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Last updated on 6 December 2019
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Learn what Ofsted means by 'curriculum', how to know if yours is any good and how to challenge it to make it even better. See questions Ofsted might ask you and tips on how to think through your answers.

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Many thanks to our associate education experts - Gulshan Kayembe, Hafise Nazif and Ian Preston - for their input in this article.

Understand the role of the curriculum in the 'quality of education' judgement

Ofsted has put the curriculum in the spotlight. Under the new framework, the old 'teaching, learning and assessment' and 'pupil outcomes' judgements are now a new 'quality of education' judgement. The aim is to reduce the reliance on exam results as a measure of school quality by taking a school's broader curriculum offering into account.

In practice, this means your school needs to be clear on the answers to 3 key questions:

  1. What are you trying to achieve through your curriculum? (Intent)
  2. How is your curriculum being delivered? (Implementation)
  3. What difference is your curriculum making? (Impact

We have another article on how Ofsted inspects 'quality of education', which goes into the judgement in greater depth.

Know the definition of 'curriculum'

Ofsted found that there's no common definition for 'curriculum', and schools use the term in different ways. So it came up with a working definition, to help inspectors have the right conversations with schools about their curriculum:

A framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage (intent) … translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context (implementation) … [and] evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (impact).

HMCI Amanda Spielman puts this in simpler terms. A curriculum is:

The yardstick for what school leaders want their pupils to know and to be able to do by the time they leave school.

The national curriculum is an "important benchmark", but the content, structure and how it is developed is down to school leaders to decide.

Remember that the National Curriculum hasn't changed

You're still accountable for making sure that your school is meeting its statutory requirements for the curriculum - this hasn't changed. In most cases, that means the National Curriculum. Though only maintained schools are statutorily required to follow this curriculum, many academies are also required to follow it under their funding agreements. Other academies choose to do so to make sure they meet the standards by which they're inspected.

Review the requirements for your school:

Your school doesn't need to overhaul its curriculum, you probably already have a 'broad and balanced' offer

Assuming your school was doing it right under the old framework, you'll still be doing it right under the new framework. 

This is because your school was always meant to deliver a broad and balanced curriculum. In fact, it was required in order to get an 'outstanding' grade under the previous framework.

Your school will probably revisit its curriculum in light of the new framework, but rest assured that most schools have been doing it right all along. So your school will unlikely overhaul it.

Set up a committee 

Monitoring the curriculum is too big a task for one governor to do. 

You might already have a committee for teaching and learning, or for standards, but consider creating a distinct committee that focuses on the quality of education/the curriculum. This can make sure that all of the strands that make up this key judgement are monitored as a whole.

Consider appointing link governors for specific areas of the curriculum as well. Ideally linked to priorities in your school improvement plan. For example you might have a link governor with responsibility for literacy, another for maths and one to look at cross-curricular links.  

The committee (and the link governors if you have them) should act as the bridge between the board and the staff and report to the board on things like:

  • Subject/curriculum delivery
  • The impact of interventions
  • Use of resources
  • Attainment and progress

You'll find questions to ask curriculum leaders in the link governor articles linked above and this article with questions to ask subject leaders.

Go on school visits

Use our how-to guide on school visits to help you make them focused and effective.

Find out how the curriculum achieves your vision

The curriculum is more than schemes of work designed to deliver specific knowledge at specific times. It's meant to be the delivery vehicle for your vision. 

Understand how educational philosophy and vision work together

Your headteacher should have a well-developed educational philosophy that sets out how they believe children learn best and what sort of teaching supports that learning. But that educational philosophy needs to be focused on achieving the school's vision. 

Your board and the senior leadership team set the vision for who children will be when they leave your school, and the headteacher decides the best way to get the children there, with the help of school staff. So having a strong vision that everyone buys into and that's embedded into your curriculum is important.

Have a conversation with your headteacher and/or school leaders

Ask:

  • To what extent does our curriculum currently match our school's vision/values? What evidence do you have?
  • Are we over- or under-emphasising certain elements of our vision because of our current delivery model? 
  • What have you done to make sure our curriculum reflects the vision in each phase, subject or year group? For example, your school leaders may say they changed the content in a unit of work, introduced a trip or a visit, proposed an assembly topic, adjusted the sequence of work
  • Which elements of our vision need to be stronger in our curriculum, and how can we achieve this?
  • What are you doing at a whole-school level to make sure all teachers and pupils understand the vision? 

Read our article to learn more about why you need a strong vision.

Ask for regular reports on the curriculum and challenge them

The curriculum will never be a finished package. It'll shift and change over time, so you should ask for regular reports. Read this article to learn more about what to expect in a curriculum report and how to challenge it.

Make sure the curriculum meets the needs of all pupils

Not even the most brilliant curriculum will have the desired impact if it isn't accessible. A 'broad and balanced' curriculum is also the one that will meet the needs of every child, not just most.

 Ask your school leaders:

  • How's the curriculum specifically designed to meet the needs of all our pupils? How do you know?
  • Is the curriculum relevant and accessible to pupils, including those with special educational needs (SEN)? How do you know?
  • Are there enough opportunities for higher-ability pupils? Can you show me some examples?
  • Does the school work with other schools to share best practice? What's been the impact of this?
  • How do you know that the curriculum has the desired impact on pupils of all abilities?
  • How do you address concerns from parents about the curriculum?

Monitor the 'connectedness' of the curriculum

Ofsted's interested in how curriculum, teaching, assessment and standards connect (see page 3), so you should be, too. This goes back to intent/implementation/impact.

This isn't as complicated as it sounds. Simply put, you want to satisfy yourself that subject leads are clear with:

  1. Why pupils are learning what they're learning
  2. How that learning is progressive (building year-on-year) and supports learning in other subjects
  3. What they expect pupils to be able to do as a result of their learning

For example, if your school is studying the Romans this term...

You might meet with a subject lead or phase lead and talk about the following. It's not just a case of asking the questions and jotting down the answers, try to think about what your subject leads are telling you about the curriculum. Have they thought it through? Can they give you evidence for their answers (where appropriate)? Do they have plans for improving the connectedness next term? 

Intent Implementation Impact

Why have you chosen to teach about the Romans?

What do you want pupils to know and be able to do as a result of studying the Romans? 

How does teaching about the Romans help us achieve our vision for the school?

 

Have you reviewed your schemes of work for this subject? What evidence do you have that they’re good?

How does what pupils learn about the Romans in Year 1 differ from what pupils learn in Year 3? How does it differ in Year 5?

Next year, how will you build upon what they've learned this year?

How does studying the Romans link up with other subjects, like maths or science? 

How did that school trip/educational visit support their learning about the Romans?

What can Year 3 pupils do as a result of learning about the Romans that they couldn't do in Year 2?

How does what they learn about the Romans in this year build upon what they learned in the last year?

How can we see the progression of learning through the year groups?

Be prepared for questions Ofsted might ask you about the curriculum

What role did you play in the development of the curriculum?

Don't worry, the inspector isn't asking you how you decided on White Rose to structure the teaching of geometry. This sort of operational detail hasn't suddenly become your job.

Just like everything else you might be asked about, this question is about your strategic role. The inspector wants to know:

  • How you've monitored and challenged the curriculum
  • Whether any changes were made as a result of that challenge and what the results were
  • What strategic decisions you were involved in. For example if your school decided to condense Key Stage 3 and extend Key Stage 4, what was your role? How did you make sure senior leaders considered the impact on the curriculum?

How do you validate what you're told about the curriculum?

This question is asking: how do you know pupils are actually able to do what school leaders told you they'd be able to do as a result of the curriculum? Assuming you know the intent of the curriculum, you can validate the results a number of ways:

  • Examining and interrogating pupil progress data
  • School visits
  • Talking to pupils

Of course, not all subjects have quantifiable impact. Arts can be more qualitative. For example:

  • Art - pupils are demonstrating more sophisticated technique in each year group
  • Music - pupils are playing more complicated pieces of music or singing in more defined harmony

How does the curriculum reflect your vision and values?

As mentioned above, your curriculum is the vehicle that delivers your vision, and inspectors want to see that you're clear on how the curriculum gets you there. 

To answer this question, consider:

  • What your fulfilled vision actually looks like
  • How you know your curriculum will fulfil that vision
  • How your values underpin the curriculum

How do you monitor the curriculum?

Mention the frequency and content of any reports that you get, as well as the monitoring structure you use (e.g. committee or link governor). Explain how you make sure it's fit for purpose by:

  • Describing the sorts of challenges you've made to the curriculum
  • Explaining how you know pupils are learning what they're meant to be learning, e.g. conversations you've had with pupils and parents
  • Explaining how it meets the National Curriculum

See this article for more questions Ofsted might ask governors.

Sources

Gulshan Kayembe is an independent consultant who has experience of inspecting schools. As a consultant, she provides mentoring for senior leaders and has worked as an external adviser on headteachers’ performance management.

Ian Preston is a school governance consultant. He provides governor training to local authorities and other organisations. He has been a school governor for over 25 years in primary, secondary, maintained school and academy settings.

Hafise Nazif is the headteacher of a four-form primary school in Newham and is currently in her third headship. Hafise has a significant interest in working collaboratively with school governors to drive school improvement.

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