I have been encouraged by what I am hearing from the speeches of Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of Schools. In a speech to the Telegraph Festival of Education at Wellington College last week, she has re-made the case for a substantive content to the school curriculum, placing the content of what is taught as central to the planning of the curriculum. The application of rigorous skills to well-reasoned and thoughtful cultural, historical, linguistic, mathematical and scientific content can only be a benefit to all schools, and for that, a much richer quality of teacher is required than is generally available to school leaders. That this is available not just to wealthy schools but to those serving the poorest children has been proven times without number.
Spielman argues that within the reportage of OFSTED there is a huge amount of data, both published and in note form, about the effectiveness of the curriculum across a range of schools, which is not used nor considered. The stream of reports we used to get from OFSTED about different subjects has dried up as the reports themselves have had less detail in them. Spielman wants to launch more curricular research within the OFSTED team and this can only be a good thing. This is what she says about the heart, the substance, of what we teach:
One of the areas that I think we sometimes lose sight of is the real substance of education. Not the exam grades or the progress scores, important though they are, but instead the real meat of what is taught in our schools and colleges: the curriculum. To understand the substance of education we have to understand the objectives. Yes, education does have to prepare young people to succeed in life and make their contribution in the labour market. But to reduce education down to this kind of functionalist level is rather wretched. Because education should be about broadening minds, enriching communities and advancing civilisation. Ultimately, it is about leaving the world a better place than we found it.
Broadening minds, enriching communities, advancing civilisation.
This seems to be a wholly worthwhile approach to take to the substance of the curriculum. Broadening minds is to do with personal cognitive growth into excellence; enriching communities reminds us that we do not learn for ourselves alone but that the social learning that we do together in schools also has the potential to make communities think differently about themselves; advancing civilisation reminds us of the huge cultural and educational heritage that we as educators pass on from generation to generation so that the fullness of children’s inheritance can be made known to them.
It echoes White and Reiss’ Aims Based Curriculum approach, but also “makes do” with the content of the existing 2014 national curriculum (Spielman again: “We have a full and coherent national curriculum and it seems to me a huge waste not to use it properly”). Whether this is an adequate starting point I do not know. I do recognise that in subjects other than English and maths within the 2014 Primary Curriculum, there is an enormous potential for creative use of the relatively weakly defined curricular content which could flower into something very full and very meaningful. Our own curriculum has consistently sought to ensure that the intellectual rigour inherent in the study of each subject is given its own space, yet it is a hard graft when English and maths have striven so hard to occupy the centre ground.
This speech though, is all very encouraging because it places teaching and learning and the content of what is taught ahead of fear-driven and artificial approaches to assessment. The fact that OFSTED have been partly responsible for that fear and that artificiality is not lost on some commentators, though this piece by John Dunford of Whole Education in the TES gives a better historical perspective, holding out the hope that teachers can again become proper curricular planners, not just deliverers of content.