Ice Ice Baby: curriculum beneath the surface

I am worried. There’s an iceberg ahead.  We can see it approaching – it’s been coming for some time – but we mistake it for something it resembles rather than the thing itself. We regard only its surface features and we miss the hulking mass below the waterline.

Just as the classic iceberg metaphor reminds us that what we see above the surface is only a small proportion of the entire mass, I think a danger with much of the focus on curriculum is that we miss the big principles going on beneath the more commonplace talk about specific tools such as knowledge organisers and cognitive science (as helpful as they might be). In this piece I want to take a view from the bridge, outline why I think we’re in dangerous waters, and the course we need to plot to find our way out safely.

The view from the bridge

We’re halfway through the first year of Ofsted’s new inspection framework. It was always going to be a challenging passage for HMS Curriculum. It’s no surprise that we’ve seen some schools reaching for the ‘strategies’ and ‘approaches’ that appear to have impressed inspectors at the school down the road. But, particularly in the curriculum arena, this risks an unhelpful superficiality that steers us towards mimicry rather than embedded understanding and agency.

Meaningful and sustainable change requires a long-term commitment to building curriculum expertise and shared understanding. Just yesterday I read a superb post from Alex Quigley which outlines how difficult it can be to really move staff on in their thinking. It can often seem like a rubber band pulls us perpetually back towards our old beliefs, intuitions and practices.

But what are those currents of thinking that, no matter how hard we steer, seem to pull us back towards the iceberg? If we can see it more clearly we have a better chance of avoiding a collision. I’ve done a little work on this and offer a few tentative insights below.

Beneath the surface

Firstly, I wanted to get hold of some sort of summary of how a sample of schools think about curriculum. If only schools had written some sort of concise statement of their curriculum intent…hang on a minute…

Remember those ‘intent statements’ that lots of schools wrote even though Ofsted didn’t want them? Well, it turns out I could put them to use even if Ofsted won’t. A quick Google search brought up a range of intent statements written by primary schools and secondary schools. I randomly chose 5 primary and 5 secondary (I know, not a large sample, but bear with me).

Using insight from Maton and Chen’s (2016) essay on enacting Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) in qualitative research, I looked at the underlying ‘coding orientations’ of the intent statements. LCT asserts that all knowledge practices, of which curriculum design is one, are inherently concerned with the legitimization of knowledge. This is achieved through two means:

  • How knowledge relates to knowledge (epistemic relations). What matters is what you know.
  • How knowledge relates to people (social relations). What matters is who you are.

Strong social relations (SR+) can be seen in statements that emphasise that legitimate curriculum content should be derived from the interests, aptitudes and contexts of pupils. Such statements tacitly assert that particular pupils with particular characteristics, for example their socio-economic background, should learn particular curriculum content.

For example, when describing their curriculum some schools said things like:

  • “allow flexibility to meet the needs of each student.”
  • “ensuring relevance.”
  • “opportunities to make full use of their skills, qualities and attributes.”
  • “we discussed our pupils’ backgrounds, life and cultural experiences and this has helped us to design a curriculum that meets their needs.”

Weaker social relations (SR-) can be seen in statements that downplay the importance of personal characteristics and attributes as the basis of content selection.

Strong epistemic relations (ER+) can be seen in statements that emphasise that legitimate content is derived from its relation to other knowledge, usually the specialized knowledge of subject disciplines.

For example, when describing their curriculum some schools said things like:

  • “knowledge-based curriculum, empowering students to develop an understanding and appreciation of the subjects they study.”
  • “In maths we follow a mastery approach.”
  • “we believe that knowing more words makes you smarter.”

Weaker epistemic relations (ER-) can be seen in statements that downplay the significance of specialized subject knowledge and emphasise generic learning goals, such as soft skill development.

It’s important to know that ER and SR are not in opposition to each other. Some schools which emphasised social relations also emphasised epistemic relations, Equally, a couple of schools didn’t emphasise either. Rather, LCT encourages a rounded view that defies false dichotomies. It encourages us to think about relative strengths of ER+/- and SR+/-. Plotting these allows us to identify particular ‘coding orientations’ and compare and contrast and how schools think about the curriculum, at least as far as their ‘intent statement’ reveals. It is also crucial to understand this analysis is relational, not about absolutes. In this analysis, whether a school’s ER is quite as strong as I’ve interpreted it is not the point, it’s about looking at how schools compare, and they compare with Ofsted’s orientation.

What was really interesting was that schools (primary = blue, green = secondary) tended to emphasise social relations and downplay epistemic relations, particularly in the primary phase. In effect, this suggests their rationale for curriculum design was more about matching contents to the perceived characteristics of pupils than about the structured development of specialized subject knowledge. Two schools emphasised both, but the other eight played down the importance of specialized subject knowledge, focusing more on generic learning goals.

But it gets even more interesting when you apply the same analysis to Ofsted’s curriculum thinking. I looked at three of Ofsted’s important documents on curriculum:

  • Blog on curriculum intent by Heather Fearn
  • Section on ‘intent’ in the handbook
  • Intent criteria in the quality of education judgement

Ofsted’s documents (red dots) showed a much greater emphasis on epistemic relations, expressed through an explicit focus on the structured acquisition of specialized subject knowledge. Quite a different vibe to much of what the 10 schools had written.

So what?

I think this very small-scale analysis, if replicated more widely, could help to explain why it feels like there is curriculum collision of sorts taking place. The Ofsted iceberg seems to be built on underlying principles that are significantly different to the way the curriculum is being steered in some schools. That’s about something deeper than knowledge organisers and recall activities.

I’ve written previously about the paradigm shift taking place in the education system and suggested ofsted’s new framework seems to represent more of a ‘knowledge code’ than a ‘knower code’. There are good reasons why Ofsted’s new framework is oriented in this way, partly because it builds on insights from cognitive science, but also because it aligns inspection with the approach taken in the national curriculum: ‘the best that’s been thought and said.’ It establishes subject disciplines as being at the heart of how we select curriculum content, putting important specialised knowledge at the centre of what it means to teach a quality curriculum and making this an entitlement of all pupils.

The analysis of three key Ofsted documents certainly seems consistent with this emphasis on epistemic relations: a knowledge code. However, on the basis of the (limited number of) school intent statements I looked at, it seems some schools are in a different place – perhaps, understandably, where they’ve been for some time: a knower code.

I offer a few tentative observations:

  • Some (lots?) schools are thinking about curriculum in a fundamentally different way to Ofsted. To use Michael Young’s terminology, it appears as though some schools continue to be working within a ‘future 2’ paradigm which favours generic learning goals over development of specialized knowledge. This is potentially problematic as it risks eroding the notion of curriculum entitlement and equity. Personalizing the curriculum seems intuitively attractive for many teachers, but as Young points out it can come at a cost if it means we don’t take pupils beyond their own experience. Moving some schools beyond this embedded way of thinking is going to take a huge and sustained effort.
  • Ofsted is not operating in a ‘future 2’ paradigm (whether it is working within future 1 or future 3 is up for debate). There is a premium placed on the development of specialized subject knowledge.
  • This creates a potential clash.
  • Schools have to better understand the fundamentals of their approach (and Ofsted’s too).
  • That the Ofsted framework has been described as being secondary-oriented is perhaps missing the point. It’s less about the framework being deliberately geared towards a particular phase and more about it being concerned with the development of specialized knowledge. It just so happens that this might be more relatable for some secondaries (as my limited study suggests). This is an important distinction as it suggests that secondaries too might find friction with the new Ofsted framework if they do not have a good grasp of the specialized knowledge they want pupils to acquire.
  • These intent statements might, however, bear no relation to what’s going on in the classroom. But in itself that is interesting and potentially worrying. What would it be like to work in a school where there wasn’t an informed and aligned understanding of curriculum?

What needs to be done?

  • Teachers must know the stuff of their subject. Schools must make it a priority to give time and support to teachers to discuss, share and develop their sense of subject. This will mean scaling back in other areas. As Alex Quigley reminds us though, curriculum time on its own won’t be enough. We need to consider teacher development and resources too. Some of the best work I’ve seen has been in subject networks which collectively address issues of curriculum, pedagogy and subject knowledge. Access to development through such networks, sustained over time, seems to me to be a good bet and an area where the school system has success in pockets (such as in some Trusts). This needs to be extended.
  • This will require the funding and resource to make it happen. As Michael Young (2018) points out, a high quality knowledge-rich curriculum for all is a high-resource curriculum. Schools must have the means of realising this ambition.
  • Schools need to actively consider and shape the underlying beliefs and principles that underpin their curriculum. Some habits of thinking may have to be challenged; to use the old writer’s idiom, they may need to ‘kill their darlings’. Schools need to take this on explicitly to reduce the subconscious drift back to old habits. It’s not about ripping it all up for the sake of it, however, and throwing out the baby with the bathwater. It’s more about clarity.
  • This doesn’t mean schools need to enact a reductive vision of curriculum or pedagogy. Emphasizing the importance of specialized knowledge does not mean the knower must be ignored, that their needs or talents are overlooked or that the curriculum can’t be engaging for pupils. It is about making sure the subject itself is primarily the route we are following. Again, making this stuff explicit with teachers might be helpful. What is up for grabs? What isn’t?
  • Ofsted must think about how it supports the system as it acclimatises to a different way of thinking about what should/shouldn’t be included in the curriculum. The problem with a high stakes accountability system is that it incentivises people to reach for quick fix surface features rather than grappling with the underlying issues. Ofsted has to make sure it does not inadvertently go too far too quickly or the gap between it and many schools will simply become too far to bridge. The extension of the transition arrangements for a further year is welcome in this regard. Inspectors on the ground have to be able to spot the difference between surface features and deep understanding.
  • There is one curious paradox at the heart of Ofsted’s thinking. As I’ve written about previously, the reference to ‘cultural capital’ risks undermining the notion of entitlement to powerful knowledge and usurping it with the imitation of elite culture. This is certainly not Ofsted’s intent but there is the risk that inspectors on the ground confuse the ‘best that’s been thought and said’ with something else entirely (anyone for croquet?!). Ofsted needs to watch this very carefully.
  • We need a shared way of talking about and thinking about the curriculum, and some models of how the curriculum might be enacted to embody particular principles. It is curious that some schools have gone to the effort of writing curriculum intent statements, ostensibly for the benefit of Ofsted, but have written something that might not actually align well with Ofsted’s conception of curriculum quality. Is this a deliberate act of rebellion or, more likely, is it because there is a lack of alignment and/or clarity in curriculum thinking?
  • What does curriculum-led school improvement look like? Leaders must have a clearer idea of ‘if I steer the ship in this direction, this is likely to happen.’ This is especially important for schools needing significant improvement.
  • We’ve got to get all of the above off the pages of blogs and tweets and into conversations in schools. We know the tweeting and blogging world is its own microclimate. How do we take ideas further? We can all help to make that happen by taking these conversations offline too and talking it over at the SLT table or in subject teams etc.

So, there you have it. Some tentative thoughts based on a very limited analysis of ten intent statements and a handful of Ofsted documents! I’m not claiming the evidence is overwhelming, more flagging a potential issue.

It does appear that schools may still need to grapple a bit more with the underlying principles that inform curriculum design, starting with fundamentals about how we select content. My worry is that if schools don’t do this the current of habit will pull them back to Young’s ‘future 2’. That’s probably not good for kids (especially the most disadvantaged) and, with Ofsted’s knowledge-rich iceberg looming, a bit risky for schools too.


Maton, K. and Chen, T-H. (2016) LCT in qualitative research: creating a transition device for studying constructivist pedagogy. In Maton et al (2016) Knowledge-building. Educational Studies in Legitimation Code Theory. Routledge. Oxfordshire.

Young, M. (2018) A knowledge-led curriculum: pitfalls and possibilities. Impact


  1. You say “Teachers must know the stuff of their subject” but this is very much a secondary viewpoint which kind of proves the point that people keep making about the EIF being secondary focused. Primary teachers teach all subjects – “their subject” is not a thing except for where they are a subject lead – and they will often teach in cross curricular ways. Indeed it has been said that the ‘subject’ of primary is child development, a subject which is of crucial importance and is so often overlooked within the current system.


    • Hi Sue, thanks for the message – really appreciate it. I am trying to outline what I think is going on underneath it all. I am saying Ofsted’s framework seems a bit ER+, which arguably happens to be more commonplace in secondary. But if secondaries didn’t teach a curriculum that emphasized specialized knowledge I think they’d find Ofsted at odds with them. So, describing it as a secondary framework disguises the underlying issue.

      I don’t disagree that creating a curriculum that emphasizes epistemic relations in a primary setting might be more difficult. But what is our response to that? Is that just an Ofsted thing, or are there other ways of looking at the problem?

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s