Is a broad and balanced curriculum “middle class”?

According to an article published in The Times, Sir Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation, has described Ofsted’s new inspection framework as “a middle-class framework for middle-class kids” because “Ofsted is valuing curriculum over qualifications.” Currently, there is a great deal of fear that inspectors have been briefed to penalise schools – like those in the Harris Federation – where students spend 3 three years studying for GCSEs instead of the more usual 2 years. According to Moynihan, spending an additional year studying a full range of subjects before the inevitable narrowing of the curriculum that comes with choosing GCSE options is fine for students from wealthy backgrounds but will further disadvantage students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

This is an interesting argument, but is it true? The idea of whether students do better in their GCSEs if they’ve had an additional year of study must be an empirical one. It would be interesting if an organisation like Datalab could run the numbers on this, but in the absence of such evidence my instinct is that it is probably untrue. (My latest book lays out the argument for why I think Moynihan is wrong in detail.)

But what of Ofsted? Are inspectors downgrading schools with 3 year GCSE programmes? In a post from last October on the new inspection frame work I analysed a sample of the first reports published and made this point:

I suspect it’s no coincidence that in all the schools judged to be good, students followed a 3 year Key Stage 3 and 2 year Key Stage 4. This is not to suggest that it’s impossible to provide a good quality of education with an alternative model but it does firmly put the responsibility on school leaders to justify a potential narrowing of the curriculum.

More recently Ofsted’s National Director for Education, Sean Harford publicly confirmed that it is categorically not the case that Ofsted has a preferred length of KS3 or KS4 saying, “Schools do not automatically get marked down if their KS3 is less than three academic years long.” That sounds clear enough, so why all the fuss? Harford goes on to say:

In the worst-case scenario of a three-year KS4, a school will simply pull GCSE teaching forward, stretching a two-year course over three. This means that for some pupils, choices made at the end of year 8 are finite. Some will never get the chance to study a whole range of subjects, typically, like art, music or languages again before they leave school.

Apparently there have been a number of inspections since the new framework’s introduction where schools offering a 2 year kS3 have been judged good or better. (If anyone can point me me in the direction of these schools I’d be very grateful.*)

According to Harford, the kinds of things which will be viewed positively by inspectors include the following:

  • great breadth and depth of curriculum – for example, giving pupils the opportunity to learn a number of foreign languages and arts subjects
  • the wider curriculum being open to all pupils, regardless of academic ability, and being taken up by the vast majority
  • a greater proportion of pupils taking the EBacc at KS4
  • no subjects being squeezed out of the KS3 curriculum, which means that pupils continue to take a range of subjects, including the arts, at KS4
  • KS4 courses going deeper into content and being broader than just the specifications called for by the exam boards or the national curriculum.

So, it would appear that Ofsted are not penalising schools for offering a 3 year KS4, but perhaps if a school views KS4 as simply a 3 year exam course where students are prevented from experiencing greater breadth they may well be criticised.

Can a school with a narrowed curriculum be outstanding? 

Moynihan has claimed that one of the schools in the Harris Federation was judged to be good rather than outstanding. He said that the report in question showed the school to be excellent in every way, But the report for Harris Academy St John’s Wood “makes clear inspectors took issue with the three-year programme for GCSE.” In fact, the report points out that “There are pupils in Year 9 who do not study history, geography, art or music” and says:

The curriculum is narrowed in Year 9. Leaders, governors and trust directors have not ensured that all pupils in Year 9 receive their entitlement to a broad and balanced curriculum that is at least as ambitious as the national curriculum. Leaders have reviewed their current offer and have suitable plans in place. Transitional arrangements have been applied. These plans should be realised so that all pupils have universal access to the full curriculum.

What headteachers worried about their 3 year KS4 may have failed to consider is that there is no reason why schools could not begin GCSE courses in Year without denying students the opportunity to study a full range of subjects.

How to start GCSEs in Year 9 without narrowing the curriculum

There may well be an argument that some subject’s specifications are so broad that schools may require more than 2 years to teach all the specified content. This is certainly an argument often made by science teachers as well as some teachers of geography and history. But there are also subjects with less specified content such as maths,  or English literature. And in the case of English language there is precisely no specified content whatsoever! This would seem to suggest that schools would be wise to treat these subjects differently.

Science is a fairly straightforward case; as a compulsory GCSE subject, all students will be pursuing a 5 year curriculum (although some students will opt for certification in combined science and others will take examinations in the separate sciences of biology, chemistry and physics.) This being the case it is up to schools to plan their science provision over the full five years. It won’t really matter where the Key Stage 2/3 split comes, there just needs to be some administrative tracking to ensure students are following the correct syllabus. Maths is similar: all students study the subject for 5 years and will be following a curriculum which terminates in either a foundation or higher GCSE exam. Precisely where students are sorted into higher and foundation streams is fairly arbitrary.

English is different. Whilst maths and science are both hierarchical subjects which build more or less naturally from one aspect of the curriculum to the next, English is a cumulative subject. The boundaries of the domain extend outwards beyond the scope of a mere five years and students can never study anything but the tiniest fraction of what’s available. The National Curriculum is clear on what ought to be studied during KS3; students are meant to read “a wide range of fiction and non-fiction, including in particular whole books, short stories, poems and plays with a wide coverage of genres, historical periods, forms and authors” which should include two Shakespeare plays and “English literature both pre-1914 and contemporary, including prose, poetry and drama” as well as “seminal world literature”. On top of this students are expected to “apply and extend” all the grammar learned at primary schools as well as mastering a raft of ‘skills’ to enable them to read and write and use spoken English at the required standard. All this is intended to be a solid foundation on which the GCSE syllabus studied in KS4 can be based. As mentioned above, the specified content for English Literature is fairly light: another Shakespeare play, an anthology of 15 poems, a Victorian novel (usually Dickens’ A Christmas Carol) and either a play or novel written after 1914. The idea that students might spend three years studying these rather slim pickings will inevitably mean there’s precious little time to cover the breadth which should be encountered in KS3. The situation for English Language is even more absurd: with students expected to respond to unseen texts and writing prompts, all that’s open for teachers to teach is test preparation. The idea that three years of test prep can be defended as offering a broad and balanced English curriculum is risible.

What of the so-called ‘option subjects’? In most secondary schools KS3 is an opportunity for students to receive specialist teaching in a broad suite of subjects: modern foreign languages, history, drama, design technology, geography, art, music, religion and others. If schools expect students to opt which of these subjects to study for GCSE at the end of Year 8, then those students are likely to enjoy a narrower education than those in schools where option choices are made at the end of Year 9. If students who go on to study these subjects for GCSE really do need an additional year to ensure they perform well in exams then there is nothing preventing the teachers of these subjects beginning a GCSE programme of study in Year 9 regardless of whether students will go on to drop the subject at the end of the year. In fact, for some subjects this might be the best possible choice – teachers get the the curriculum time to do justice to their subject content and students get an opportunity to see what it would be like to continue studying the subject in KS4. The only potential downside is that as students will continue to study a greater number of subjects during Year 9 each subject will have to have fewer hours per week to accommodate this. If it were down to me, I would balance this by allocating fewer hours to maths and English.

All this goes to show that three year programme for GCSE does not have to result in a narrowed curriculum in Year 9. If headteachers and Trust CEOs make blanket decisions on how long all GCSE course must be then this excludes the possibility of subject leaders making thoughtful choices about how best to design their curriculum for the children they’re responsible for teaching. It might be worth considering whether inappropriately centralised and top down imposition of a particular length of GCSE prevents children experiencing an ‘outstanding’ education.

* I’ve been told that Castleford Academy in West Yorkshire offers a 3 year KS4 and has been judged outstanding. The Ofsted report doesn’t mention this but the curriculum structure can be inferred from Castleford’s website