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Why it’s time to ditch curriculum intent statements

22 January 2024

Curriculum intent statements are all the rage now. While I don’t have a problem with a course having a clear purpose and rationale, I am curious about the justification for some of the curriculum intent statements I read, and I do question whether they are a good use of time for hard-pressed teachers.

So, what’s wrong with intent statements?

Frankly, they are frequently little more than a superficial statement of the obvious. Many that I read state that the curriculum is ambitious and aims to teach students what they need to progress to their desired destinations. They often say that students will develop their personal skills and some also talk about being responsive to industry and employers’ needs. I know that may seem a bit reductive but honestly, a lot don’t go beyond that.

I am really not sure what reader is going to find such a statement useful. All it does is raise questions. What content makes this curriculum ambitious? What will students learn that will make them a good candidate for a job or higher level course? What are they going to be taught that develops personal skills and characteristics such as resilience, self-confidence and values? How will their progress be assessed?

I know that many leaders have Ofsted inspectors in mind when they ask teachers to write an intent statement, but in reality, inspectors should not ask for them. In a 2019 blog Heather Fearn, Ofsted’s curriculum lead, said: “There’s no need to write new statements, adapt websites or restructure staffing to cover intent”. Ofsted inspections are stressful enough without producing paperwork that adds little value to students and is not required by inspectors. Inspectors have plenty of ways of finding out about intent without reading intent statements.

I think it’s more valuable to think about what curriculum intent actually is. I spend quite a bit of time training teachers and managers on the principles of effective curricula. At some point during the day we usually discuss intent, implementation and impact. When we talk about intent, everyone talks about intended destinations, but I also encourage them to talk about the content of the course that prepares students for those destinations.

Content is the very essence of intent. Ofsted’s first bullet about intent in the inspection handbook (before the Education Inspection Framework no-one had heard of ‘intent’ so it is right that we refer to the handbook) states that “inspectors will explore how leaders have ensured that a subject curriculum includes content that has been identified as most useful…”

Now that’s a valuable thing to talk about. If leaders check that the content of a course is useful, it implies they are asking incisive questions about employer links, teachers’ knowledge and expertise, the students’ prior learning, resources and job outcomes, and progression of previous students – all of which should inform the content of a curriculum.

The bullet goes on to talk about whether the teaching enables students to “acquire the intended knowledge, skills and behaviours”, which again focuses on content. So, this means leaders need to make sure their teachers have the planning skills to construct a curriculum around these. Leaders should also establish a culture in which planning and teaching go beyond a syllabus. This leads to curricula that include the personal skills students need to develop, incorporate the expectations of a specific industry and teach all the other content that makes an ambitious, exciting and valuable programme of study.

In short, intent is everything that informs the content of a curriculum. To express so much in a short statement is not possible, so it’s not surprising that many of these statements are superficial and of little value to any reader.

Intent is not new. It’s the latest manifestation of an enduring principle: a course must be planned using subject and pedagogical knowledge, research, insight and creativity. Truly ambitious organisations, that are confident in their curriculum planning and evaluation, know this. Organisations that are not yet confident in their curriculum planning skills would do well to focus on developing these and recognise intent statements as the distraction that they are.

So don’t write woolly statements of curriculum intent. Always think of content when you consider intent and remember, a buzzword is no substitute for high quality curriculum planning.

Steven Tucker was a full-time further education inspector in Ofsted for 10 years. During this time, he held national lead posts for curriculum and 16 to 19 programmes and led the training of HMI and Ofsted inspectors in the FE sector.

Steven is leading the AoC Ofsted College and Skills Nominee Masterclasses taking place in March 2024. To book a place, please click here.