Curriculum Change: A new paradigm of progress

By ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist Stephen Rollett 

What is ‘progress’? It’s an important question to ask because the English school system has been and continues to undergo a revolution over what it means when we talk about pupils making progress in their learning. To understand where we are now, we must go back in time.

When the national curriculum was redesigned the usual debates raged on about what should make it into the prescribed content of the curriculum in each subject. 

Arguably, the most important change wasn’t this but the removal of levels. This ushered in the era of ‘life after levels’ in which schools redesigned a raft of new ways of assessing pupils’ progress. Only under the hood, most weren’t very different at all. 

Farewell to levels
Levels were removed for good reason in 2014. What started as summary statements for use at the end of a key stage had become distorted and distorting; in too many schools, progression upwards through levels had usurped the requirement for pupils to understand and remember curriculum content over time.  It was necessary that at a given point in time pupils met particular level criteria, but sustained immersion in and mastery of that content wasn’t necessarily required. Progress had become about the show of learning rather than about learning itself. This was problematic on two fronts. 

Firstly, it allowed teachers to lose sight of how understanding is built over time. The temptation was to prioritise pupils’ ability to exemplify attainment of a particular level over ensuring that all the building blocks of understanding were securely in place. 

Secondly, levels existed generically in that they were applied across different topics, terms and years, regardless of the content that was being studied. This meant the criteria schools used for levels were often poorly defined and didn’t match the exact content of what had been taught.
This had the effect of divorcing curriculum content from the progression model. In effect, this made it appear okay to take the hatchet to parts of the curriculum. If pupils could still attain a particular generic level then, it was argued, it didn’t matter if significant parts of the curriculum were lost.

The curriculum is the progression model
So, levels had to go. Their removal was an opportunity for us to realign the progression model with the curriculum. Unfortunately, and this is a failing of policymakers as much as anyone, this opportunity wasn’t always taken, with teachers replicating levels in the systems they designed. Their use tended to replicate the same problems with levels: generic assessment criteria that don’t yield insight into the specific content of the curriculum we want pupils to know. 

Curriculum expert Christine Counsell’s alternative is, at least at face value, simpler: make the curriculum the progression model. Instead of having a system where curriculum content and what is assessed are unhelpfully detached, point assessment towards the ongoing journey pupils undergo through the curriculum. If you need pupils to know that specific thing at that specific time, make that the focus of your assessment, not some convoluted system of generic descriptors and criteria. This requires us to have a keener understanding of the granular components of the curriculum and an awareness of how these build together into composites of knowledge and skill.

But this has implications beyond assessment. It speaks to the expectations we have of pupils. No longer should we label children a particular level and in effect put a cap on what they can learn. A new understanding of progress as being inseparable from the curriculum is about recognising that all pupils are entitled to learn the content of the curriculum. Our job as teachers is to plan and teach the curriculum so they get there. If we wish to have an inclusive education system, we have to value each part of the curriculum on behalf of all pupils. 

Of course, we know that not all pupils will master all content, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy if we bake this expectation into our curriculum and assessment practice in the way levels did. And we know our disadvantaged and SEND pupils tend to be most at risk from this approach. 

A rich foundation of knowledge
A curtailed curriculum risks two problems, particularly for our must vulnerable pupils. Firstly, that pupils don’t receive their entitlement as laid out in the national curriculum. If they don’t receive this education at school, where else will they get it? Secondly, in rushing towards the final test, be it Key Stage 2 SATs, or GCSE exams, without having built a rich foundation of curriculum knowledge, we may inadvertently make it harder for pupils to do well. 

Which all brings me to the conclusion of this piece. There are many schools out there grappling with the question of whether to continue to run a shortened Key Stage 3 (KS3), with this debate being prompted by Ofsted’s new inspection framework . The problem here is that much of the thinking going on in schools is rooted in a previous paradigm of progress. 

The risk is we get fixated on the Ofsted framework, rather than really considering the underlying curriculum principles about what we want our pupils – all pupils – to learn. It may well be possible to teach a shortened KS3 and still deliver pupils’ entitlement to the curriculum, but it is undoubtedly harder. The focus on curriculum entitlement didn’t begin with Ofsted in 2019, it began with the national curriculum.

Ofsted has said it does not seek to dictate the length of key stage 3 in schools and it is encouraging that we have seen schools with a shortened KS3 be judged good under the new framework. It is important that inspectors continue to be nuanced in how they look at this issue.

But leaders must do their bit too and ask searching questions about whether their curriculum delivers the curriculum to which pupils are entitled. Let’s not fall in line with Ofsted simply on the basis of our accountability system, let’s ask deeper questions about how we give all pupils what they are entitled to. Thinking differently about what we mean by ‘progress’ may well be an important step on this journey. 

ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist Stephen Rollett is leading half-day seminars in Leeds, Birmingham and York on The Ofsted 2019 Education Inspection Framework (morning sessions) and Curriculum: 10 questions you should ask (afternoon sessions). 
Posted: 22/10/2019 08:53:43