils were meant to generate. This curriculum shortening happened in about a quarter of the schools visited/surveyed for the research.

Phase 2 research (9/2018)  – Ofsted visited 23 schools that they thought had good curriculum thinking

They found 3 main approaches to curriculum design. Although interesting in the video at the bottom of this blog the main researcher Daniel Muijs, neglects to discuss the last two of them below. This to me could suggest a  bias in his approach and a favouring of one of them.

  1. Knowledge led – The leaders saw the curriculum as the mastery of a body of subject-specific knowledge defined by the school. Interestingly these leaders often referred to ‘cognitive psychology’ and ‘memory ‘in their discussions.
  2. Knowledge engaged – these schools were less reliant on curriculum theory than in knowledge led schools. Some leaders explained that they wanted children to learn skills alongside knowledge, ensuring that both were explicitly developed. For example, they wanted pupils to learn how to construct arguments and balance evidence alongside knowledge of historical chronology.
  3. Skills-led curriculums – a small number of schools fitted into this group. Here the curriculum was designed around skills, learning behaviours and ‘generic knowledge’. Leaders placed an emphasis on developing the skills pupils would need for future learning, often referring to resilience, a growth mindset and perseverance.
The pros and cons of assessment models

What is really interesting here is that Ofsted seems to be critical of flight-paths that linked assessment to subject related targets determined on pupils entry in the school. Instead, they seem to favour a more balanced approach. This includes teacher-led / formative assessment, combined with summative assessment. Read this extract from Speilman’s speech and judge for yourself what she is saying, I have added bold to the statement I think helps make this point:

‘In some schools, assessment was linked to the use of ‘flightpaths’ or ‘pathways’ that linked progress to subject-related targets that were determined on pupils’ entry to the school. Other schools appeared to have a more useful approach that used an ongoing assessment to check pupils’ understanding of the main curriculum elements. They then responded appropriately through teaching. There was an expectation that the information captured from assessment was to be used not only for identifying gaps in pupils’ knowledge, skills and depth of understanding, but also to inform and improve on future curriculum design.’

Shared leadership for curriculum design

School leaders that gave time and power to subject leaders to design and implement their curriculums were praised.

‘Some headteachers gave their subject leads a degree of autonomy to structure and plan their teaching of the curriculum because of the knowledge and expertise they had in their subject. This included setting aside time and space for staff to regularly discuss and review the content of the curriculum.’

Phase 3 research (12/2018) – Ofsted visited 64 schools (primary, secondary and special) 

Beyond curriculum intent

Here they wanted to look beyond the intentions of the curriculum. They wanted to look at curriculum implementation and impact too.

‘No Ofsted approved curriculum’ hmmm, not completely convinced

Interestingly Spielman stated that there won’t be an Ofsted approve curriculum model. However, I think that there could be bias in the new framework and in the indicators they use towards a particular type of model – more of that in another short blog.

How they made their judgements

In this research phase, they designed a model they could use to judge the curriculum. But they also noted that the 25 point indicator they used here was too much for a 2-day inspection.

These 25 points are a good starting point for any school or department to think about curriculum intent, implementation and impact – you can find them at the end of her commentary.

They then boiled this down further under Intent and Implementation – see the diagram here: 


Ofsted created a grading system for curriculum from 1 – 5. 1 = ‘this aspect is absent in curricula design’, 5 = ‘this aspect of curriculum underpins/is central to the school’s work/embedded practice/may include examples of exceptional curriculum’.

Schools were then graded on this basis and so were areas of learning (eg humanities, arts, English, MFL etc).

The findings:
  • The 3 schools that achieved the highest curriculum score all did have a current outstanding grade. However,  also assessed 9 outstanding schools as band 2 or 3 and 9 good schools as band 1 or 2.
  • A quarter of the RI schools visited were assessed as band 4, a high score.
  • That there is no clear link between the deprivation levels of a school’s community and a school’s curriculum quality. In fact, there are more schools in the top 3 bands that are situated in the most deprived communities (69%) than there are in the least deprived (62%)
About foundation subjects:
  • ‘Arts subjects (art, music and drama) appeared particularly strong, with 10 out of 13 arts departments scoring a 4 or a 5.’
  • ‘History was also less well organised and implemented in a number of schools, often to the detriment of a clear progression model through the curriculum. A lack of subject expertise, especially in leadership roles, contributed to these weaknesses.’
The future

In phase 3 commentary Speilman stresses that in the short term, schools with weaker curriculum will not be judged too negatively in the short term.  This is because curriculum thinking has been neglected for far too long and Speilman acknowledges that this is partly Ofsted’s fault.  However, they will look at schools in more challenging circumstances with ambitious curriculum plans more favourably. Moreover, they will look to critique those schools with ‘excessively narrowing and gaming performance data.’

Curriculum planning and you

If you want to think more about curriculum planning you could read the four blogs we have written on this.

Blog 1 – what history do you want to teach?

Blog 2 – what do I want my students be able to know and do?

Blog 3 – how do we get them to know and do what we want? (Pedagogy)

Blog 4 – what substantive knowledge/content do we want them to know?


Here is a summary video of the research findings

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About the author
Richard McFahn
Founder of History Resource Cupboard, Richard has worked for 20 years as a history teacher, subject and senior leader, Advanced Skills Teacher, local authority adviser and history ITE tutor.

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