How an Ofsted Judgement Became the Catalyst in our Curriculum Journey

James Kilsby, Head at Cottenham Primary School, has written this great blog for us…

Having now had the time to look through the documentation and consider things properly, I believe the new Ofsted Inspection Framework has the potential to make a seismic impact on school improvement across the country.

By requiring schools to have a coherent and ambitious curriculum at its core, the opportunities are now in place for school leaders to embrace the awesome and privileged challenge of designing a phenomenal educational journey for their pupils, and for this to be recognised and celebrated through the inspection process.

For context, since 2008 I’ve been the head of a three-form entry maintained primary in Cambridgeshire. We have around 550 children on roll, with a broad range of demographics in our catchment area. In 2015 the school went from being judged as ‘Good’ by Ofsted, to ‘Requires Improvement’.

As you can imagine, this was a bruising experience for everyone involved, and as head teacher I felt personally responsible. Whilst I still resent certain aspects of the inspection (and would not wish the frustration and self-doubt that such a judgement elicits upon anyone), I can look back now and say that it was the best thing that could have happened to the school. Not least because it forced me have a radical reassessment of everything we did at the school – and nowhere more than in the content that we deliver on a daily basis to our pupils.

In order to effect the necessary response to the inspection outcomes, we devised our ‘CPS Teaching Triangle’ – comprised of the three equal elements: content, delivery and assessment. Like most schools faced with a similar situation, we initially focused almost exclusively on ensuring that the delivery was standardised and consistent; with improvements secured quickly and effectively.

However, I was realising around the same time how little I knew about the content of our curriculum, particularly after the release of the 2014 national curriculum and the removal of levels shortly thereafter. Ideas were beginning to form, and a gut sense of things potentially needing tweaking was forming – but it was the inspection that turbo-charged a need to get to grips with the content aspect of things.

Of course, this is all easier said than done. Even if we knew we had to improve our content offering, doing so was – and remains – difficult. Support from a new head of the secondary we fed into, who cheerfully but firmly told me on our first meeting that the improvements we’d made to delivery since inspection meant little compared to content, was very helpful; and it was his gift of Knowledge and Future Schools by Michael Young that crystallised what I wanted to do, and how a knowledge-rich curricula was the way to do it.

Young’s work was transformational to me – not only did it teach me so much, but it also illuminated other writings (such as those of Daisy Christodoulou and Doug Lemov), encouraging me to think much deeper about content and to reshape how we did things in the classroom and across the whole school.

This was how I was going to turn round the school. There was little support from the Local Authority (though our Primary Advisor is outstanding, likewise the new Director of Education), and I had no interest in joining a MAT, unless they could prove they really knew how to help with this.

We were on our own in our area, so I had to turn to visiting schools up and down the country to better understand what needed to be done. One visit to see Luke Sparkes at Dixons Trinity Academy particularly stands out: I was the only primary specialist at this talk, but after listening to him for just 20 minutes I was already a better head. He helped me clarify what I wanted from my teachers and TAs: how to give them the tools they and the pupils need to succeed, and how to better create a positive atmosphere by focusing on ensuring close alignment with the school’s culture.

Finally, in the summer of 2016 I sat down my staff and told them that the content aspect of our triangle wasn’t good enough, and that we would be focusing solely on the single strategic objective of designing and implementing a knowledge-rich curriculum.

I braced myself for a tsunami of opposition on grounds of workload and ideology, because the wider narrative was (and continues to be in some places) a great deal of hostility to the Gove reforms that I was proposing we build upon. However, the teachers were fantastic. They were, and remain, extremely supportive, (with a few even saying ‘thank goodness for that!’).

Of course, it’s a long process (we are still very much on a journey) – and one that takes a lot of work from senior leaders in particular. But once you get the basics down, I think overall workload actually decreases – for example, most lessons we teach are on the 80-20 rule (80% revisiting already taught content, 20% new content) and things like knowledge organisers and clearer specifications reduce what teachers need to do in preparation for each lesson. There is also the fact that as a staff we are all learning this together – and we learn using the same principles of cognitive psychology that we apply to our teaching. This has, I believe, helped to foster an espirit de corps, not least because we all have to sit down and identify the content and delivery together.

Ofsted came back in the summer of 2017, and duly gave us a ‘Good’ grade, specifically praising the knowledge-rich curriculum in the inspection report. Looking back, whilst their original negative report was deeply upsetting, it helped me get my priorities in order. I was on a treadmill that may be familiar to some, where the statutory elements of the job – SATs, safeguarding, preparing for Ofsted – were defining my role. Of course you have to do things like that, but I no longer let them define what I do – instead, what gets me out of bed each morning is taking ownership of the school’s journey, and being one of the architects, along with the rest of staff, of our children’s futures.

I hope this story will help those who worry that Ofsted will judge their curriculum harshly, or that they have no idea how to move forward in wake of the new focus. Curriculum is hard to get to grips with, but the rewards are completely transformational. Turning around from a difficult stage to a strong curriculum is achievable with the tools schools have at their disposal, even after the disappointment of a poor Ofsted grade, and I can’t wait to see more and more schools across the country taking their curriculum to the next level.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PTE or its employees.