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Curriculum Conundrum

Guest Blogger
Jan 18, 2019

Ever since Ofsted have turned their attention to the wider curriculum, school leaders have begun wriggling in their seats when it comes to what exactly goes on in schools after lunch. At best the foundation subjects have been a second thought after reading, writing and maths, but subject integrity has been maintained by passionate subject leaders who have kept the flags for their areas fluttering away. But at worst, subjects like science and humanities have not been quality assured or properly assessed for years; consequently, many pupils have been denied a good all-round, quality education.

School leaders, fearful of Ofsted knocking on their door over data, have often over loaded teachers with all manner of extra activities and interventions in order to realise progress trajectories and exceed thresholds  for reading writing and maths with the result that often all teachers have time to do for the other subjects, is download something from the internet and grab whatever they can to resource it during lunch break; if they’re lucky, and were in the same year group as the year before, then maybe they have something half decent from last year, but all too often the result is an overemphasis on mundane pieces of recording that merely serve as evidence that the subject was at least taught.

It is no surprise then, that Ofsted have turned their attention to the ‘quality of education’ and away from ‘outcomes’. This means that a school need to justify the aims of its curriculum, as well as its implementation and impact, arriving at, as Sean Harford of Ofsted has said a structure and narrative for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations.’

To clarify this, Ofsted produced a nine-box framework in order to prompt schools to think about the impact, implementation and intent of their curricula:

Nine Box Framework


The second and third columns are of course the one schools need to pay attention to and potentially where Learning Ladders can support schools to meet these expectations.

Learning Ladders provide curricular objectives in the form of ladders and rungs for all subjects; however, schools can also tweak or write their own; this has always been the advantage of Learning Ladders as a curriculum and assessment framework.  In turn, this means that Learning Ladders schools do have a way to create ‘a structure and narrative for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations.’  

The sticking point for many schools however, is teacher workload and importantly, assessment confidence. At the moment, many schools are reluctant to ask teachers to ticks large amounts of criteria for the foundation subjects.

On the face of this, some schools are using assessment grids for subject knowledge and skills, then evaluating the children’s attainment against these using the Learning Ladders Teacher Judgement function. This is an example of a grid a school might use for an area of science: 



The draw back from this, is that assessment does immediately become a ‘best fit model’ rather than the granular model that Learning Ladders provides elsewhere. Yet, many leaders feel that anything more granulated would be unwieldy.

Using these grids across subjects, teachers will decide at certain points in a year whether pupils are on broadly track in a subject and then make an overall judgement on the system:



This will then create overviews of attainment for subject leaders and stakeholders so that they can understand how children are doing in different foundation subjects:


This problem with this approach is this that it does not lend itself to formative assessment because it fails to say much about the details of what pupils have or have not learned.  Because teachers have not clicked the criteria under class assessment; therefore, there is no gaps analysis available which would help teachers to plan for learning:


In addition, the nature of some curricular content might mean that topics like electricity or materials in science might not be taught again for a few years, if at all, so teachers will never have the opportunity to use gaps analysis formatively anyway, unless they use the function mid-topic or for end of topic catch ups.  In essence, assessment will be summative; there will be no chance to act on gaps in learning, merely to point them out, a post-mortem rather than a medical.

The question then is, is that acceptable?  Would Ofsted find that a good ‘structure and narrative for evaluating what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations?’ 

One answer is to cut back curricular objectives for each strand in any given subject to the bare essentials so that over a year each subject might only have a handful of core strands for teachers to assess against at different points – offering the chance for some formative assessment and action on underachievement within the year.  Of course the worries over teacher workload are real, but the bulk ticking function in Learning Ladders means that within two seconds a whole class can have criteria ticked, and with only a few more seconds to take out the children who aren’t quite there yet, so is workload the real issue?

If this is possible in terms of workload, then the next hurdle is teacher assessment confidence? In fact, this may be the obstacle that creates the workload to begin with because if teachers are clear then the electronic record keeping aspect is not that time consuming – it’s the deliberating over it that is. The truth is that many teachers are just not sure how to assess certain knowledge and understanding in different subjects.

To solve this, schools need to ensure that key performance indicators for subjects are crystal clear to teachers and that teachers feel they can assess these easily.  The problem is that primary teachers are ‘generalists’ who essentially teach everything and often have to shift year groups once a year, so faced with numerous subjects, and different content in year each, assessment literacy in all subjects can stretch a lot of our expertise. Clarity and simplicity are what is needed, but these will take time for schools to establish when faced with multiple subjects to assess.

So, this is the curriculum conundrum we face!  We need to think clearly about the intent, implementation and impact of the school curriculum and be able to justify what we do against these three areas. Knowing the impact of our curriculum does not have to be in the form of data sheets or tick boxes, and it should never come down to just these, it requires a narrative ripe with pupils’ voices and experiences too; we don’t want to get caught valuing what we measure, but rather we need to measure what we value. Teachers need to know what’s important for pupils to be able to know and do and then be supported in evaluating this; Learning Ladders makes sure we’re able to do this. 

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