In our previous article, we had a look at Ofsted indicators regarding strong/weak Curriculum Design.

In this article, we’ll have a look at some of Ofsted’s concerns.

Curriculum Design

What is curriculum? Amanda Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted, has said:

The curriculum really is the most important thing to think about as educators. As I said earlier, it’s the ‘what’. The very essence of what we want children to learn. It’s how we prepare them, as best we can, for what they might face next. And to leave children unprepared is, frankly, a dereliction of duty, I’m sure you’d agree. …

Sequencing does have a part to play here. … So a degree of signposting, of showing children the way, is needed. It’s not enough to simply put everything out there and hope that something sticks.
This isn’t about having some beautiful tick list of what a child should do, and when. If a child is having difficulty with something, it’s about stepping in to try a different way. These are the decisions that any good childcare professional makes instinctively.

But to stress again, there’s no need for endless photographing and formal recording of this. Any good early years professional, when they see a child struggling with activity Y, will have that lightbulb moment to say ‘let’s try activity X’.

During the research visits, inspectors met subject leaders, which allowed inspectors to assess how well:

  • Leaders assure that the curriculum’s intentions and met and are sufficiently challenging.
  • The content, sequencing and progress is appropriate, secured and demanding.
  • All domains/strands within the subject are learned.
  • Pupils consolidate their knowledge, understanding and skills.
  • The curriculum prepares pupils for their next stage.

Schools with a high curriculum quality overall:

  • Senior leaders devolved curriculum decisions to others, but assuring themselves that those middle leaders have the right skill set and subject knowledge to carry out their roles effectively.
  • Providing high-quality professional development to develop teacher subject knowledge beyond the core subjects.
  • Checking curriculum delivery and impact are an instrumental part of whole school improvement.
  • Ensuring that delivery does not focus narrowly on tests and qualifications, and valuing all subjects.
  • Ensuring that teaching in foundation subjects was not reduced to time-filling or down-time from the core subjects.

Key Stage 2 narrowing

For weaker primary schools with imbalanced curriculum:

  • their curriculum is not as challenging as the 2014 National Curriculum. In particular, foundation subjects were less well implemented than core subjects, and often curriculum intent was absent.
  • English and maths curriculums were typically well planned.
  • work was often undemanding (e.g. ordering, gluing and sticking).
  • Progressing in foundation subjects were assessed against writing criteria, thereby losing the subject-specific knowledge. Indeed, some senior leaders promoted history and geography as vehicles to successful writing assessments.

For stronger primary schools:

  • Leaders tended to view subjects as individual disciplines, even when delivered as part a topic or theme.
  • There was no trade-off between strong performance in foundation and core subjects.

Key Stage 3 Narrowing

This resolves around concerns about a 3-year Key Stage 4 or a “mixed” model in Year 9, and a low priority regarding improved uptake of the EBacc.

Common reasons for reducing Key Stage 3 cited “minimising the wasted years” or needed to meet the demands of the new Key Stage 4 specifications.

Common reasons for not improving uptake of the EBacc are that it is not appropriate for the context of the school or pupils in terms of prior attainment or destination outcomes. This means that leaders had constrained the curriculum having already decided what certain Year 7 pupils would be capable of. However, progress is not linear, and pupils who may have a talent for a particular subject were not given suitable access. It can also lead to marginalising practical and creative subjects.

Stronger secondary schools were passionate advocates of the benefits of subjects such as music, drama and technology, with a wide range of subjects being offered.

Curriculum equity

In some schools, making the curriculum appropriate to the context of their school was not always implemented effectively, especially for lower attaining pupils and SEND pupils.

In primary schools, whilst the intent was for all pupils to access the same curriculum, in the implementation teachers did not teach the full range of key ideas and teaching was not sufficiently challenging, resulting in lowering of expectations, typically in science, and without senior leaders being aware of this.

It was also an issue in Key Stage 3, where lower ability pupils were taken out of language lessons so they could receive further English and Maths lessons, whereas the more effective schools’ curriculum strategies allowed for both equity and attainment.

Subject knowledge

Stronger secondary schools tended to prioritise recruiting staff with specific subject knowledge, and staff were given greater control of and were directly involved in curriculum decision-making.

Whilst it is difficult for primary school staff to have expertise in all areas, leaders in weaker schools were doing little to embed or develop their staff’s subject knowledge to improve learning, e.g. external courses and working with local hubs/other schools.

This is made harder by some LA subject teams having been disbanded, and leaders and staff were unsure who to contact to provide subject-specific professional development.

Curriculum planning

In weaker primary schools, curriculum design was designed only at a superficial level without considering sequencing between components of knowledge, or cutting and pasting key objectives from the National Curriculum.

This resulted in a lack of focus on what was being learned, with little assurance in work scrutinies that anything of substance had been learned effectively.


A common finding for weaker secondary schools is using GCSE grades 1 to 9 from the beginning of Year 7. This type of assessment is not focused on the Key Stage 3 curriculum being delivered and what pupils actually knew and understood.

Weaker schools used generic exam models to structure their notions of progress, but had not considered what progressed looked like in individual subjects.


A common theme was the wide variance in Year 7 pupils’ knowledge. This often made it difficult for schools to assess pupils’ knowledge.

Transition therefore remains a difficultly, and has serious consequences for curriculum progress if not managed appropriately.

Please click here for details about our Transition QLA.

Does everything need to be ready by September 2019?

Ofsted recognizes that schools may be in a period of change with regard to their curriculum. This is why the School Inspection Handbook from September 2019 shows that, for a “Good” rating, there is some leeway with regards to Curriculum Intent:

Leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that is ambitious and designed to give all pupils, particularly disadvantaged pupils and including pupils with SEND, the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life. This is either the national curriculum or a curriculum of comparable breadth and ambition. [If this is not yet fully the case, it is clear from leaders’ actions that they are in the process of bringing this about.]

The school’s curriculum is coherently planned and sequenced towards cumulatively sufficient knowledge and skills for future learning and employment.
[If this is not yet fully the case, it is clear from leaders’ actions that they are in the process of bringing this about.]

The curriculum is successfully adapted, designed or developed to be ambitious and meet the needs of pupils with SEND, developing their knowledge, skills and abilities to apply what they know and can do with increasing fluency and independence.
[If this is not yet fully the case, it is clear from leaders’ actions that they are in the process of bringing this about.]

Pupils study the full curriculum; it is not narrowed. In primary schools, a broad range of subjects (exemplified by the national curriculum) is taught in key stage 2 throughout each and all of Years 3 to 6. In secondary schools, the school teaches a broad range of subjects (exemplified by the national curriculum) throughout Years 7 to 9.
[If this is not yet fully the case, it is clear from leaders’ actions that they are in the process of bringing this about.] The school’s aim is to have the EBacc at the heart of its curriculum, in line with the DfE’s ambition, and good progress has been made towards this ambition.

However, there is no such leeway for an “Outstanding” judgement:

The school’s curriculum intent and implementation are embedded securely and consistently across the school. It is evident from what teachers do that they have a firm and common understanding of the school’s curriculum intent and what it means for their practice. Across all parts of the school, series of lessons contribute well to delivering the curriculum intent.

Related Links

Sources for this Article

The sources for this article have been taken from Ofsted’s documents under the Open Government Licence. It contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0.

The sources include:


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