Ofsted: Should we be Scared?


Rumours are leaking out of Ofsted Towers of a shift in focus towards ‘Knowledge Rich Curriculum.’ There is consternation among some inspectors about ideological infiltration from the DfE and what this might look like in terms of an inspection framework. But I’d urge caution before we jump to conclusions – this could be a positive thing. Could be. Let’s start by assuming two key principles that seem to have emerged as patterns over the past few years:-

  1. Ofsted will not dictate pedagogy.
  2. Ofsted will mostly hold you to account for what you say you do. Consistency is the key.

If those two things hold true, then there’s no reason to fear that we’ll see Ofsted dictating that desks should be in rows, that direct instruction be the sole pedagogical tool, that knowledge organisers should be coming out of our ears and that children are being rote tested every five minutes. The focus seems to be on curriculum and not on pedagogy.

And as we see in their attitudes towards marking, while they have helpfully outlined in their myths busting document that they don’t expect to see triple marking, if your policy says you do it, you had better do it. You’ll be hung by your own tabard if staff are not following policy. So simplify the policy.

So what can we expect? Well, this is pure speculation of course, but I suspect it means that if you say you teach it, they’ll check that the children are learning it. That’s one way to check if people are really covering the curriculum they say they are teaching. And isn’t that fair? If someone threw a random sentence about Queen Victoria’s children into the medium term plan and an Ofsted inspector comes in and asks the children what the names of those children were, are they a cruel, fact obsessed tyrant? Or are they simply trying to find out if you teach what you say you teach? Work out what you want the children to know and stick to it.

What’s at threat here are spurious tasks that seem lovely but are empty. If your children are making a Viking Shield, then you might need to think carefully about what they are learning as they do so and make that explicit. Whether they are learning knowledge or skills, they need to understand the POINT of what they have done and how it connects to the broader map of understanding of who the Vikings were, when they had most impact on our history, how they had impact and how they lived. Conveniently, the knowledge obsessed who didn’t like the word ‘skills’ have now rebranded them as “procedural knowledge” so we can do everything under the happy umbrella of knowledge!

My advice would therefore be to look at curriculum documents and think “is there an explicit knowledge strand in here? Should it be simplified? Does it connect in a coherent way or are there just random sets of tasks, loosely linked to the topic?”

This absolutely does not have to be dry or dull. It can be a connected, thoughtful curriculum that allows children to use knowledge in all kinds of ways. Let’s share an example from something Hywel Roberts and I developed together. We’re going to be working towards a ‘topic’ about coasts. But there are two other ‘strands’ as well as knowledge that we want to explore. Because as well as wanting children to know, we also want them to be able to care and to be able to do.  So, yes, one aim is knowledge, but another is socio-cultural. We want children to think about some of the problems our society has with the loneliness of old people. The third is linked to their literacy. We want them to be able to adopt the voices of other people so they can play with levels of formality and to extend their vocabulary. In my planning document I might have these as three strands with three aims.

To Know:  To know how coasts erode.

To Feel:  To understand the impact of loneliness on people and to demonstrate empathy towards the old people we will meet (both in fictional and real experiences).

To Do: To write fiction and non fiction texts that show an ability to shift formality and to use new vocabulary and knowledge.

Our outcomes might take the form of:-

  1. An article about the erosion of a local coast and its impact on residents, with the expectation that it will explain to its readers the effect of tides and weather on the coast and what it does to specific types of rock.
  2. A visit to our local old folks home with the children feeling confident enough to ask the residents questions about their lives.
  3. Diary entries from the points of view of both the old lady and the social worker and report writing (social worker report and news report).

We may begin in a literacy session with the teacher speaking. She has put two chairs together and is sitting on one of them. She explains:-

In a moment we’re going to go into a story and I’ll be speaking as an old lady who is 96 years old. Imagine! 96! When was she born? Yes, 1922 – I wonder what events have happened in her lifetime? I wonder what we have now that wasn’t around when she was a child. What do you think?

The teacher is linking to previous work on timelines and checking what the children have remembered about the 20th century. She is also searching for misconceptions and identifying anachronisms, gently correcting as the children go until their ideas are shared. She might share and explain the word anachronism and let the children play around with sounding it out. Then she sets the scene:-

“She is sitting on a sofa – let’s say it’s here where I am sitting. Beside her on the cushion of the sofa are dog hairs. She rests her hand on them. But there is no sign of a dog.”

The teacher pauses and looks at the children sadly. She gauges who seems to have understood the subtext and carries on.

The old lady is in a room which is quite old fashioned. There are photographs on the walls and objects around the room that remind her of her life. She rarely throws anything away and the room is crowded with a myriad of memories. She has lived here all her life. As a child, she lived in the cottage that stood on this site before her current house was constructed. Shall we talk to her and ask her some questions? Let’s summarise what we already know…”

The teacher guides the children through this short comprehension task, explaining some of the vocabulary and then allows them a couple of minutes to form questions. As they ask, she builds a story of her life:-

  • Yes she has children (and grandchildren) but they live far away.
  • Her dog, sadly, died.
  • Her husband also is no longer with her, but oh, what a happy marriage they had! (we don’t want to depress the children too much – we’re aiming for concern, not trauma, so moving speedily on to happy memories helps to lift the mood!)
  • She doesn’t go out. At all. And the only people who come to the door are ‘THEM’. And ‘THEY’ are not going to make her leave. She was born in this house and she will stay in this house until her last breath!

After a quick recap with the children we start to paint the scene. Asking the children to think about all the photographs that are on the wall, in small groups, the teacher asks them to recreate some in freeze frames (tableau). She’s pulling together comprehension skills while allowing the imagination space to breathe. The class share their images with each other and the teacher helps them to develop the descriptions of what they see by pulling out deeper details – “what’s that in the background?” “why is she smiling?”

We can also shine our torches on (imagined) objects in the room and find ways of describing them on a post it note. The children place their notes around the room and read each other’s :-

“There is a well worn dog lead gathering dust in a corner.”

“There is a framed boarding pass for a flight to Australia. 15th December 1994.”

The children may well now be ready to write a descriptive opening to a story…

In the afternoon, it’s Topic Work. Geography. Coasts. It could also be called “Human Being in a Mess. Part Two.”

We gather again around the old lady. She tells them that someone is coming this afternoon. She has had a letter. So she has locked the door firmly and will refuse to let them in.

Then the teacher shows the children the lady’s home. article-2337012-1A2DADE9000005DC-901_964x620

How does this change our perception of her situation?

If we were a team of social workers about to visit her, what might we do to persuade her to leave?

Why is the house in this state?

All of these questions lead us into the ‘knowledge’ of the topic while maintaining the socio-cultural element of the work. Our story can still remain central, but there is now something we have a reason to know and learn. How do coasts erode? How safe is it to build homes near the coast? Are some coasts safer than others?

Of course some of that information will be taught explicitly. There will be non fiction texts to explore. There are non fiction texts to write. For example, how might a letter explain to the lady that the coast is likely to erode further? How would a newspaper report explain coastal erosion to a lay reader? What might the social worker’s report say?

And later, as we prepare for our visit to the local old people’s home, we’ll remember our old lady. We’ll think about how we felt about the fact that no-one visited her. We’ll think about how we might have helped her. And she will help our children to feel more comfortable and to be more sensitive as we do our community project. As for knowledge…

Could you still quiz children on the key geographical terms you want them to remember? Yes.

Could you still get them to write a range of texts with this knowledge embedded? Yes.

Is a story helpful in acting as a memorable vehicle for learning? Yes.

Is this knowledge rich? Yes. But it’s also feeling rich, doing rich, responsibility rich.

In the end, the only difference this new “what does Ofsted want?” panic might make to my practice is to just tweak the process to absolutely make sure that what I think the children are learning is what they are learning. I might check that a little more. I might make that strand more explicit in my planning. None of that is a bad thing. But I’d also feel I could do so and remain absolutely true to the way I work. And that’s a blessing.


7 thoughts on “Ofsted: Should we be Scared?

  1. This is great Debra…very positive and sensible advice! I absolutely agree with your approach. I have researched this type of work and evidenced it. I can imagine a whole lot of varied contributions from teachers about how they would collaborate to produce different and motivating knowledge rich projects and evidence them! I would also like to make the point that as long as children get these holistic experiences every so often as appropriate to the school, staff and kids ….. the normal everyday routine stuff can still go on with the routine types of assessment…..remembering staff anxiety and workload….and the fact that people make different contributions.

  2. Debra, I fear you are being very naive. The DfE is deeply committed to the Hirsch model of knowledge based learning, The vector for introducing it in all schools is a number of deeply ideological Multi Academy Trusts (MATs). The Hirsch ideology is not only deeply flawed but also requires a completely different relationship between students and teachers that I am sure you would not be happy with. It is the Trojan Horse that will be used to justify the abusive, punishment-based approaches that are already taking over our education system. See this Local Schools Network article and the comments.


    The idea that these approaches will be enforced by OfSTED is deeply sinister, especially as the Chief Inspector has no
    practical or academic background in education and is likely to be seduced by the false ‘common sense’ notions of knowledge based teaching.

    The clearest statement of why Hirsch is wrong is perhaps this from Vygotsky.

    As we know from investigations of concept formation, a concept is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than a mere mental habit; it is a genuine and complex act of thought that cannot be taught by drilling, but can only be accomplished when the child’s mental development has itself reached the requisite level.

    As a retired science teacher I know from more than thirty years of classroom and laboratory experience that Vygotsky is right. Take, for example, Newton’s Second Law of Motion.

    Force = Rate of Change of Momentum

    Understand it? No? Perhaps this is because although force is not too hard to understand (a push or a pull), what about momentum?

    Well, momentum = mass x velocity

    Does that help? Thought not. Is this just because you don’t remember what mass and velocity are, or because you confuse mass with weight? Then there is, rate of change. What does that mean?

    If I gave you a list of all the scientific terms involved in Newton’s Second Law of Motion and forced you to learn their definitions by rote so you could chant them on demand, would you then be guaranteed to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion? The answer is no and the reason is that given by Vygotsky. Piaget’s life work also helps a lot. In order to understand Newton’s Laws of Motion a student must have attained a sufficient level of cognitive sophistication. Piaget describes this level as ‘formal operational thinking‘. Kahneman calls it ‘System 2 Thinking‘.

    Although the example I give is from science teaching, similar examples can be found from all subjects including your own.

    Of course knowledge of facts is vital for all learning but it is not enough.

    1. There is no need to see Vvgotsky and Hirsch in opposition. You only do so by strawmaning Hirsch’s position. Believing in cultural literacy and shared reference points doesn’t mean that someone disbelieves that students need to construct ideas in their own mind (obviously true). However Hirschian ideas do favor more explicit forms of teaching in which emphasis on structured connections between ideas are more important then the means of presentation or style (and on that there is plenty of room to debate). I do agree with you that this move towards redesigning our curriculum (which I in principle agree with) will effect pedagogy. This makes me a little uncomfortable even though it will likely end up validating my preferred teaching style. However I can’t blame the chief inspector for wanting to reform how we think about education.

      As a Physics Major (I assume like you) I did break down the steps behind Newtons law of motion into a collection of definitions (velocity,mass, momentum, force), examples (projectile motion, falling apple), potential misconceptions (Galileo’s cannonball/feather, what happens in space), requisite pre and post maths skills (multiplication, standard form, units, calculus) and history/philosophy of science – (folk physics, relativity). I assume you did the same.

      The issue then is what to teach, including what connections to emphasise, as well as how much cross bridging with other subjects you want to include. This will be dictated by the syllabus and learning aims so an emphasis on defining velocity, or demonstrating why a common misconception is wrong will produce a different curriculum then one which emphasis’s explaining why physics is important to the modern world (which leans more to the history/philosophy of the subject). Students will of course struggle to understand so I will need to vary and repeat examples. At no point will I be able to accurately determine when any individual student has achieved general “cognitive sophistication” though I will be able to frequently assess their performance/mastery of the key curriculum aims and to modify progress accordingly

      All of these are still part of a knowledge curriculum (surely a tautology) but the method of delivery (pedagogy) will nether the less be driven by the goals and Hirsch simply believes that those goals should be largely uniform across our system. (Largely not completely). To my knowledge Vvgotsky had little to say about this except via the concept of developmental appropriateness. I suspect both myself and Hirsch disagree with this but it doesn’t prevent all of us creating a shared expectation of what students should know. (Please remember that what to do with students who exceed/don’t meet those expectations is a problem shared by all curriculum designs).

      This should seem obvious but by discussing this we can improve our understanding of what to teach by working together to create amazing curricula and indirectly driving our classroom pedagogy. It may be unique to my workplace (I suspect not though) that curriculum design is largely an afterthought driven by individuals with little training, time, expertise or reliable feedback (I include myself here). This is an issue if, like me, you believe that good teaching can not easily transcend a poor curriculum.

      P.s I liked Deborah’s scheme design but imagine how much more useful it would be with additional input , multiple iterations, and a degree of formalisation that allowed it to be easily shared and owned by others. To do that we need shared language and objectives. Not national curriculum levels, rather shared examples of knowledge road maps.. Clear factual relationships make a much more solid base for developing this than more general statements that transcend subject areas. And no I don’t think these are unimportant simply that you develop grit/growth mindset, critical thinking (likely another tautology) and general skills on a bedrock of specific expertise, it’s an emergent property.

      In short this will alter our teaching (as a collective profession). Hopefully for the better

  3. If I were still an Ofsted inspector I know I would be among those concerned ” about ideological infiltration from the DfE and what this might look like in terms of an inspection framework.”

    In your final remarks on this important proposed change you write, “…. make sure that what I think the children are learning is what they are learning. I might check that a little more. I might make that strand more explicit in my planning. None of that is a bad thing. But I’d also feel I could do so and remain absolutely true to the way I work. And that’s a blessing.” You may well regard your pragmatism as a blessing but I feel it is much more likely to be justified on the basis of the experience you have to draw upon. With so many young and inexperienced teachers joining and increasing numbers of more experienced colleagues leaving the profession each year I have profound reservations about how each new ideological change will impact in schools where experience and confidence among teachers are inevitably very varied.

    In the face of yet further, unnecessary ideological changes around what the DfE clearly perceives as its mission to counter the subversive elements in the profession that, whilst accepting the need for a curriculum rich in knowledge, understand the importance of specific pedagogies that promote cognitive growth, I maintain my sketicism over this new plan.

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