Last reviewed 27 April 2022


The “real substance of education”, as defined by HMCI Amanda Spielman, is the curriculum and from September 2019 the curriculum moved centre stage in Ofsted inspections. This is important for all schools including privately-funded independent schools, since Ofsted evaluates their inspection arrangements and the DfE has confirmed Ofsted as the arbiter of school effectiveness. Tony Powell, Consulting Educationist, considers how inspectors might evaluate the statutory requirements for curriculum provision using the working definition devised by Ofsted during its research programme. Note: This article can only give some pointers about meeting Ofsted expectations because every school must determine its own curriculum. The first pointer is that inspectors will ask senior leaders and a range of staff how this determination was made.

Required reading (for senior leaders and governors):

  • School and Early Education Update: March 2022

  • School Inspection Handbook: updated April 2022.

Read through each document and then study the sections on leadership and management. If you really want to understand the methodology underlying these new arrangements, cross-reference against Education Inspection Framework — Overview of Research.

What is the curriculum?

The dictionary gives the limited “a course of study” but the agreed definition for the school curriculum is “the totality of the learner’s planned experiences”. Unless there are schools that wish to argue they provide “unplanned” experiences.

Statutory regulations

The law provides little space between what all schools must provide, what some schools must provide and what all schools should provide. This needs clarification so we will use the Ofsted working definition to analyse what schools must and should do to provide an appropriate curriculum.

The Education Act 2002 requires that all schools must provide a curriculum that is balanced and broadly based, which should:

  • promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society

  • prepare pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.

Inspecting the statutory duty curriculum

Inspectors must first determine whether the school (the governing board) is meeting its legal duty. They will do this against the Ofsted working definition, which recognises that it passes through different states: how it is conceived (intent), how it is taught (implementation) and how pupils experience it (impact). This working definition is shown in more detail below, together with an analysis of what inspectors will look for at each stage.

Ofsted stage one

Intent: the framework for setting out the aims of a programme of education, including the knowledge and skills to be gained at each stage.

Local authority (LA) maintained schools must provide the National Curriculum (NC) + RE + SRE + cultural education, so their aims must be based on the aims of the NC and the aims and purposes of study of each subject. They should go beyond these to provide a curriculum that reflects the distinctive aims of the school, as expressed, eg in the mission statement. Ofsted uses the aims of the NC to inform its own evaluations of leadership and management. Even where schools adopt the NC’s aims, inspectors will question school and subject leaders about whether there is a shared understanding of these aims and the distinctive contribution made by different subjects. Do you know which subject embodies “some of the highest forms of human creativity”?

While other schools are not required to teach the NC, they must provide pupils with a curriculum which is at least as broad and balanced as this and in practice should use their freedoms to offer more. Beyond this, schools that are banded together in some way, such as in a MAT, should use this opportunity to provide pupils with a richer and wider curriculum. If freedom from LA control is not used to improve the quality of education, what is it for? Inspectors will be keen to see innovation, but this must be based on inclusion for all pupils. In secondary schools, in particular, they will investigate practices such as off-rolling to enhance results at the expense of inclusion.

Ofsted stage two

Implementation: the translation of that framework over time into a structure and narrative, within an institutional context.

This is the stage of planning for progression across the school, together with knowledgeable and skilled teaching and assessment that ensures all pupils make good and outstanding progress. For maintained schools, the starting point must be the programmes of study of the NC subjects, since these are statutory. These provide the framework mentioned above in the Ofsted definition.

Inspectors do not require planning in any particular format and will be critical of onerous detail. Nevertheless, they need to gather and triangulate evidence that the planned curriculum is being implemented effectively. The draft handbook suggests inspectors will choose samples of pupils, sufficient to extrapolate results from. They will look at the long-term curriculum planning, usually together with curriculum leaders, then discuss with teachers, subject leaders and specialists how this is translated into the classroom. Certainly, they will look for evidence of subject knowledge and “pedagogical content knowledge”. (See Education Inspection Framework — Overview of Research). They will observe lessons, talk to pupils about what and how they are learning and scrutinise work samples.

Ofsted stage three

Impact: the evaluation of what knowledge and understanding pupils have gained against expectations (outcomes for pupils).

Academic results are still very important and the starting point for all inspections will be the areas for investigation in the school Inspection Data Summary Report (IDSR). Results over time will be compared to national data and while the school’s internal assessment data will not be considered as formal evidence, inspectors will expect schools to present evidence that assessment is used effectively, in order to support self-evaluations of progress and attainment.

In primary schools, inspectors will listen to a range of children read because it is an essential skill. Where pupils leave at the end of KS4 or KS5, they will analyse data on destinations and throughout all inspections they will be evaluating whether knowledge is internalised because “if nothing in the long-term memory has been altered, nothing has been learned”. (See Education Inspection Framework — Overview of Research.)

Wider personal development as a curriculum outcome is one of the four key judgments on which the grade for overall effectiveness is based, largely come to the fore because of the need to “prepare pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life”. Imagine a Britain where young people are world leaders in literacy and numeracy, but without a sense of right and wrong or respect for the rule of law!