HM Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman discusses the curriculum and teacher workload at Ark’s Teach 2017 conference in Birmingham.

Thank you for inviting me here. It is a real privilege to be meeting so many teachers and school leaders today, both from within the ARK network and from schools outside.

The value of being able to step outside your own experiences, learn from what works in other school contexts, and test theories and ideas, should not be underestimated. And it is important to do that in any job – for my own, I am part of a European network of Chief Inspectors, and we get together to chew on some of the more thorny challenges we face.

So I hope you find it to be a productive day.

Curriculum expertise

And I want to start by reflecting on why we have all chosen to be here, working in education. In my own case, education presented so many opportunities to change children’s lives, to help broaden their minds and to tackle disadvantage in its many forms: it was almost impossible for me to resist. That is why I left my previous career to help set up ARK, working with Lucy and with many talented teachers and leaders at the very sharp end of our education system, as you are doing now.

And while I don’t presume to know why each of you has chosen teaching, I would hazard a guess that your motivation isn’t too different from mine. But I would add just one thing. I expect, alongside your desire to make a difference to children’s lives, you’ve got a deep and genuine fascination with the subjects and disciplines that you teach. And it is that appreciation of subject matter, combined with following the best evidence on pedagogy, that makes for great teaching.

And I believe that teachers’ preoccupation with the substance of education – the content that is taught in lessons – should be celebrated and encouraged. And it should be used by school leaders and management teams to think deeply about how the curriculum fits together in its entirety – from the material that is introduced, to the frequency and context in which it is revisited, learnt and eventually mastered. Then how it’s all brought together, how links are made.

These conversations may well take place in your schools and, if you are part of a MAT (multi-academy trust), within your central teams too. But we know from research at Ofsted that it simply isn’t happening in enough schools.

Over the last year we have collected evidence from a lot of different sources to tell us how the National Curriculum is and isn’t being implemented in schools. And in academies that use their freedom over the curriculum, we have been looking at how the curriculum intention – what a school wants children to learn – is being translated into practice.

I set out some findings of this first phase of research in my commentary last month. And there were broadly 3 concerns there. The first is a narrowing of the primary curriculum, where schools’ understandable desire to ace the English and maths SATs can sometimes compromise a full and varied curriculum.

There are many ways this is affecting teaching, but in the very worst scenarios, pupils are sitting test papers every week in Years 5 and 6, when they could be learning so much more. And while learning the basics is important for every child – and I do believe the new National Curriculum and tests help with this – it shouldn’t be at the expense of a full curriculum.

In secondary, I am worried about a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of Years 7 to 9. Just under half of the secondary schools we visited were reducing key stage 3 to just two years, forcing children to drop important subjects, such as history, music and art, as early as 13. And while our research suggests these decisions are driven by a desire to cover the new GCSE content, we know this goes further back than that. In fact, we raised concerns back in 2013 in our report, The wasted years.

And to be clear, it is not in itself wrong to have a 2-year key stage 3. But if you do, schools should make sure pupils have the time to study National Curriculum content until the end of Year 9. The idea that any school can teach key stage 3 history in just 38 hours, as Professor Richard Harris found in recent research, is frankly shocking. The whole of key stage 3 should involve around 3,000 hours of high quality teaching. Thirty-eight hours takes history down to just 1% of the expected key stage 3 experience: I can’t imagine anyone thinks that is giving pupils what they deserve.

And my final concern is that a large proportion of lower-attaining pupils have a substantially reduced curriculum compared to their peers. Our research found that a wide group of lower-attaining pupils had no opportunity whatsoever to study some arts and Ebacc subjects, such as languages or a humanity, as the school directed them onto a pathway that excluded the subject as an option, in some cases from 12.

That is a huge waste of your pupils’ talent. Studying a full set of EBacc subjects is, I believe, both desirable and achievable for all but a small minority of pupils. And the government’s target of 90% of pupils studying the EBacc makes it the direction for all schools.

What’s more, narrow curriculum pathways serve to exacerbate social inequality not to improve it. Research by Dr Cristina Iannelli at the University of Edinburgh has shown that differences in the secondary school curriculum have a much larger impact on social inequality than differences in school type. And so if we are ever to improve social mobility, between and within generations, we should start with sorting the curriculum.

But I want to emphasise that nothing about our curriculum work implies that GCSEs, and qualifications more generally, are not important. After 5 years at Ofqual, I know better than most quite how important high-stakes qualifications are as passports to future success. And I believe that both the new SATs and revised GCSE and A-levels are a marked improvement on their predecessors and, in my view, are set at an appropriate level of rigour.

So what can we do to give the curriculum its proper place? I don’t think there should be any tension between success in exams and a good curriculum. Quite the opposite. A good curriculum, well taught, should lead to good results. And tests should only exist in the service of the curriculum rather than the other way around.

But I am the first to admit that we at Ofsted haven’t always got it right, where we may have inadvertently enlarged the role that data plays in the accountability system. And so our curriculum work is challenging us – as well as the system – to be better, and all of this work will feed into the development of our 2019 inspection framework.

But Ofsted is only one part: it is you in the classroom day in and out who have the power to change things, and to encourage your senior leaders to do the same. And so, as teachers and subject experts, you can help by building curriculum expertise within your school and MATs, so that every child can have a deep and rich education.

Managing workload

I want to be clear that a renewed focus on the curriculum doesn’t, from our point of view, imply reams of paperwork on curriculum plans, nor should it make your jobs any harder than they already are. Quite the contrary. By putting the curriculum and substance of education at the centre of schools, your job as teachers should be made simpler, more stimulating and more rewarding. And I’m sure you’d rather be thinking about what to impart to the next generation, than chasing stickers for exams.

And there are a few things I want to clear up about our curriculum work. Firstly, we won’t be creating an “Ofsted approved” curriculum for schools to follow. More generally, I want to flatly reject the idea that Ofsted exists to approve particular models of anything.

But inspection can be more explicit about the curriculum without encouraging particular styles. An example might help here. One of the reasons I believe the old National Curriculum Levels failed is because they became detached from the curriculum proper, replacing and distorting it, and ultimately draining schools of curriculum expertise. So by making the curriculum more explicit in our 2019 inspection framework, I hope we will avoid separating education quality from education substance. And we should also be able to recognise schools and MATs that are doing something slightly different with their curriculums.

We should all acknowledge that this repurposing of education will require strong leadership and management, and a courage within senior teams to do what is in the best interest of children, even when it creates anxiety about league table goals.

But at a time of high teacher workload, it is more important than ever for schools to make informed choices about what they encourage teachers to do – and, even more importantly, what they ask them to stop doing. All jobs, done well, require prioritisation.

And we are already taking workload more seriously at Ofsted. For example, we’ve added a new question to our staff survey which asks teachers how school leaders take workload into account when implementing new policies. To paraphrase Becky Allen’s excellent recent article in the Guardian, no single person or institution should take the blame for current workload levels – we all need to take responsibility for it.

Valuing management

That brings me to the next topic: the role of school leaders. I don’t need to convince anyone here of the value of strong management teams, and their role in transforming schools. But, as I said in my speech at Wellington College last summer, I am all too aware of the tendency to overlook the whole management team and to attribute everything to the leader.

But transforming a school – or, come to that, a MAT – involves more than just one individual. It needs the work of a whole team. Schools are transformed when teams work together and make use of everyone’s time well. We see, for example, that when a school or MAT sets behaviour policies at the centre, it can help reduce pressure on teachers and allow for more time in the classroom.

I’m not saying that the leader of a school does not matter. But there also need to be strong deputies looking after curriculum and behaviour, as well as good department heads and effective business managers, making sure schools can balance their books. And in a MAT, the school is part of a bigger system, where responsibilities lie either with the school or centrally.

And while Ofsted’s inspection process has always looked at the importance of management, our public pronouncements haven’t. I want to change that. I want to make sure Ofsted publicly acknowledges the work of whole management teams, not just the leaders. And that means recognising some of the exceptional management practices, but also calling out some of the irresponsible ones too.

Because management brings great power, but with that power comes responsibility. Our schools have a great deal of autonomy compared with schools around the world and we have to make sure that’s done well. Over the last year we have highlighted some of the management bear traps out there: the kind of activities that management teams might pursue in good faith, but that actually have very little value.

One of these is around interpreting data. At Ofsted, we are all too aware of the challenge of interpreting data wisely, and putting it in its proper context. And we are particularly conscious of the changing exam landscape, and the increased volatility of school results at times of transition.

So over the summer we simplified and streamlined our pre-inspection briefings to inspectors. These highlight only the significant patterns and trends in school data, so that we can spot anything we might want to investigate during inspection. I want to reassure you that we do take data and its interpretation seriously, and that it is always only a starting point for inspection.

We have also been clear that we see Mocksteds as a complete waste of time, money and effort. One of the strengths of being in a MAT like ARK is having a central management team which is focused on good internal quality controls. A MAT can and should really understand school performance, assess how well a schools’ management team is doing, and take the action needed.

And so it’s perfectly normal for a good MAT to use school-level data, visits to schools and one-to-ones with headteachers in the general management of the MAT. But those controls aren’t about anticipating what Ofsted grade a school should get. That is good management, and good MATs add real value there.

So, contrary to some interpretations of our view on Mocksteds, we are not against internal quality assurance within MATs. But we do believe that practising Ofsted inspections – within or outside a MAT – is counterproductive. And, in any case, getting or maintaining an outstanding judgement should never be your main aim: our inspections can only ever be a partial reflection of education quality. If our horizons narrow down to just an Ofsted grade, then something is seriously wrong.

Recognising challenge

Turning to the successes of recent years, it is fair to say there has been a transformation in school quality over the last 20 years. You will know from your experience at ARK just how much energy and focus is needed to transform education in our most problematic schools.

And we should recognise that the scale of the leadership challenge in the toughest schools, is necessarily greater than that of schools in more affluent areas. The level of ambition, organisation and effort needed to get pupils to make the same amount of progress can be greater. So I am conscious that we at Ofsted must not deter the best teachers and leaders from working in the very schools that need you most.

So how do we recognise that challenge? Some people would like us to lower the bar on our overall judgements for schools in these circumstances. This is not something I am prepared to countenance. At best, it would mean our judgements didn’t reflect the quality of education young people actually receive. And at its worst, it would legitimise lowered expectations for disadvantaged children. I can’t imagine that anybody really wants that.

What Ofsted can, and does do, is to recognise the performance of leadership teams in overcoming the challenges. As I have said, I have no doubt that it actually requires stronger leadership and management to achieve the same outcomes in schools with much more disadvantaged intakes.

And if you look at our grade profiles that is precisely what we recognise. If we look first at schools that are judged requires improvement (RI). Within that RI group, schools in the bottom quintile of disadvantaged areas are two and a half times more likely to be graded good for leadership and management than those in the top quintile. And we see a very similar pattern for those rated good overall.

So we really do recognise the challenge in tough schools through our leadership and management judgements. But the rest of the world does tends to focus heavily on the overall judgement.

And while it is easy to think that only the overall inspection outcome matters, in fact each of the 4 constituent judgements convey important information in their own right. For those of you at the centre of a MAT, the leadership and management judgement may be most relevant to the discussions you have following an inspection. And Regional School Commissioners should also be using that sub-judgement to inform the decisions and interventions they make.

I know that we have probably been too focused on overall judgements ourselves. And I can see how a tendency to overlook the leadership and management judgements could be a barrier to keeping good senior leaders in the system. So we will do more to publicise this approach, and I want to ask for your help to do the same. To make clear that no head, manager or teacher will suffer as a result of working in a challenging school.


So I hope you have an interesting day and that my remarks on the curriculum and workload have given you some food for thought. It really is encouraging to see so many of you here, eager to build your professional knowledge, even after a full week at school. Days like today make me feel incredibly proud to work in education, and I hope you feel that too. I welcome any questions you may have. Thank you.

Published 27 November 2017