Published on: 16 Nov 2018

Building the right foundations

By Hilary Fine, Head of Product, GL Assessment

Following the 2017 Key Stage 2 National Tests, I was told of a teacher lamenting the fact that the word ‘monarch’ appeared on the spelling test even though it didn’t appear on the National Curriculum word lists. Yet as both the word and the concept of ‘monarch’ are covered in the KS2 National Curriculum for History, it follows that children would have encountered and been familiar with the word, had the school included it in their wider curriculum. 

We continue to hear of schools who are narrowing the curriculum to focus only on what is tested in the KS2 SATs or starting to focus on GCSE knowledge and skills from Year 7 rather in the recommended Year 10. The intention, of course, is that this practice will improve outcomes for the school.

In her recent blog on Ofsted’s research into curriculum in schools, Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman notes that there is too much emphasis on exam preparation at the expense of a wide curriculum – and teachers and parents appear to agree.

According to two YouGov polls commissioned by GL Assessment, teachers and parents say that they are becoming increasingly concerned that exam pressures are forcing schools to offer a limited, bare-bones education as they start prepping pupils at younger and younger ages. Nine in ten teachers (90%) think too many schools are pressuring teachers to concentrate on an exam-driven syllabus to the exclusion of the wider curriculum.

Commenting on these findings, Geoff Barton, General Secretary of ASCL, called for GCSEs to be put back in their place “as the outcome of a broad and rich secondary education, and not the wheel on which everything turns. It is vital to preserve the early years of secondary education as a time when children build the firm foundations and love of subjects upon which academic success and their life chances are built.”

Stephen Tierney, CEO of Blessed Edward Bamber Multi-Academy Trust and Chair of Headteachers’ Roundtable, also points out that broadening the curriculum from primary schools through Key Stage 3 would benefit our most disadvantaged pupils, too, by providing them with “the secure foundations – academic, personal and social – on which success in important GCSE exams and life beyond can be built.”

The fact that, in some schools, it is disadvantaged children who are being offered the narrowed down curriculum is something the Ofsted research has identified. Zoya Wallington, Director of Impact at Right to Succeed, shares these concerns: “The children most at risk are those with the most to gain from a positive school experience.”

Our YouGov poll found that 87% of teachers believe that teaching a more rounded curriculum from a young age would better prepare children for later academic success, while 91% believe a more rounded curriculum better prepares them for life after school. Parents echo those beliefs, with 76% and 78% respectively agreeing.

By its nature, a national test - be it KS2 SATs or GCSEs - can only ever assess a sample of what has been taught and learned. If the curriculum is narrowed by teaching to the test, the foundations on which to build future success are not being established as the educational experience is thin and insubstantial for this purpose.

Ofsted’s research findings point to the need for a well-constructed curriculum in which children are taught clearly defined knowledge and skills at each particular stage, and that planned, intelligent repetition of content or retrieval practices (such as quizzing) are used to promote the acquisition of core knowledge and skills. Good assessment goes hand-in-hand with this, helping schools to evaluate their curriculum, measure students’ progress and identify the children who need more support or greater challenge.

Ensuring children experience a wider curriculum of subject content and wider life experiences (not least through school trips) also provide increased and varied opportunities for developing vocabulary, which Ofsted identifies as critical to academic success. In this context, I would hope that the teacher I first mentioned would have felt less perplexed by the fact that the spelling test contained the word ‘monarch’. 

Follow Hilary on Twitter @Hilsary