The central role of the curriculum and Ofsted’s new inspection framework from September 2019


A personal view by Michael Maddison

national curriculum

Biography: Michael Maddison served as Ofsted’s National Lead for history at Ofsted from 2008 to 2015. He now works as a leading educational consultant but still undertakes inspection work for Ofsted. He is Associate Vice President of the Historical Association, a director and judge for the Heritage EducationTrust and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society

Before the National Curriculum

As a young history teacher in the 1980s, I always looked forward to our summer term departmental discussions. Once pupils had taken their public examinations, we actually had some free time – time in which to reflect, think and plan ahead. The discussions we had were focused on one theme, namely the curriculum and what we were going to teach next year.

At the end of each year we quite simply refreshed the history curriculum for Years 7 to 9. I well remember one summer arguing for, preparing and subsequently teaching more contemporary history including, for example, Chinese history, which was woefully absent from our curriculum. In this way we regularly revised what we taught. Our emphasis was on the subject matter and the details, especially the knowledge to be explored, retained and applied by our pupils. This is what mattered. What we taught and why we taught it was the substance of our approach. How we taught it was of secondary importance. We did not know if this was best, but it felt right. Our view was buttressed by two HMI   publications which preceded the National Curriculum, and which heavily influenced our thinking. The Curriculum Matters series and ‘History in the Primary and Secondary Years’ both focused on the importance of the ‘what’ of education.

By the end of the decade, the National Curriculum had been enacted. Now, we taught what we were told to teach. Sadly, our curriculum discussions fell into abeyance and we gradually came to miss those meetings when we thrashed out the answers to such vital questions as, ‘what should a pupil have studied in History at secondary school before he or she gives it up in favour of an alternative subject at GCSE?’ Although the National Curriculum provided a clear framework for all schools, its very presence gradually chipped away at the necessity for teachers and subject leaders to think in depth about the curriculum itself. For these reasons, the National Curriculum has been both a blessing and a curse.

Roll forward nigh on forty years, and the curriculum is back at the centre of teachers’ thinking. In their work HMI had always focused on what was taught, and since its inception, Ofsted’s inspections have referenced the curriculum. However, the focus of inspections has come to play down the importance of what was taught and most discussions as to whether a school had a ‘broad and balanced curriculum’ have gradually become obligatory but lacking in depth. All this is about to change.

Curriculum planning now

From September 2019 the curriculum is back at the heart of school inspections. The revised framework will focus inspection on what children learn through the curriculum, rather than an over-reliance on performance data. In effect, Ofsted will look at how results have been achieved – whether they are the result of broad and rich learning, or gaming and cramming.

Safeguarding rightly remains a core element of every inspection, as does an evaluation of the effectiveness of leadership and management. The judgement for personal development will recognise the work schools and colleges do to build young people’s resilience and confidence in later life, and the new separate behaviour judgement will assess whether schools are creating a calm, well-managed environment free from bullying. All this is to be welcomed.

Ofsted is also to be praised for the preparation that has preceded this new framework, which amounts to the most evidence-based, research-informed and tested framework in its history. It predicts that the proposed changes will make it easier to recognise and reward good work done by schools in areas of high disadvantage, by tackling the erroneous view that the best way to serve such pupils is to narrow the curriculum.

Although Ofsted refers to the changes as evolutionary rather than revolutionary, there can be little doubt that the change of focus is fundamental. Through ‘deep dives’, inspectors will explore what is taught and why it is taught. They will subsequently investigate whether these intents are being met and the impact all this is having as part of the quality of education that pupils receive. The curriculum has always mattered but this is now to be recognised through inspection practice. The inspectorate has at last appreciated that what is taught matters most, and that content determines delivery and subsequent outcomes. The intent, that is everything that teachers do up to the point of teaching, is highly significant. Let’s hope that as teachers review their intent for the new academic year, Ofsted in turn also lives up to its own avowed intent!

In ‘History 5-16’ published as part of the Curriculum Matters series in 1988, HMI noted in the conclusion the following points:

‘School history courses need to be evaluated regularly since history, in all its senses, is ever on the move. Teachers should undertake a systematic and regular ‘stock-taking’ of a given course. They should ask: is it reaching its objectives? Does reaching its objectives fulfil its main aims? Is there superfluous material which should be removed? Do new themes need to be adopted? Are the teaching methods, resources and assessment systems effective?’

As teachers prepare for the new school year, they could well spend some time in the future considering the guidance given by HMI thirty years ago, because it still has much relevance today.


History from 5 to 16, Curriculum Matters 11, DES, HMSO 1988

History in the Primary and Secondary Years – An HMI View, DES, HMSO 1985

School Inspection Handbook, Ofsted, Reference Number 190017, May 2019

Inspecting the Curriculum, Ofsted, Reference Number 190024, May 2019