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A deep dive into Ofsted

The 2019 Ofsted Inspection Framework is live, but schools still face uncertainty about what is meant by “deep dives”, a “top level view” and scrutinising “curriculum intent”. John Pearce offers his definition of curriculum intent, implementation and impact and what it is likely to mean during an inspection.

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Imbuing old words with new meanings is always risky. Whilst the English teacher in me applauds new language to encourage new thinking, we need to interpret fresh phrases carefully.

This is especially true of Ofsted’s choice of words and phrases in the new framework, in particular “curriculum intent” and “deep dives”. Ofsted’s insistence that inspectors will not look at raw data sounds good in theory, but do we take it at face value? What does it mean in plain English?

Ofsted said in the summer that is was not expecting schools to do anything radically different. If that is the case, and I believe it is, maybe we simply need to think wider and deeper about curriculum intent, implementation and impact.

The first step is to look at what the Ofsted framework actually says and what senior HMIs have said. At the National Governance Association conference in June, Ofsted chief Amanda Speilman said: “I hope the new EIF will enable you to lift your eyes up to the big, strategic picture that you need to be involved in, rather than drawing you down towards reams of data.”

The “big picture” is clearly about curriculum intent and echoes older phrases like: “matters to be taught” (2000s); “the sum of all learning in school” (1990s) and “aims for the curriculum” (1970s).

She also stressed the importance of reducing teacher workload. “If we find that a school’s system for data collection is disproportionate or unsustainable for staff, we’ll reflect this in our inspection report and it could affect the grade that is given…”

She continued: “Instead of looking at spreadsheets, inspectors will go into classrooms to talk to pupils and teachers and look at examples of work to see the impact of the curriculum.”

This is a good description of “deep dives” and underlines the importance of looking for wider qualitative evidence and teacher assessment in order to measure curriculum impact.

The big picture

The message from Ofsted is clear and, in my view, simple and overdue. Schools are being prompted to be clear about what they intend to teach and for what purpose.

This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change what you’re doing but it might mean you need to be sharper about describing it, and especially how you measure progress beyond standard data.

Here is my interpretation:

Curriculum intent is about what schools intend to teach and why. This will be in the vision and purpose (mission, aims, objectives). Curriculum has always been about knowledge, skills and understanding – so much more than teaching to external tests. So, intent should include values, attitudes and behaviours. It’s always useful for senior leadership teams, including governors, plus staff and stakeholders, to revisit, remind and reaffirm – but not necessarily reinvent – their vision and purpose.

Curriculum implementation is about how to operationalise intent. It’s about programmes of study, plus pedagogy, so it includes both content and processes. It’s the way staff in school encourage and develop the knowing, understanding and doing that pupils need. It’s more than the timetable and syllabi, it’s pupils’ total experience in and around school.

Curriculum impact is about whether pupils are gaining the knowledge, skills and understanding that is intended. It is about measuring their capacity to perform but doing so in effective and efficient ways and not overloading teachers. What progress are pupils making from where they were on entry to where they’ll be on leaving? So, yes, it is more than test scores.

Crucially, looking for qualitative measures to sit alongside quantitative will lead schools to a more balanced evaluation of learning, as it was before SAT results and league tables skewed the way schools are judged.

Plan – review – do

The new Ofsted framework will look for curriculum intent first in a ‘top-level view’ involving interviews with the headteacher, governors and senior staff.

Inspectors will then undertake ‘deep dives’ into classrooms and the wider school to look at how the intent is implemented and whether it leads to progress. Finally, in their reporting, they will ‘bring it together’ in their judgement of the school’s effectiveness.

This intent-implementation-impact is an update of the classic review-plan-do cycle of learning and improvement on which the iAbacus was built. The difference is that iAbacus helps those working in school to drive their own improvement.

Here are three activities to ensure curriculum intent is understood by everyone in the school.

John Pearce was previously a teacher and senior leader, then Deputy Chief Inspector in Nottinghamshire. After several executive and interim headships in special measures schools, he was appointed an NCTL Leadership Consultant and Lead Facilitator. He is now a chair of governors. He created iAbacus with Dan O’Brien in 2012.


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