This article first appeared in the marvellous free periodical, Teach Secondary. Do pop over and subscribe. 

Most teachers will be aware that Ofsted is launching a new inspection framework this September. The big shift in focus is away from inspectors attempting to judge the quality of teaching and learning by observing lessons and towards attempting to judge the quality of education a school provides by, at least in part, interrogating the curriculum a school has in place. In an effort to assist schools in assessing the quality of their curriculum, Ofsted has divided matters into three baskets: intent, implementation and impact.

This, perhaps predictably, has caused some school leaders to panic and insist that planning documents be rewritten taking the ‘three Is’ into account, massively adding to teachers’ workload and stress. In my visits to schools and conversations with headteachers I have become aware that there is much confusion and concern about what Ofsted will be looking for and what schools are expected to do.

Chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, has laid out exactly what her expectations are: “What I want school leaders to discuss with our inspectors is what they expect pupils to know by certain points in their life, and how they know they know it. And crucially, what the school does when it finds out they don’t!” So, how does this square with the ‘three Is’?

Well, it really shouldn’t be that complicated. The intent of the curriculum has nothing whatsoever to do with why you’ve decided to teach certain topics; neither is it about coming up with vague mission statements about getting all children to fulfil their potential and become life-long learners, or whatever. The intent of the curriculum is the content you expect children to learn. More simply, the intent of the curriculum is the curriculum, or as Spielman puts it, “what [school leaders] expect pupils to know by certain points in their life”.

Intent also covers the sequence in which children encounter the curriculum. Staff members should be able to articulate whether there’s a logical connection between studying x in term 1 and y in term 2. Does what is learnt about in one year connect to what is learnt in another?

If you can explain why you’ve chosen to teach this and not that, and why your curriculum is taught in the way that it is, then you probably have a good grasp of what you intend students to learn.

The implementation of the curriculum is concerned with how your intentions are realised. How will you go about the business of teaching the curriculum. Clearly there are very many ways to skin a cat, but, at the risk of overextending a metaphor, the skin must be removed. If you find that you’re teaching things that you don’t care whether students will remember – if you’re indulging in activities for their owns sake – then you probably haven’t got this quite right.

The thing is, students will always remember something, but what? Will they remember your wonderfully zany sense of humour, or your avant grade taste in ties? Will they remember you standing on desk and making things explode? Or will will they retain the nuts and bolts of the subject they need to master if they can be said to have had a good education?

It’s reasonable to assume that different areas of the curriculum may benefit from being taught in different ways. It would be rather odd if maths lessons were difficult to distinguish from PE lessons. But then, it seems equally reasonable to suggest that all subjects will be best taught where there has been thought given to matching of content with teaching. And some principles seems so widely applicable and useful – explanation, modelling, scaffolding, practice – that it would be odd if they were absent anywhere.

If you can explain why teachers are teaching in they way they are, and are able to justify decisions, they you can be sure you’ve understood how to implement your curriculum

And the impact of the curriculum lies in whether students have learnt the things you’ve taught them – how do you know whether pupils know what you think they know? And also, as Spielman puts it, “what the school does when it finds out they don’t”. This seems to require some sort of internal assessment; after all, how will you know whether students have learnt what you wanted them to learn unless you assess whether they have?

But, crucially, Ofsted’s deputy director for schools, Matthew Purves has said that because no one can be confident in the reliability or validity of schools’ assessment, “inspectors will not look at school’s internal progress and attainment data.” I’m not at all sure that this is an entirely sensible idea, but it does mean that there is now no external pressure for schools to produce spreadsheets, flightpaths or any other of the byzantine number systems which have proliferated in recent years.

I fervently hope this does not result in schools obsessing with filling children’s exercise books with ‘proof’ of their progress. Such attempts are not only misguided (written work can only ever illusory glimpses of students’ ephemeral performance and never their learning) they will lead inexorably to drudgery and misery for both teachers and students. Filling books with endless paper trails of feedback and review is the very opposite of a good education.

What will matter, is whether teachers are able to say something like, “I’m pretty sure that most students have learnt what I’ve taught them because they were able to recall it independently weeks or months after we last discussed it in class.” One sure way to check that students are learning what you hope is to provide them with regular opportunities for retrieval practice; if they – and you – can see that their fluency and mastery is incrementally improving then you can be fairly sure of the impact you’re having.

The bottom line is this: school leaders should be able to demonstrate what, specifically, children are supposed to learn, how they go about teaching these things, and how they know whether children have learnt what was taught. It’s as simple (and as difficult) as that.