This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in September 2020 You can read the original version on the SecEd website here.
You can access the full archive of my columns for SecEd here.
According to Ofsted’s Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019), the school curriculum is defined according to its intent, implementation and impact.
- Intent is “a framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and understanding to be gained at each stage”.
- Implementation is a means of “translating that framework over time into a structure and narrative within an institutional context”.
- Impact is the means of “evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations.
In January, I tackled curriculum intent in an in-depth SecEd Best Practice Focus free download (Bromley, 2020a) In particular, I defined that slippery term “curriculum” and argued that a curriculum is not a singular entity; rather, it is a composite of at least four different elements: the national, the basic, the local, and the hidden curriculums.
I explored what a broad and balanced curriculum might look like in practice. I analysed the importance of creating a culture of high aspirations and I considered the centrality of social justice to effective curriculum design, concluding that a curriculum is a means of closing the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more privileged peers.
I also examined why designing a knowledge-rich curriculum was important, what knowledge mattered most to our pupils’ future successes and how to identify the clear end-points of a whole-school – and indeed subject-specific – curriculum.
In two further articles, I turned my attention to curriculum implementation (Bromley, 2020b, 2020c). I explained that Ofsted wants to see how teachers enable pupils to understand key concepts, presenting information clearly and promoting appropriate discussion; how teachers check pupils’ understanding effectively, identifying and correcting misunderstandings; and how teachers ensure that pupils embed key concepts in their long-term memory and apply them fluently.
It is important to bear the above in mind as we complete the trilogy and analyse what curriculum impact means in practice because, at its heart, “impact” is about evaluating the extent to which we achieve all the aims and ambitions of intent and implementation.
Ofsted says that, under impact, inspectors will gather evidence to help them judge whether the most disadvantaged pupils in school – as well as pupils with SEND – are given the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life.
In judging impact, Ofsted says that national assessments and examinations are useful indicators of the outcomes pupils in school achieve, but that they only represent a sample of what pupils have learned. As such, inspectors will balance these with their assessment of the standard of pupils’ work from the first-hand evidence they gather on inspection.
Ofsted says that learning in schools must build towards a goal. As such, at each stage of pupils’ education, inspectors are likely to want to see evidence that pupils are being prepared for the next stage of education, training or employment, and will consider whether pupils are ready for that next stage.
In the old Common Inspection Framework (CIF), one of the key judgements was “outcomes for pupils” but this is notable by its absence from the EIF. Its culling signals – I would argue – that test or qualification outcomes are no longer paramount; rather, schools should focus on the real substance of education – the curriculum.
And, in so doing, schools should ensure that every pupil is genuinely and holistically prepared for what comes next. Qualifications remain vital, of course, because they open doors to future success, but certification is not the be-all-and-end-all of an effective education.
As such, outcomes are no longer the sole lens through which our “impact” is judged. Inspectors will still use nationally generated performance information about pupil progress and attainment – that which is available in the IDSR – but they will triangulate this with first-hand evidence of how pupils are doing, drawing together their findings from the interviews, observations, work scrutiny and documentary review they gather on inspection, in order to make some judgements about impact.
And even then, this evidence will only form a part of the evidence inspectors use to reach a judgement. For example, inspectors will also use nationally published information about the destinations to which pupils progress when they leave school, and – in primary schools – they will listen to a range of pupils read.
Measuring wider impact
For me, one of the key lines from all the Ofsted documentation is this: inspectors will judge the extent to which “learners are ready for the next stage of education, employment or training”.
This is key, I think, because it sums up the purpose of education: it is not solely to get pupils through qualifications, though these are clearly important; but rather to genuinely prepare pupils for what comes next.
In practice, this means that schools need to provide for pupils’ broader development, enabling them to discover and develop their interests and talents. It means that the school curriculum needs to develop pupils’ character including their resilience, confidence and independence, and help them keep physically and mentally healthy.
It means that at each stage of education, schools need to prepare pupils for future success in their next steps and prepare them for adult life by equipping them with the knowledge and skills to be responsible, respectful, active citizens who contribute positively to society, developing their understanding of fundamental human values, their understanding and appreciation of diversity, celebrating what we have in common and promoting respect for all.
It stands to reason, I would suggest, that if the purpose of education is to prepare pupils for the next stage of their education, employment and lives, then the way we measure our “impact” must go beyond mere outcomes. Indeed, if we are to focus on the real substance of education, provide a broad and balanced curriculum that is ambitious for all and tackles social justice issues, then we should measure the impact of all this. As such, I would argue that the purpose of “impact” is at least threefold:
- To evaluate the effectiveness of the way in which the curriculum is designed.
- To evaluate the effectiveness of the way in which the curriculum is taught.
- To evaluate the pace of pupil progress, pupil outcomes, and pupils’ preparedness for their next steps.
The way the curriculum is designed
A good curriculum is a living organism, forever changing in response to reality. Curriculum design, therefore, should be a cyclical process. A curriculum should not be designed then left to stagnate. Rather, we should design a curriculum, teach it, assess it to see if it is working as well as we had hoped, then redesign it in light of our findings and so on.
To help oil the wheel, I think we should use assessments to answer the following questions about our curriculum.
Is our curriculum ambitious enough?
Does our curriculum teach the knowledge and skills pupils need in order to take advantage of the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life? Does our curriculum reflect our school’s local context? For example, does it address typical gaps in pupils’ knowledge and skills? Does it bring the local community into school and take pupils out into the community? Does it respond to our pupils’ particular life experiences?
Is our curriculum sufficiently broad so as to ensure pupils are taught as many different subject disciplines as possible for as long as possible? Is it sufficiently balanced so that each subject discipline has a fair amount of space on the timetable to deliver both breadth and depth? Are pupils able to study a strong academic core of subjects but also afforded a well-rounded education including in the arts?
Do we account for the hidden curriculum and ensure there are no inconsistencies or contradictions between what we explicitly teach in lessons and what we teach by way of the values, behaviours and attitudes all our staff display daily, and by the quality of the learning environment and our rules and routines?
Have we identified the right end-points?
Is it clear what “end-points” we are building towards as a school and in each subject discipline that we teach? Is it clear what our pupils need to know and be able to do at each stage in order to reach those end-points? Will the end-points we set all our pupils on course towards fully prepare them for the next stage of their education, employment and lives?
Do we make explicit links between related end-points within and across subject disciplines? As well as subject-specific knowledge and skills, do we also identify the research and study skills – and indeed other cross-curricular skills – that our pupils need in order to succeed? Are these skills explicitly taught and reinforced? Are they taught consistently across all subjects where applicable?
Do we ensure that the end-points of each part of our curriculum seamlessly join to the starting points of the next and so on, so that we achieve curriculum continuity and so that transitions between the various years, key stages and phases of education are as smooth as they can be?
Have we planned and sequenced our curriculum effectively?
Does our planning ensure that new knowledge and skills build on what has been taught before and towards these clearly defined end-points?
Is there an appropriate pace that allows for sufficient breadth and depth? Is content taught in a logical progression, systematically and explicitly enough for all pupils to acquire the intended knowledge and skills? Is there an appropriate level of challenge for all?
Does our progression model allow for a mastery approach where the higher-performing pupils are sufficiently stretched and lower-performing pupils are effectively supported, and yet the integrity of our teaching sequence is still maintained so that no pupil runs too far ahead or falls too far behind?
Do we bake retrieval practice into our curriculum to ensure we activate prior knowledge as and when appropriate and keep that prior knowledge accessible to pupils so that they can make connections between what they learned yesterday, what they are learning today, and what they will learn tomorrow? Does this enable pupils to forge ever-more complex schemata in long-term memory and aide automaticity?
Does our curriculum help to tackle social justice issues?
Have we planned to teach the knowledge and cultural capital our pupils need in order to access and understand our curriculum and go on to thrive in later life?
Are there high academic ambitions for all pupils, and do we offer disadvantaged pupils and pupils with SEND the same curriculum experience as their peers rather than “dumb down” or reduce the offer?
Do we identify the barriers some pupils face in school and within each subject discipline, including (though not solely) a potential vocabulary deficit, and do we plan effective support strategies to help overcome those barriers? Whenever we use additional intervention and support strategies to help disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND, do we monitor their effectiveness as they are happening rather than wait to evaluate their eventual success once they have ended?
The above is by no means an exhaustive list of questions, but at its heart is a simple self-evaluative challenge for your school: Is our curriculum working for all our pupils?
I would argue that our assessment practices need, among other things, to answer this crucial question. And the outcomes of those assessments should be used to tweak our curriculum when – as will inevitably be the case from time to time – the answer is “no”.
So, when considering “curriculum impact’” we should ask ourselves: How do we assess the effectiveness of our curriculum and what do we do with the findings?
In the second part of this article – due to publish on September 9 – I will explore ways of evaluating the effectiveness of the way in which our curriculum is taught and of evaluating the pace of our pupils’ progress, eventual pupil outcomes, and pupils’ preparedness for their next steps.