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James Lewis

Deputy Director of School Improvement

  • All-round Primary expert with specialist knowledge in Maths, English, History, Music and Leadership
  • Responsible for course innovation
  • Believes all education should be child-focused

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What does a good one look like? Ofsted explains what they actually want for teaching and learning

A new Ofsted blog is out, explaining their findings from three months of history subject inspections at outstanding primary schools. The blog affirms the curriculum approach that TT Education has been supporting schools to implement - you can find out more in our Raising Attainment in Primary History course - but I’m excited to explore how we can apply the ideas into other subjects, and to curriculum design more widely. The blog has six ideas in particular.

(1) Importance of rationale

Just like the national curriculum for each subject, the Ofsted blog starts with a justification for history itself. It’s not just a pleasantly ‘flowery’ opening, before we get stuck into the real substance; instead it’s a crucial part of Ofsted thinking about good lesson design. How much do we explain to children why they should listen to us, why they should learn the things we are investigating? We know that when we do so, we get better engagement and better retention of knowledge and skills, and yet often we feel rushed to get on with the ‘rest’ of the lesson. 


TT Tip: write a pithy sentence to explain why you want to teach this subject and stick it on your wall, or just below the LO on your presentation’s opening slide. Then, explain the learning objective in the context of one of the ideas in that pithy sentence. This sentence should of course link to your school values, so every bit of learning becomes an opportunity to repeat your overall curriculum rationale.

(2) ‘Long arcs’

Ofsted says the best history provision included “building blocks of progress”, what it calls “substantive concepts” like empire, tax, trade and invasion. These are often quite abstract ideas that children can only make sense of by repeatedly applying in different historical contexts. The national curriculum calls this idea a “long arc”: an aspect or theme that threads through otherwise-standalone topics. New learning is thus easier, because it builds on previous learning through one of these linking strands. (These building blocks can also make your knowledge progression more explicit, for instance: How is our understanding of “trade” more sophisticated this year, in our Victorians topic, than it was last year in our Mayans topic?

TT Tip: beyond history, the Science National Curriculum talks about “uses and implications” in science - a strand that we can revisit in each otherwise-standalone topic. In DT you could keep revisiting a discussion about ethical contexts for the products we make and study. In RE we could keep investigating attitudes to women or children in different religions and worldviews. In PE we could look at how “sportsmanship” manifests itself in each different sport or pursuit. For more ideas on this, check out our fabulous short-course The Long Arc: Escaping the Prison of Topic Based learning.

(3) Putting learning into a framework

Ofsted says they were “impressed with pupils’ chronological knowledge” which they define as “broad developments” and a “mental timeline”. When I’m training I often talk about “pub quiz level facts”, which are easily taught and easily memorised, but they don’t make you a historian; the conceptually-rich background to those facts - which could be the chronological context - is a far more interesting and creative way to make sense of the world. (For instance: knowing that Henry VIII had six wives is unimportant; the thing that matters in terms of politics, religion, constitutional legacy and long-term international relations was that he had more than one.)

Pub quiz level knowledge is mentioned in the Ofsted Handbook too (although not with that terminology!) Yes, we need to promote an “alteration in long-term memory”, but we should not get “pupils to learn glossaries or long lists of disconnected facts”. It’s vital - across all subjects - that pupils put their knowledge into a subject-specific context.

TT Tip: play That’s Quite Interesting But What’s More Interesting Is. In this game, you give the children a “pub quiz” level fact and they have to tell you something more, something deeper, something else, perhaps a bit of background - anything really, as long as it’s “more interesting” than what you said. It’s fun, because the children get to outsmart the teacher!

(4) Disciplinary knowledge

The major weakness in the history lessons inspected was, Ofsted says, the teaching of “how historians study the past and construct accounts”. As in history, so in other subjects: how much do we really know about how journalists work, before we start to teach a newspaper genre? About the work practices of physiotherapists, before we teach children stretches in PE or RHE? About the way marketing and sales reps operate, before we start to teach economics in PSHE? The scientific method and the DT design process are more familiar to us, perhaps, but what about the implications of funding on their research, and so on?

TT Tip: do a Facebook appeal for old girls / old boys to get in touch. Can they write you a quick summary of what they do in their jobs, and how they do it? Would they be willing to come into school, to explain to the children? As an added bonus, this will help raise children’s aspirations.

(5) Inappropriate tasks

What are you trying to achieve with the activity you’ve given your children? Is it “well-designed to secure pupils’ knowledge”? That must be the first priority of what we do in the classroom, and yet Ofsted says this was often not the case. They mention how one class wrote a newspaper report about the Viking invasion of England, which they describe as an “anachronistic writing task”. Yes, it would work as an English lesson, but as a history lesson?

What does this look like in other lessons? In PE, if I create a ball skills activity that is inspired by the Peruvian pastime we learnt about last week, am I teaching geography or am I teaching PE? If I ask the children to imitate an art-work by Rousseau as part of a Rainforest science topic, am I teaching science or am I teaching art? Or, perhaps, am I teaching neither particularly well because my children have to think about too many things at once?

TT Tip: try the ‘Bridge Edit’, a fabulous strategy that allows you to develop knowledge or skills in more than one subject area - without blurring the success criteria between them. It is a short bit of redrafting work, or even just a brief conversation, that “bridges” back into another subject. As an example, you might learn some history and then apply it into some writing - perhaps like the Viking newspaper idea, above. Often, as Ofsted found, the clarity and precision of history knowledge is lost as you - and the children - focus instead on English success criteria like grammar, language features, cohesion and register. The Bridge Edit comes after you’ve completely finished your English learning sequence (with its total focus on English success criteria). Then, you add that five-minute discussion, or rewriting activity, with a total focus on history success criteria instead. It might be as simple as: What word might a historian use instead of ‘impact’? It might be something longer like: Rewrite these two sentences so the Roman names are all spelled correctly. In other subjects it might be Rewrite the axes’ labels so that they’re in French. Or it might be Rewrite this paragraph so it’s arranged like a science text (e.g. swapping verbal cohesion for a colon with bullet points).

(6) Inclusion for all

I’ve deliberately put this last, because it’s often put last - that is, as a kind of afterthought. But Ofsted says SEND was “a strength in all of the schools” and that means it can never be an afterthought. The schools, Ofsted says, had a “balance [of] ambition” with “a clear understanding of the needs of their pupils”. In practical terms that meant careful support was given to help children “secure the knowledge they needed to continue to access content”. I think there is a clear implication here: this support should often be about pre-teaching, so the likely strugglers have a head-start in the lesson itself. That builds their confidence and resilience - character traits that are often in short supply.

TT Tip: ensure that you support your children before and during a lesson sequence, rather than relying on catch-up provision afterwards. Have a look at our Quality First Teaching series, particularly Part 3: Owning the Learning, which looks at more sophisticated ways of scaffolding children within a whole-cohort ‘mastery’ approach.

If you’re interested in any of the ideas mentioned here, we’d be delighted to help your school through our consultancy services, or through our training programmes, or both. Please check out for more details.


TT Education is the three-times winner of the School Improvement Provider of the Year (2018-2020).