Subjects as Individual Disciplines: Examining Ofsted's Curriculum Research Reviews
In this blog, Dr Katy Bloom, Associate Professor of Initial Teacher Education at York St John University, explores the thinking behind Ofsted’s ‘Curriculum Research Reviews’ and why they are important for subject, faculty, and curriculum leaders in schools.
In 2018, following a two-year, three-phase curriculum research study, Ofsted identified that common factors related to curriculum quality included:
- the importance of subjects as individual disciplines
- using the curriculum to address disadvantage and provide equality of opportunity
- regular curriculum review
- using the curriculum as the progression model
- intelligent use of assessment to inform curriculum design
- retrieval of core knowledge ‘baked into’ the curriculum
Curricula, therefore, became a key feature of subsequent inspections, highlighted in the 2019/20 Ofsted annual report (during which time period, inspections were suspended due to COVID-19):
“Our evidence shows the importance of a rich and well-sequenced curriculum that leads to good results, taught by well-trained and well-supported teachers and their early years counterparts.”
Ofsted also highlighted areas of the curriculum where there was a ‘requires improvement’ judgement relating to the curriculum - essentially, pupils not receiving a full and appropriate curriculum for several reasons. At primary level, some schools sometimes focused extensively on teaching reading, writing, and mathematics at the expense of other subjects in the curriculum. Ofsted considered this to be limiting their pupils’ ability to thrive at secondary level, where they would be challenged in the range of subjects that they would encounter.
At secondary level, Ofsted identified two areas of concern. The first is known as curriculum narrowing, where a disproportionate or premature emphasis on teaching exam specifications was limiting pupils’ exposure to a broad and balanced curriculum over the course of their secondary education. The second is curriculum misalignment, where Ofsted identified that a substantial number of pupils were being:
“…directed or encouraged into courses (often for GCSE-equivalent qualifications) in which they were likely to earn high grades but that were unlikely to help some of them to progress in the pathways that best suited their talents and interests, and could harm them by preventing them from taking courses that would suit them better.”
Ofsted recruited ‘subject leads’ (experienced practitioner specialists in their field) to work alongside their own research team to produce their conception of what a high-quality education would look like in each of the curriculum subjects. The purpose was to create and map out subject-specific principles that could be used in deep dives to support the quality of education judgement, without specifying either curriculum content or any preferred curriculum model. Thus were born the research reviews, which collated currently available research evidence, asserting what composed a high-quality education in each subject.
Ofsted began publishing their research reviews in April 2021, with the introduction of the science research review. Whilst the aim originally was to help direct deep dive work, it quickly became clear that the reviews could also be used to support and inform those leading the thinking on subject education in their schools. It’s important to also note that, in January 2019, Ofsted had published its ‘Education inspection framework’ (EIF) accompanied on the same day by the ‘Education inspection framework: overview of research’, presenting the body of research evidence that underpinned the principles for quality of education established in the EIF.
When the research reviews on ‘subject quality’ were being developed, they were aligned with the EIF research overview , as well as any research on teaching, assessment, school systems, and policies that was relevant, and particularly subject-specific areas. Robust evidence was also sought from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and large-scale international studies, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
As all education research could be argued to be contestable (for example, non-generalisable or context dependent), the main findings of each subject research ‘trawl’ were shared with subject communities for broader agreement within each academic discipline, and were also informed by general education and cognitive psychology expertise. Recent decades have seen a knowledge explosion in the field of cognitive science, which has given us a growing insight into how people learn, and about memory and cognitive load. This was certainly influential in the development of the EIF, and features heavily in the ‘Early career framework’ for newly qualified teachers as well. Ofsted also noted that some subject literature was based on outdated understanding , for example, that pupils have different ‘learning styles’, and rejected this as not being empirically tested, aligning itself instead with the more rigorous cognitive science body of studies.
The research reviews reflect Ofsted’s focus within the curriculum on what teachers teach and when, and what pupils learn, rather than particular pedagogical approaches in any subject. Progress in curricular terms means knowing more and remembering more, so any subject curriculum needs to carefully plan for that progress by considering the building blocks and sequence in each subject. Since this sequence is dependent upon carefully selecting the most appropriate content, as well as situating it within enough contextual detail to enable pupil learning, the importance of applying that cognitive science through the lens of an individual subject curriculum cannot be understated. The National College provides a range of support at both primary and secondary curricular levels.
Following the publication of the ‘Curriculum research reviews’ , Ofsted has begun to produce subject reports, six of which are already available: science, mathematics, history, and very recently, geography, PE and music. It’s not the first time that Ofsted has published subject reports; in the past there were thematic reports on most national curriculum subjects and religious education. However, these current publications not only update curriculum, assessment, pedagogy, and systems thinking, but, crucially, are aligned with high-quality research evidence, which will be valuable to subject leaders and teachers in addressing:
- schools’ understanding of progress in each subject, and how this informs their approaches to the curriculum
- the extent to which teaching supports the goals of the subject curriculum
- the effectiveness of assessment used
- the extent to which there is a climate of high expectations in subjects, where a pupil’s interest in the subject can flourish
- the quality of systems around subject teaching and support for subject-specific staff development
- the extent to which whole-school policies affect the capacity for effective subject education
- access to the curriculum for pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities
A note on methods
Ofsted’s evidence for the subject reports came from subject deep dives and/or research visits to schools. Their deep-dive methodology was described in ‘Inspecting the curriculum’. The research team analysed the evidence that the inspectors collected, using the criteria developed through each research review, and working with subject leads to write the reports.
The deep dives and the reports covered all school phases from reception to year 13, including schools from a range of contexts (such as urban and rural), with different pupil intakes (from the most to the least disadvantaged), and schools with different inspection judgements. A methodological note in the appendices of the published subject reports highlighted that findings were drawn from 50 research visits to English schools, and that the primary and secondary schools’ evidence was evenly divided.
There are 24,413 schools in England – including 388 nurseries, 16,791 primary schools, 3,458 secondary schools, 2,366 independent schools, 1,005 special schools, 57 non-maintained special schools and 348 pupil referral units (PRUs). For comparison purposes, a sample size of 25 schools represents 0.0014% of primary schools and 0.0072% of secondary schools in England, so it’s difficult to claim validity, reliability, and significance for these subject reports.
Nevertheless, the subject-specific lens on education and cognitive science research linked to a variety of school findings on curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, and school systems should be useful to subject, faculty, and curriculum leaders in schools (as well as teacher-education institutions) and provide considerable guidance for their planning in the short and longer term.
The National College offers a range of webinars providing expert guidance on Ofsted’s subject reports and research reviews.
If you’re concerned about keeping up to date with the latest education policy, practice and research, consider a membership with The National College. Not only does it provide access to thousands of professional development resources for all staff, but also enables leaders to create training programmes precisely tailored to individual and collective needs, to help ensure compliance and drive up standards.
Ofsted, ‘Curriculum research: assessing intent, implementation and impact’, 2018
Ofsted, ‘Inspection methodology for the ‘quality of education’ judgement’, 2019
Ofsted, ‘Curriculum research reviews’
Ofsted, ‘Ofsted Annual Report 2019/20: education, children’s services and skills’, 2020