Ofsted · pedagogy

On Ofsted and policy: a confusion of knowledge


I previously wrote about a knowledge policy discourse in education dismissing thinking skills. At worst it conflates knowledge with thinking; at best it pays lip service to “thinking skills” and creativity.

It is not necessarily surprising, policymakers and their SpAds have to stitch together a coherent policy narrative that makes sense to a wider audience than just educationalists, but it does not necessarily translate into practice. VAK learning styles was a policy tool that sounded great in general discourse, but cannot be enacted in classrooms.

The knowledge policy discourse  advances a position defining learning in terms of knowledge and long-term memory (LTM). I referred to Ofsted’s definition of learning “(…) an alteration in long-term memory. If nothing has altered in long-term memory, nothing has been learned” and revealed its roots in academic research.

In this blog, I describe the impact of it on learning. I refer to a speech made by Her Majesties Chief Inspector at the Royal Opera House because it highlights the confusion that surrounds knowledge in education.

The emergence of knowledge as thinking

I don’t think it’s controversial to say that most people can differentiate between thinking and knowledge. Increasingly, in education, it seems not to be the case.

Ofsted’s definition of learning emerged from a group of influential cognitive psychologists and instructional designers translating cognitive science into educational practice. Psychologist Professor DT Willingham says things like “the brain is not designed for thinking”.

Instructional designer, John Sweller, goes a step further suggesting amongst other things that knowledge indicates how information should be processed:

“Knowledge in long-term memory provides a central executive that indicates (1) what should be attended to, (2) how information should be processed and (3) what actions should be taken. Failing knowledge, a viable central executive is not available.”

Sweller argues knowledge in LTM acts as both the how and what of thinking. In my view, this has morphed into a conflation of the how and what of learning.

According to HMCI, even creative thinking depends upon knowledge:

“(…) ‘the development of creativity in any subject requires deep subject knowledge and understanding as well as the development of skills that enable the application of this knowledge and understanding.”

It conflates expertise with creativity. Expertise requires a lot of knowledge, but creativity does not. As  Ed Hirsch suggests:

“How much do I really need to know about DNA in order to comprehend a Newspaper text directed to the common reader?”

The answer Hirsch gives: “not much”. The average reader can make inferences from a limited body of knowledge and think creatively on the issue.

According to the knowledge policy discourse, thinking and knowledge are either the same, or the former is so dependent upon the latter they are to all intents and purposes the same. It is hard to escape the conclusion that a discourse in cognitive science about the role of memory in executive function, which makes sense has transferred into education where it doesn’t; regardless, it is influential and has ramifications.

A confusion of knowledge

Putting aside this rather confused definition of how we learn; it’s worth pondering whether there is any clarity about what we learn. Echoing the sentiments of two influential theorists, Ed Hirsch and Michael Young, HMCI argues that:

“No single piece of this knowledge is categorised as essential, yet we all know that the more of this you have, the better equipped you are. This isn’t about prioritising one culture over others or about being the arbiters of taste. It’s about making sure that all children have lots of opportunities to add to what they’re likely to learn at home or from their peer group.”

I wonder who argued that single pieces of knowledge are essential. Perhaps, HMCI is referring to the core knowledge lists arbitrated by Ed Hirsch, which purport to constitute the essential cultural knowledge young people need to engage successfully in society. HMCI states that it is not about being an arbiter of taste or prioritising culture.

The passage also has echoes of Michael Young, who derides such lists. Young advocates powerful knowledge, which is the knowledge produced by specialist fields (e.g. Physics or History) in academic institutions or professional bodies as opposed to the everyday knowing students, “are likely to learn at home”. Young offers an explanation of the disciplinary knowledge and epistemic perspectives that produce knowledge in those fields, which at least offers a view that could preclude the need for cultural arbitration. If this is HMCI’s position, it could make sense.

However, HMCI then cites Bourdieu:

“I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the Bourdieu definition of the term, cultural capital. In our EIF handbook, what we say about cultural capital is taken from the national curriculum, the government’s policy instrument: it is “the essential knowledge that pupils need to be educated citizens, introducing them to the best that has been thought and said and helping to engender an appreciation of human creativity and achievement”.

In a seeming volte-face, HMCI argues that pupils need knowledge to become educated citizens quoting Mathew Arnold’s “the best that has been thought and said”. It begs the question of how such a canon could be agreed without arbitration. Moreover, who decides the cultural content of such a canon? It most certainly isn’t Young’s position and, in my mind, it makes no sense.

Young offers a way forward with powerful knowledge, based upon disciplinary knowledge and epistemic perspective, but HMCI drops down the black hole of a cultural canon for no apparent reason. It is, to say the least, a confusing position to adopt and you wonder why anyone would adopt it?

The capital of the cultured

The answer seems to reside in the view that more knowledge equates to more cultural capital. Citing Bourdieu, HMCI asks the question:  “what is wrong with believing in the power of education?”:

“The Bourdieu legacy tends to lead some people to think that cultural capital is therefore bad. In fact, he recognised its value, but he was pessimistic in thinking that education can’t make a difference. Where we depart from Bourdieu today is that we believe education is transformative and contributes to pupils’ ability to flourish in society and to be socially mobile: what’s wrong with believing in the power of education?”

The answer is nothing if you don’t pretend it can resolve the structural inequalities in society. Education is a hierarchical structure that purports to imbue those who enter it with cultural capital according to their ability; however, going to Oxbridge accrues cultural capital precisely because most people don’t go. Bourdieu concerned himself with how society is structured; neither he nor his followers thought cultural capital was “bad”; rather, that its purpose is to delineate social stratification.

Education cannot imbue students with cultural capital for two reasons: (1) its primary purpose is to categorise students in terms their ability and (2) generic knowledge and skills do not constitute cultural capital. In fact, the argument presented by HMCI is considerably closer to Hirsch’s cultural literacy than Bourdieu’s cultural capital.

Basil Bernstein argued in the 1970s, “education cannot compensate for society”; I would add the caveat “as it currently exists”. Claiming it can when it can’t is just an argument against structural change. Cultural capital is not what we know, but what we know that others don’t.


In amongst all this confusion is a purposeful policy narrative. Young’s powerful knowledge has considerable potential; however, poorly understand it can contribute to the conflation of the how and what of learning; nonetheless, epistemic perspectives and disciplinary approaches are fundamental to understanding how subject experts generate and curate knowledge.

Knowledge is not a static cultural canon based on the past, but the living landscape upon, which we construct our cultural lives. It’s true, you need cultural literacy to engage successfully in society, but Bourdieu also has a point; education affords individuals with cultural capital precisely because it is hierarchical and elitist. How do you square the circle?

Finally, cognitive science has much to offer educational theory, but only if rooted in solid theory and not a discourse generated from a patchwork quilt of experimental methods that conflate knowledge and biological function. The cognitive tail should not be wagging the educational dog; knowledge is not the same as thinking nor is it a biological function.

Sadly, the confusion generated by the knowledge policy discourse leaves people like me arguing against the quality of the arguments; rather than, the direction of travel.  It would not take much to cohere a powerful policy perspective focusing on knowledge, but currently, it is mostly just confused.

Perhaps, the underlying lesson to be learned is that the sense making of policymakers, when constructing a policy discourse, cannot easily be translated into the actions of a standards agency.


Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power Harvard University Press. Cambridge MA.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice (Vol. 16). Cambridge university press.

Hardman, M. (2019). Ghosts in the Curriculum—Reframing Concepts as Multiplicities. Journal of Philosophy of Education53(2), 273-292.

Hirsch, E. D. (1983). Cultural literacy. The American Scholar, 159-169.

Hirsch, E. D., Kett, J. F., & Trefil, J. S. (2002). The new dictionary of cultural literacy. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

White, J. (2012). Powerful knowledge: Too weak a prop for the traditional curriculum. New Visions for Education Group14.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school?: A cognitive scientist answers questions about how the mind works and what it means for the classroom. John Wiley & Sons.

Young, M., & Muller, J. (2013). On the powers of powerful knowledge. Review of education1(3), 229-250.

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