Teaching to the test gives pupils 'hollowed-out understanding' - Ofsted chief

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Tests and exams are becoming more important in some schools than making sure children get a good grounding in a wide range of subjects, the head of Ofsted has warned.

There are concerns that schools are focusing on preparing pupils for SATs and GCSEs at the expense of giving them a "rich and full knowledge", according to Amanda Spielman.

She argued that a good school curriculum should lead to good exam results, but that good exam results do not always mean children have received the subject knowledge they need.

Amanda Spielman
Amanda Spielman (Ofsted/PA)

In the worst cases, teaching pupils to pass tests can leave them with "a hollowed-out and flimsy understanding".

Ms Spielman's comments came as she outlined the preliminary findings of an ongoing Ofsted research project into the curriculum in England's state schools.

The study has shown that, despite the curriculum being what is actually taught to schoolchildren - the subjects and topics they learn - there is "little debate of reflection about it", the Ofsted chief inspector said, with no clear understanding of what a curriculum means.

There are three important consequences of this, Ms Spielman warned - the curriculum is narrowing is some primary schools due to a focus on preparing youngsters for their SATs at the age of 11; secondary schools are shortening Key Stage 3, which covers 11 to 14-year-olds, to allow more time for GCSE work; and low-achieving pupils are being deterred from taking core academic GCSEs in favour of qualifications that score more highly in school league tables.

She argued that there should be no tension between exam success and a good curriculum, suggesting: "A good curriculum should lead to good results. However, good examination results in of themselves don't always mean that the pupil received rich and full knowledge from the curriculum.

"In the worst cases, teaching to the test, rather than teaching the full curriculum, leaves a pupil with a hollowed-out and flimsy understanding."

In many of the primary schools visited for the study, there was some type of SATs preparation, typically from the Easter before the May tests, or sometimes the Christmas before.

But Ms Spielman said that while testing is valuable, "the regular taking of test papers does little to increase a child's ability to comprehend. A much better use of time is to teach and help children to read and read more."

Around half of the secondary schools visited had cut Key Stage 3 to two years, while further data on 171 schools found that around a quarter were asking pupils to pick their GCSE courses after two years, at the age of 13.

My new commentary on curriculum is here https://t.co/AUgz8qCnOR

-- Amanda Spielman (@amanda_spielman) October 11, 2017

"This inevitably means that a considerable number of pupils will be experiencing only two years of study before dropping, for example, history or geography or a language, possibly never to study these subjects again," Ms Spielman said.

"And for most children, the end of Key Stage 3 is the last time they will take art, music, drama or design and technology. Where Key Stage 3 is curtailed, this means ending study at age 13 rather than 14."

She also said that, in some secondary schools, the curriculum for lower-achieving pupils was often based on them taking qualifications that count in school performance tables rather than the knowledge they should be gaining.

Ms Spielman argued that the focus should be on what these pupils are learning and their progress, rather than the qualification they take.

"It should also not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils. If a pupil gains valuable knowledge, for instance in history, but does not get a grade 4, they will still be better educated for having studied it."

A new grade 4 at GCSE is equivalent to a C grade.