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Stop the Curriculum Squeeze

March 28, 2019, 11:59 GMT+1
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  • Hilary Fine explains why schools’ eagerness to track pupils’ test readiness shouldn’t come at the expense of curriculum breadth...
Stop the Curriculum Squeeze

Following the 2017 Key Stage 2 National Tests, I was told of a teacher’s lament that the word ‘monarch’ had appeared on the spelling test, despite not being included on the National Curriculum word lists. Yet seeing as both the word and the concept of ‘monarch’ are covered in the KS2 National Curriculum for history, it surely follows that children would have previously encountered and been familiar with said word, had the school included it within their wider curriculum.

We continue to hear of schools who are narrowing their curriculums to focus only on what’s tested in the KS2 SATs, or starting to focus on GCSE knowledge and skills from Year 7, rather than the recommended Year 10. The intention, of course, is that such practices will improve outcomes for the schools concerned.

Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman, however, has spoken recently of there being too much emphasis on exam preparation at the expense of a wider curriculum, and teachers and parents appear to agree. According to two recent YouGov polls commissioned by GL Assessment, teachers and parents are becoming increasingly concerned that exam pressures are forcing schools to offer a limited, bare-bones education while prepping pupils for those exams from an increasingly young age. 90% of teachers think that too many schools are pressuring teachers to concentrate on an exam-driven syllabus, to the exclusion of the wider curriculum; something that Ofsted is, of course, seeking to address through its new inspection framework.

Stephen Tierney, CEO of Blessed Edward Bamber Multi-Academy Trust and Chair of Headteachers’ Roundtable, has pointed out that broadening the curriculum from primary through to Key Stage 3 particularly benefits disadvantaged pupils, by providing them with “The secure foundations – academic, personal and social – on which success in important GCSE exams and life beyond can be built.”

According to our YouGov poll, 87% of teachers believe that teaching a more rounded curriculum from a younger age better prepares children for later academic success, while 91% feel a more rounded curriculum will equip children and young people more effectively for life after school – positions shared by 76% and 78% of parents respectively.

By their nature, national tests – be they KS2 SATs or GCSEs – can only ever assess a sample of what’s been taught and learned. If a curriculum has been narrowed by teaching to the test, then the foundations on which to build children’s future success can’t be established. The educational experience will be too thin and insubstantial for the purpose.

Ofsted’s findings highlight the need for a well-constructed curriculum through which children are taught clearly defined knowledge and skills at specific stages, with planned, intelligent repetition of content or retrieval practices (such as quizzing) used to promote the acquisition of core knowledge and skills.

Good assessment should go hand-in-hand with this approach – helping schools to evaluate their curriculum, measure students’ progress and identify those children needing more support or greater challenge.

Ensuring that children experience a wide curriculum of subject content and a broad range of life experiences (not least through school trips) further provides rich opportunities for developing vocabulary, which Ofsted has identified as critical for academic success. In this context, I’d hope the teacher quoted at the start of this article would feel less perplexed by a spelling test containing the word ‘monarch’.

Hilary Fine is Head of Product at GL Assessment.

Download GL Assessment’s new report, ‘Closing the Gap: How a narrow curriculum disadvantages the disadvantaged’, at