Archive for the ‘Commentary’ Category


An OFSTED Round Up

April 2, 2014

I’m afraid I have rather neglected my blog during this last half term. Some of this has been due to the distractions of ordinary life, but a lot of it has been due to taking some of the opportunities that have come up as a result of blogging. There will be various announcements to come, but one that is relevant to this post, was my brief interview about OFSTED, from the weekend before last, on the Chalk Talk Podcast, which can be found here.

Hopefully, I will now be able to return to regular blogging, but inevitably I will recommence blogging with some comments and news about OFSTED. There’s been a few developments worth noting or commenting on.

1) Bloggers (but not me) meeting OFSTED

A delegation of bloggers were invited in to meet Mike Cladingbowl, OFSTED’s director of schools, in half term. Their accounts can be found below:

I can’t fault those they invited, and I’m particularly happy to see Shena there who, while probably less well-known than the others, has been invaluable to me (and no doubt to many others) in pointing out certain OFSTED developments. But, I’m not going to let false modesty (or any other kind) stop me making the obvious gripe that I wasn’t invited. David commented that:

We have tentatively agreed that a further meeting would be a positive step. Several of us raised the glaring absence of the education blogger most synonymous with holding Ofsted to account. Like Banquo’s ghost, Old Andrew palpably haunted the meeting somewhat. We were told that Ofsted were wary of engaging with anonymous bloggers but now that Andrew has revealed his secret identity in a recent Radio 4 interview maybe they can see their way clear to inviting him (and very possibly others) next time.

I can’t help but point out that it is a little difficult to accept that OFSTED were unaware that I was no longer anonymous, given that the Radio 4 interview David mentioned was actually part of a programme about OFSTED.

That said, I’m slightly more positive about what transpired than many have been. While a good number of people have made comments to me along the lines of “who are OFSTED trying to kid with this stunt?”, it does sound as if Mike Cladingbowl is doing something important. The accounts suggest that he is, as far as I can tell, actually following the same line as the Chief Inspector. My past experience of OFSTED employees was that they simply ignored everything that Michael Wilshaw said about schools, so I’ll happily take that as progress. The other positive development was the announcement (first at the meeting then in this document) that inspectors shouldn’t be grading individual lessons. Graded observations have been key to the enforcement of the “OFSTED teaching style” and this could make a huge difference. Although, it also raises the rather obvious question as to why OFSTED’s director of schools was completely oblivious to how inspectors have actually been operating.

2) The Policy Exchange report “Watching the Watchmen”.

This can be found here. I rate it highly, simply because it seems to focus on what I, and I think many teachers, see as the key issues. It discusses the saga of the “OFSTED teaching style”, (with my NUT article quoted as a source). It criticises the unaccountable nature of the inspectors and, particularly, the arms length employment of most of them through private companies. It also highlights the unreliable nature of lesson observations. All of these have been common enough topics on social media, and among teachers, but the reaction to the report suggests that this report has indicated them to a much wider audience. That said, the most prominently discussed proposals were those aimed at reducing the burden of inspection on “good” schools. I am not particularly convinced that this will help matters. The issues with OFSTED are to do with the unfair and unaccountable nature of their decisions, and the absurd nature of the incentives they provide, and while many critics of OFSTED are reluctant to emphasise this point, this is as much a problem with declaring the unacceptable to be good as with attacking the excellent.

3) Michael Wilshaw’s ASCL apeech

This can be found here. Again, the proposals for less inspection of “good” schools, similar to the Policy Exchange proposals, got the most publicity. What interested me most were the remarks about the private companies involved in inspection:

…Ofsted needs to undertake a root and branch review of outsourced inspection. Inspection, as far as I’m concerned, is just too important for Ofsted to simply have oversight of third party arrangements.

The tendering for the contracts is up for renewal fairly soon and I’ll make my decision about the future of outsourced inspection when that time comes.

There are a number of other suggestions and observations that suggest the Chief Inspector is finally grasping the nature of the organisation he is attempting to lead. That said, I think Rob Peal has it about right here in pointing out that he seemed to deny the very problems which elsewhere he had promised to address.

4) Tribal’s letter to inspectors

This can be found on John Bald’s blog here and I suggest reading it. If genuine (and I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t be) it would indicate that Tribal, a Regional Inspection Provider, is sufficiently worried about scrutiny from above leading to financial penalties, to warn its inspection teams to do everything by the book. In practice, this could mean even more in the way of check-lists and bureaucracy and I’d be amazed if OFSTED did have the nerve to stand up to a contractor, but it would seem to indicate that a shift in power is occurring in OFSTED and the centre is now asserting itself. As ever, it does nothing to reverse the damage already done, but at least it provides some indicator about a seriousness of intent within OFSTED’s leadership.

5) Civitas Call for Evidence

The think tank Civitas are interested in hearing (in confidence) from people who have been inspected since last December who can answer the following questions:

• Were particular teaching styles criticised or praised in your written inspection report?

• Were particular teaching styles criticised or praised in your verbal feedback?

• Have you being told by senior leaders or CPD providers to teach in a certain style to suit Ofsted?

• Were you graded on the basis of an individual lesson, as opposed to a wide variety of evidence?

If you are able to help, then there are full details here.


OFSTED Go Mad In Coventry

March 3, 2014

I’m a bit overwhelmed with things to do at the moment, so I was planning to hold off on the blogging for a few weeks. But I can’t hold back as this is on my own doorstep. Two schools in my home city of Coventry (one ten minutes walk from my house) have had inspection reports published recently. Both are worth noting.

Firstly, we have Cardinal Wiseman Catholic School. This report is notable for the extent to which the inspectors ignore everything they have been told. I’ll quickly run through the background for anyone new to this blog, or this issue. In December, OFSTED put out guidance saying:

 Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.

We then saw a period where reports that contradicted this were held up or rewritten, and a few weeks later, Sir Michael Wilshaw told inspectors:

I still see inspection reports, occasionally from HMI, which ignore this and earlier guidance and, irritatingly, give the impression that we are still telling teachers how to teach. Let me give you a few examples from recent reports I have just read:

‘Teaching will improve if more time is given to independent learning’…

…, inspectors should report on the outcomes of teaching rather than its style. So please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.

Yet what do we have in the report for Cardinal Wiseman? Well, it was originally published on the 7 February, long after all these warnings, and has been republished since, yet it manages to include the following:

Students sometimes rely too much on their teachers and do not help themselves to learn…

What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve the quality of teaching and students’ achievement, particularly for the more able, for pupils eligible for the pupil premium, and in mathematics, by… helping students develop their skills in learning independently…

The quality of teaching requires improvement… In less effective lessons there is often a passive attitude from students…

Teachers do not encourage students to think things through for themselves and to turn to each other before looking to adults for support. As a consequence, students often rely too much on teachers for help…. In the best lessons, teachers provide activities that motivate and engage students and encourage them to take an active part in their learning.

Once again, the Chief Inspector has been ignored by the inspectors on the ground. Of course, while it is notable that this is still going on, we have seen this countless times before. The other report from Coventry, that of Blue Coat School, raised entirely different issues, some of which can be found  in this newspaper article or this letter from the headteacher. Roughly speaking, this school has absolutely great results (best in the city in most respects) but has been graded as “Requires Improvement” because the relatively small number of FSM children at the school have, despite doing well, not done as spectacularly well as the non-FSM meals students.

Now this school is known to be one of the best there is in the area, and had been “outstanding” previously. Rumour has it, it’s a school that OFSTED inspectors have been known to send their own children to. While closing the gap between FSM and non-FSM students is important, an OFSTED grade of “Requires Improvement” becomes meaningless if it ignores the great success of the majority of students in the school, and only pays attention to a minority of students. It becomes more than meaningless, but actually ridiculous, if the minority whose results do count are judged, not by the standards of other schools, but by the high standards of the school. In effect, it tells schools that they can do badly in OFSTED if the majority of their students do too well. Rumours from the school involve inspectors who, when observing lessons, were only interested in what FSM pupils did. None of these inspectors appear to be HMI. If this is what OFSTED’s emphasis on “closing the gap” amounts to, it’s as destructive to schools as any of their other demands.


How the tide has turned…

February 17, 2014

I’ll admit before I begin that this is simply how it seems to me and I’m more than willing to accept the unreliability of my recollections before I begin.

For the first few years of blogging, up to at least 5 years ago, the most common complaint (aside from the accusation that I hate kids, of course) were that I was the only one with my opinions and what I said was utterly unacceptable. I should stop expressing it. The evidence was all against me. Sometimes people would even quote from the latest government or OFSTED approved documents to demonstrate that my values were incompatible with what we were supposed to be doing and I should leave the profession. There was a right way to do things and, as could be deduced from the word “old” in my username, I was a relic of a bygone era resisting the modern world and there was nothing to debate.

Perhaps about 3 years ago, it became accepted that other teachers, perhaps staffroom moaners, had my opinions, but that anything I described was rare and what was being said was unrepresentative of what was happening in schools. In particular I remember being taken to task at about that time for suggesting that teachers found INSETs boring and had little respect for consultants, something which, if you read teachers on Twitter last September, cannot now possibly be doubted. My views were a curiosity, but even if offensive they weren’t necessarily unprofessional and people did start referring to me. But I should realise that it is unhelpful to be negative about anything in teaching and show more respect for the true experts and do nothing to divide the profession. My arguments were interesting, but there was no need for a wider debate and certainly no need to criticise (except, of course, if the object of criticism were politicians, as they really didn’t understand anything).

About a year ago, and for many months afterwards, I became used to the accusation that I was leading a “gang”. That there were a small number of teachers who agreed with me, who were, nevertheless vocal on social media,  and we were teaming up too much to promote our views and argue our case. One complaint was that too many of “the gang” were youngsters who had less than five years teaching experience and didn’t really understand what was happening. We were being cocky and arrogant, and didn’t know our place in thinking we should try to persuade our betters that things could be changed for the better. Debate was, of course, to be welcomed, but we had to respect the authority and expertise of those we wished to challenge.

Now? What do I hear now? Well the most common complaint is that nobody really disagrees. The noise from me is all just straw men and being argumentative for the sake of it. Nobody really doubts the essential points in what I’ve been saying, I’m just failing to understand the nuances of other people’s positions. And partly this problem is because, from our position of great power on social media, people like me are oppressing and silencing opposition. We dictate how to teach and intimidate opposing views. We keep trying to push what the evidence says (presumably not the same evidence which 5 years ago proved I was wrong) rather than respecting the diversity of individual approaches. If anything, I need to be taken down a peg or two.

Now is this progress? Is this the tide turning? I like to think so, but the weight of opinion in social media is not the weight of opinion in the system. Apart from the influence of the same old progressive ideology in schools, universities and among the inspectorate, it also seems likely that whatever new institutions are set up, from new ways of training teachers, to a College of Teachers, will also be used to push that agenda given half a chance. Progressive teaching will not go away. As Hannah Arendt claimed about the apparent retreat of progressive education in the 1950s:

…a reversal will never bring us anywhere except to the same situation out of which the crisis has just arisen. The return would simply be a repeat performance–though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.

The same old battles will still have to be fought. But, in relatively few years, the advocates of progressive education on social media have gone from proclaiming the obvious unacceptability of the opposing view, to fretting that they are being marginalised by the “pedagogy police“. It would be great to see a similar shift in the arguments in schools where, in too many cases, the same old certainties still hold sway.


That Gove/Wilshaw Spat

February 13, 2014

Yesterday, Michael Wilshaw was quizzed by the House of Commons Education Committee. You can find the full footage here.

One of the issues which came up was the report in the Sunday Times, from a couple of weeks ago, based around an interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw where he had apparently complained of attacks by those with some connection to Michael Gove. This split lead to a lot of confusion among those who were unaware of the issues around OFSTED. Wilshaw’s explanation, was reported by the BBC as follows:

Sir Michael told the committee he had been furious when, in a response in the Sunday Times, he had blamed Mr Gove’s aides for briefing on it.

Asked by Education Select Committee chairman Graham Stuart if he had made a mistake in not checking whether the allegations in the Times were true, Sir Michael said: “In retrospect I probably did, but nonetheless, it was a spontaneous act of fury.”

Sir Michael added: “The Secretary of State saw me and said that no briefing had taken place, there was no dirty tricks campaign, or anything like that and that he would take action with anyone who was involved in that.

“He is an honourable man and I accepted his word.”

The two think tanks have both since confirmed they were working on reports on Ofsted, but denied that their work was being done with encouragement from the Department for Education.

Sir Michael told MPs he had been “absolutely outraged” at the suggestion that Ofsted was “mired” in 1960s ideology, adding he was old enough to remember teaching in those days and how low expectations of pupils had been.

“I was very angry that the authority of Ofsted had been damaged and undermined.”

He said many children taught in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, before the introduction of Ofsted inspections, had been failed.

Firstly, the details of the main complaint seems strange. From the original report:

In an exclusive interview, Sir Michael Wilshaw told The Sunday Times he was “displeased, shocked, angry and outraged” at attacks by rightwingers on the integrity of the inspectorate, whose job is to rate the quality of schools.

“I am spitting blood over this and I want it to stop,” he said. Asked whether he wanted Gove to call off the attack dogs, he replied: “Absolutely”, adding “it does nothing for his drive or our drive to raise standards in schools. I was never intimidated as a headteacher and I do not intend to be intimidated as a chief inspector.”

The row signals a growing rift between the Tories and Wilshaw, who heads the inspectorate Ofsted, which has slated several of the party’s flagship free schools and academies. Think tanks close to Gove are said to be demanding Ofsted be scrapped, claiming it is trapped by its adherence to progressive theories from the 1960s.

Wilshaw seemed to have fully accepted the narrative (mentioned here) that think tanks who criticise OFSTED are right-wingers acting on Gove’s behalf. While it may be significant that think tanks seen as being on the right are criticising OFSTED, to interpret it as a right/left issue, or as being about personalities is to miss completely what is actually going on. Think tanks are, on the whole, not keen to be labelled as right or left-wing, and are not exclusively committed to a simple ideological stance. Although they are keen to forge links with politicians and they aren’t keen to get involved with pointless arguments (like this one) over where they should be placed on the political spectrum, they tend to do more than follow the bidding of politicians. Both think tanks include people who specialise in education policy, including people who follow me on Twitter. Why shouldn’t they be raising questions about OFSTED?

The political agenda narrative is particularly easy to cast doubt on when looking at Civitas. They have had strong links with Tristram Hunt prior to him becoming Labour’s shadow education secretary and a long history of looking at OFSTED. Their Deputy Director  who had written extensively about OFSTED in the past, was identified as a member of the Labour Party in an apology in the Guardian after they implied she advised Gove.

Of course, if the think tanks are a red herring here, it is possible that Gove (or his advisors) are known by Wilshaw to have issues with OFSTED. However, the opinion, attributed to Wilshaw, that this is over the inspection of free schools or academies is a convenient one for putting the blame completely on Gove. For those with more familiarity with the OFSTED issue and Gove’s attitude to it, there’s another explanation. Back in September, Gove had vouched for Wilshaw’s ability to change OFSTED, telling an audience at a Policy Exchange event the following:

…there have been occasions – in the past – when inspection has not achieved what it should.

Too few inspectors had recent – or current – experience of teaching.

The framework, prior to 2010, required schools to be judged against more than 27 different criteria – putting ‘quality of teaching’ on a par with ‘whether pupils adopted healthy lifestyles’ and ‘the extent to which pupils contribute to the school and wider community’.

And Ofsted’s guidance provided too little clarity about what constituted good teaching; or allowed inspectors’ personal prejudices and preferences to be interpreted as ‘the Ofsted way’.

As a result, and as teacher bloggers like Andrew Old have chronicled, time and again too much emphasis was given to particular practices like group work and discovery learning; while Ofsted inspectors marked teachers down for such heinous crimes as ‘talking too much’, ‘telling pupils things’ or ‘dominating the discussion’.

The good news is that Ofsted - under its inspirational new leadership – is moving to address all these weaknesses and give us a system of inspection of which we can be proud.

For OFSTED to still be writing much the same things (as shown here), almost 5 months after Gove vouched for them, seems to give those in the DfE every right to be critical of OFSTED. They must be aware, that if Gove’s opposite number hadn’t turned out to be even more in the thrall of OFSTED than the government had been, then Wilshaw’s failure to deliver what Gove promised, could have been used to make political capital against the government. We can ask if Wilshaw’s efforts to reform OFSTED are a heroic failure by the best person for the job, or a sign that he was never up to it, but it is hard to miss that so far he has failed in his efforts to reform OFSTED and, as the minister responsible for this, Gove has failed too. In that light, then it is hard to avoid seeing Wilshaw’s comments as the defensive reaction of somebody who, having failed to deliver what they promised, wishes to blame those who were foolish enough to think he would deliver.

There has been plenty more debate OFSTED since, and all sorts of political narratives to explain it, but the core of this issue is the way in which OFSTED is both harmful to education and, so far, extremely resistant to reform. Where the blame for this lies is hard to tell because it is a bureaucracy, but the starting point of the discussion has to be the failures of OFSTED and those who have sought to reform it.

I will be taking part in a live chat on OFSTED on the Guardian website this evening here.

Update 14/2/2014: A Radio 4 programme about OFSTED, in which I feature, can be found here.


A Question (and a Straw Man) About Lying to Children

February 3, 2014

I have a question about something that I’m not terribly familiar with. I have a question about lying to small children. But first, let me deal with the straw man this question seems to have created in the minds of some of the more excitable people in the education blogging world.

From When Lies are Lovely on Debra Kidd’s blog yesterday evening:

Some weeks ago, there was a spat on twitter about role play in which it was described as lying to children. Having just spent several weeks telling my youngest that the red light on our alarm censor was Santa’s CCTV camera, I was pulled up very much as a liar. But I justified it because for a few weeks, he went to bed when asked and brushed his scummy teeth. Ends justified the means. But is it ok to lie to children in school?

Well, if you’re skilled at using role play, your really don’t have to. Starting sentences with ‘can we agree that this represents’ or ‘we’re building a story today…’ or ‘if’ mitigates the possibility that children might be conned. There was once an awful example of a school in Blackburn where children were taken into a room while staff let off fireworks outside. The head told the children that WW3 had broken out. And unsurprisingly, the children were very upset. That’s pretty stupid in my book. But to use fiction to entice, to stimulate, to (shock, horror) engage children in learning? That’s just a good thing to do. So….

Not exactly sure of the educational benefits of the roleplaying she describes in the rest of the post, but it’s not my area, so fair enough. Whoever these people are who think all role-playing is a form of lying, they can’t be very sensible. And this is not the first blog touching on this topic. From “Make-believe is not the same as lying” on the Imagine Inquiry blog:

…lying involves an intention to deceive for unscrupulous reasons. For me, the motivation is all-important when we are talking about adults ‘lying’ to children. If adults lie to children to deceive them for unscrupulous reasons, then this is reprehensible and has no place in a classroom (or anywhere else). However, if adults create an imaginary scenario or context for or with the children, with the primary intention of developing their learning, then the motivation is principled and it should not be called lying. I prefer the term make-believe.

A serious allegation

The accusation that adults lie to children every time they tell them an untruth is one lacking nuance and sophistication. It implies teachers who use imaginary situations in their classrooms are acting in an unprincipled way, deceiving their students, without their agreement or understanding and against their best interests.

Well good on you Tim. Whoever these people are going on about lying, they are clearly wrong. I couldn’t agree more.

Unfortunately, and this is the earliest of our three blogs on this topic, there is something going on here beyond me quoting from blogs I happen to agree with by people who spend a lot of their online life bitching about me. Here, from Primary Ramblings, is “WHY DO PRIMARY TEACHERS “LIE” TO THEIR PUPILS?“,  the story of the origin of these terrible accusations. This section follows a description of an activity where students pretended to be taking a trip to Australia:

At no point did I say, “We’re only pretending to fly to Australia”. There was a tacit understanding that what we were doing was ‘make-believe’ and the children bought into it fully, immersing themselves in the excitement of going on holiday to a foreign country. At 3.15 many of the children came and told me that this had been one of the best days ever; that they had loved flying to Australia and that they wanted to learn more about the country. The next day they came in with photos, books, souvenirs and a thirst for knowledge about all things Australian. They were hooked and wanted to learn more.

So why, I wonder, do some teachers regard such activities as dishonest and duplicitous? Last night @oldandrewuk tweeted (about another blogpost):

“This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?”

I couldn’t help but reply, and an interesting “debate” ensued, where @oldandrewuk tied my words in knots and tripped me up over semantics.

However hard he tried to make me look foolish and question my ideology, @oldandrewuk cannot convince me that we are “lying” to children in any sort of sinister way and that immersing children in their learning through drama or simply through setting up scenarios that encourage them to suspend their disbelief is a practice that needs “justifying”.

Good grief, what a bastard. Objecting to an activity which seems to have been both fun and informative on the basis of such a silly accusation. Who is this malevolent Tweeter? The name rings a bell…

Oh, crap it’s me.


Yes, I am apparently the guilty man. I am the one who objects to role-playing on grounds of honesty. Taking a position that seems to be half-way between Plato and Sheldon Cooper I have declared war on play, role-playing and, no doubt, Santa Claus. And just in case anyone is under any doubt that it’s all my fault, here is Debra Kidd’s facetious comment from the second of our 3 blogs:

Very clever analysis Tim and you put to shame some of the sloppy thinking of those we shall not name (ironically those who choose to remain nameless and are thereby lying about their identity!)

I had intended to let this drop. I was annoyed at reading comments like this (and other in a similar vein):

How sad that we have someone like Andrew old teaching our children who obviously fundamentally fails to understand the learning and thought processes of human beings. I find it incredible that someone of his supposed erudition can have such ignorance.

However, I assumed it would all blow over. But no we are getting close to a month later and people are still writing blogs about the terrible accusations I’ve made. So I figure I might as well point out what I actually commented on, what I actually said, so that at least if this continues people have a fair idea of who’s being straight here.

Some time back, I read this blogpost about a literacy day in a primary school.

Several staff and SLT meetings into term, the idea of a whole-school writing day had been mentioned, without particular conviction, numerous times; vague ideas had been put forward and then quickly dismissed as the weeks passed. On one  miserable morning though, waiting for the very last Year Six latecomers to arrive, I noticed that the patch of unused wasteland adjacent to our field had been occupied by builders who, in a matter of days, already had the shells of new housing erected, with construction continuing apace.

Buoyed by the idea that slowly unveiled itself to me over the next few days, I asked at the end of the next staff meeting to talk about the by-now maligned topic of a writing day: what if we could secure the loan of  builders’ tools, machinery and apparel, spread them over our grounds before the start of school one day and tell the children that, unless they could prevent them from doing so, our neighbouring builders would be turning the  field into houses too?

As luck had it, an ex-parent was the proprietor of a local construction company and, after a surprsingly simple phone call, an agreement had been reached whereby he would provide us with diggers, skips, a lorry, cement mixers and less glamorous but equally authentic hard hats and high-vis vests.

So, with props acquired and a rough idea of what we wanted to achieve formualted, the (enjoyable, as it turned out) process of planning a writing day began. We decided to abandon yeaching by year goups and opted instead to group children by similar levels of attainment; we agreed on a series of progressively more challenging tasks which began with writing protest slogans and banners and stretched to writing and delivering persuasive speeches.

With planning and preparation complete, one final flourish was added: a local actor agreed to join us for the project, playing the role of the high-ranking council official who would have the final say in whether or not the proposed building would be allowed to proceed…

I found the whole thing fascinating. I reblogged it on the Echo Chamber. It all seemed exciting and genuinely educational. However, there didn’t seem to be any indication that the kids would understand that events were staged and I did wonder about that. Then, last month I read this blogpost about activities based around a teacher claiming to have lost a pencil case. Again, there seemed to be no indication that the children would consider events to be anything other than real. It struck me then how casually lying to the class was presented as a stimulus for activity, and so, on Twitter, I asked the question:

This is the 2nd time I’ve seen a blog about primary teaching based on lying to the kids. Are people okay with this?

There was nothing in either blog to suggest that the children were party to the role-playing. It was not about role-playing. And it was not intended to indicate that I had decided it was all wrong, just that I was wondering whether it was wrong. That’s all. There was a post on Mumsnet on a similar topic:

Today ds1 went abck [sic] to school and was really looking forward to it.

I went to get him at 3.15 and he was absolutely busting to tell me about the ‘thing’ that had landed in the woodland bit of the playground.

I followed him and a large crowd of grown ups and children was standing around this thing, which looked to me very much like a huge air conditioning unit half buried in the ground, with a slightly blackened tree next to it.

I have to admit I immediately thought it was a kind of set up, for fun – there was stripey tape all round it and nobody allowed to touch.

Ds told me that it had apparently ‘crashed’ last night, and was from a satellite or spaceship or similar and it even had the voltage written on it!

He loves this kind of thing so was utterly serious and really quite blown away by the idea. They had spent all day finding out about it and someone from the BBC had apparently come and interviewed a witness, with a microphone but no camera.

There is nothing on the BBC website. The newsletter just arrived and there is a large paragraph about it – ‘We hope the children enjoyed the ‘space mystery’ today, our project this term is all about space’ etc etc…

I didn’t know what to do, so stupidly, probably, I told ds it wasn’t actually from a spaceship, and he started to cry sad

I mean is this just like the Father Christmas thing we do with them, or is it actually rather cruel of them to lie about something so potentially thrilling – I have probably done the wrong thing but he would have found out later anyway no doubt and been MORE upset.

He is insisting the newsletter is wrong and is very cross and fed up.

Can anyone talk me down, I really don’t need another confrontation with the HT…I am just so sad for him.

It’s got me thinking, but I don’t deal with small children. I’ve never even had to think about things like Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Not my area at all. But I can think of lies that I thought were justified, and lies that weren’t, in a school context, and I did wonder about these three scenarios. I think part of my concern is a wider issue about manipulating students and their feelings. A lot of talk about “engagement” is about making students feel the way that suits us, regardless of whether we should be trying to manipulate their feelings. So I am curious, just curious, about this issue and would like to hear from teachers of young children as to what they think.

But will people please stop writing blogs arguing with this ridiculous straw man about all role-playing being lying? It’s almost like some people just want an excuse to have a go.


OFSTED Quotations About Independence

January 31, 2014

The following are recent quotations from OFSTED publications, referring to independence and independent learning. Spot the odd one out.

From the December 2013 OFSTED handbook:

Not all aspects of learning, for example pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence, may be seen in a single observation.

From the December 2013 additional guidance for inspectors:

Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable.

From HCMI’s letter to inspectors (January 22nd, 2014) referring to the guidance quoted above:

I still see inspection reports, occasionally from HMI, which ignore this and earlier guidance and, irritatingly, give the impression that we are still telling teachers how to teach. Let me give you a few examples from recent reports I have just read:

‘Teaching will improve if more time is given to independent learning’…

…In summary, inspectors should report on the outcomes of teaching rather than its style. So please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.

From the OFSTED report for Our Lady and St Chad Catholic Sports College, inspected 9-10 January, and published today:

Behaviour is not outstanding because students across the school have yet to demonstrate through their progress exceptional independence…


Last Week’s OFSTED Story in the Times

January 30, 2014

I did promise I’d return to the news stories about OFSTED. When writing the recent blogposts about OFSTED’s chaos over recent reports and inspectors ignoring every word Sir Michael Wilshaw says, it’s very easy to assume that their general hopelessness, love of trendy teaching and current state of apparent crisis is widely known. Actually, until last weekend, they were often presented in the media as a cadre of ruthlessly efficient, right-wing enforcers imposing every whim of Michael Gove and intent on privatising children. That’s why recent stories publicising the reality are so important.

Last week saw a report in the Times (behind a paywall, sorry) claiming:

Pressure is mounting for Ofsted to be overhauled or scrapped as supporters of Michael Gove accuse school inspectors of being trapped by 1960s “progressive” approaches to learning.

Civitas, a right-of-centre think-tank, is to call for a new inspectorate for academies and free schools in a pamphlet to be published soon. It will argue that the Education Secretary’s wish for schools to develop their own approaches to teaching is being held back by child-first orthodoxies among inspectors, who are stifling innovation.

Policy Exchange, another right-leaning think-tank set up by Mr Gove himself, also plans to call for wholesale changes at Ofsted in a forthcoming report. It will say that the current inspection regime places disproportionate pressure on teachers, while its judgments are too inconsistent.

The two inquiries reflect growing frustration within the Department for Education (DfE) over complaints from heads and teachers about Ofsted reports that appear to contradict the thrust of government policy. Some protest that inspectors have criticised teachers for talking for too long in lessons.

Others say inspection teams have demanded more group work, independent learning and interaction among children, which critics associate with the “child-led” philosophy of education that Mr Gove is trying to stamp out.

The article goes on to describe the two think tanks as right-wing allies of the secretary of state, and distinguishes between the chief inspector (who, of course, does deny wanting a particular style of teaching) and the many inspectors who do enforce a particular style of teaching.

The debate which followed on from this (which I will have to comment on before too long, if I can), emphasised the personalities involved and at times seemed to assume that the issues around OFSTED were not actually the ones mentioned in the article. But, as any reader of this blog knows, there is a real issue here. OFSTED inspectors do act as if they have a particular ideological agenda. They do seem to ignore the direction of their own leadership, let alone the agenda of any politician. It is not a surprise that these think tanks are interested. There are people from both of them who follow me on Twitter. Civitas have been critical of OFSTED in the past (here and here) and has a history of involvement in recent education debates from a position directly opposed to that they attribute to OFSTED. Policy Exchange has quite a high profile on education too, with frequent events and publications on educational issues. It is hardly shocking that they would know what the score is, or that they would be critical of OFSTED.

However, I would hope that this has raised the issue of how OFSTED behave and will keep it in the public eye. I also hope that teachers can play a part in this debate. To that end, it is probably worth mentioning a couple of things.

1) Policy Exchange’s consultation on OFSTED is open until Monday, asking “teachers, heads, inspectors or others” about their experiences of OFSTED. It would be great if some of the people who tell me things about their experiences could also tell them.

2) If anyone is willing to speak to a journalist about experiences of OFSTED criticising them personally (or their school) for too much teacher talk and not enough independent learning, then please let me know so I can put you in touch with one who is interested.

This is likely to be an ongoing debate in both politics and the media, and it would be great if it can be informed as much as possible by the experience of teachers, rather than the usual succession of clueless talking heads who dominate so much of the public debate about education.


Can OFSTED stop publishing ridiculous reports, even if they try?

January 27, 2014

I’m struggling to keep up with developments regarding OFSTED, particularly as they’ve been in the news recently (I’ll try to comment on that tomorrow or Wednesday) but I am not going to miss the opportunity to write a post about the letter to inspectors Sir Michael Wilshaw sent out last week. I’m not the first blogger to present the text of this letter (it was on this blog on Saturday and an extract was available here  earlier in the week) but I can’t resist repeating it, and commenting. I will include the full text, with some additional observations throughout and further comments at the end.

Over the last 18 months, I have emphasised in a number of speeches that Ofsted is not prescriptive about the way that teaching is delivered and does not recommend a suite of preferred teaching styles. Inspectors should only be concerned with the impact that teaching has on children’s learning, progress and outcomes. Our new guidance on the inspection of teaching in schools reinforces this. I quote:

‘Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.

It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.’

Nevertheless, I still see inspection reports, occasionally from HMI, which ignore this and earlier guidance and, irritatingly, give the impression that we are still telling teachers how to teach. Let me give you a few examples from recent reports I have just read:

‘Teaching will improve if more time is given to independent learning’

‘Insufficient time was given to collaborative learning’

‘Students are not given sufficient opportunity to support their classmates in their learning’

‘Pupils are not sufficiently engaged in their own learning’

‘Teaching requires improvement because pupils do not get enough opportunities to work alone or in groups’

‘Weak teaching is characterised by teachers talking too much.’

I think what’s most gratifying about reading these very familiar sounding phrases is that it suggests that, finally, the chief inspector is doing what I’ve been doing for almost a year now and actually reading the reports his organisation puts out. This would also explain why so many reports recently had been changed or held up, with these sorts of phrases being removed. Of course, this leaves the question of what he was doing up until this point. He seemed content to change the various documentation which tells inspectors what to do, and then just leave it at that when it is ignored. There is still no sign of any specified sanction or consequence for any inspector who ignores the advice, but at least they now know he’s watching them.

It is quite acceptable for a teacher to talk a lot as long as the children are attentive, interested, learning and making progress. If not, it is quite legitimate for inspectors to say that poor planning and lesson structure meant that children lost focus and learnt very little.

There is so much more that could be said about teaching without infringing the professional judgement of teachers to decide the most appropriate style of teaching to get the best out of their students. For example:

Do lessons start promptly?

Are children focused and attentive because the teaching is stimulating?

Is the pace of the lesson good because the teacher is proactive and dynamic in the classroom?

Is homework regularly given?

Is literacy a key component of lessons across the curriculum?

Do teachers use display and technology to support teaching?

Are low expectations resulting in worksheets being used rather than textbooks?

Are the most able children provided with work which stretches them and allows them to fulfil their true potential?

Are children expected to take books home to do their homework and return them the following day?

Does marking give a clear indication of what the children have to do to improve and are clear targets being set?

Is the structure of the lesson promoting good learning and are children given sufficient time to practise and reinforce what is being taught?

Do teachers have sufficient expertise to be able to impart to students the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed?

Does the school have a robust professional development programme which is improving the quality of teaching by disseminating good practice across the school or college?

Are teaching assistants supporting teaching effectively or are they simply ‘floating about’?

These are some remarkable recommendations. Some seem quite random, or possibly out of date. While I can imagine that there was once a time when worksheets were seen as less demanding than textbooks, I’m not sure that can really be claimed these days. A lot of my worksheets are photocopies from old textbooks, used because the newer textbooks are too dumbed down. @cazzypot has written a critique of these suggestions on her blog. I’m, perhaps, more sympathetic to these than she is, but only with the proviso that they are used to gauge whole school expectations not assess individual lessons. Too many of them are dependent on the culture of the whole school to be a fair way to judge individuals.

In summary, inspectors should report on the outcomes of teaching rather than its style. So please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.

In saying all this, I recognise that a report-writing orthodoxy has grown up over the years which owes as much to the formulaic approach of the national strategies as to any guidance that Ofsted has given inspectors. We must continue to break free of this and encourage inspectors to use their freedom to report in language that has meaning and relevance to the institutions we inspect and the parents and students who read our reports.

Only by doing this can we hope to use inspection to raise standards.

It is an interesting point about the national strategies. It would indicate that some of his inspectors reflect a culture that involves an orthodoxy older and more established than Sir Michael’s involvement in OFSTED. As a comment on Twitter pointed out (when Mark McCourt made similar observations), OFSTED are “like the Dementors who act for but are not under [the] control of the Ministry of Magic”.

However, the phrase “please, please, please” is also revealing. How much influence does he have to change anything? There is new guidance. There is a precedent for reviewing, editing or delaying reports that don’t comply. There is a begging letter. Will inspectors comply? Well, as I understand it, this letter was published on the 22nd. That same day the report for King Solomon High school was published. It told us:

In the best lessons… Students respond well to the chance to think things out for themselves and choose the work they do. In a mathematics lesson, students who had already grasped the concepts being taught were then tasked to lead the learning of others. They responded well to the challenge and others say they benefited from the support they received from their peers…

…The best behaviour in lessons results from high quality teaching where there are plenty of opportunities for students to find out things for themselves in a supportive, but challenging, environment. This does not happen often enough and results in some students not taking an active role in their own learning.

Well, that was on the day of the letter. How about since? This is from the report from Forest Gate Community school published on Friday, for an inspection in the final week before the holidays. This is one of the two most recent reports from secondary schools. Published after the letter; after reports had been withdrawn and rewritten; after all this fuss and over a month since the new guidance, quoted above by Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned against condemning passivity or demanding independent learning.

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because … Often, there are limited opportunities for students to be actively involved in lessons, leading, on occasion, to poor behaviour…

What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve the quality of teaching … by ensuring that all teachers: plan lessons which provide opportunities for students to become more independent and take responsibility for helping themselves to improve… Improve behaviour in all lessons by allowing students to be more actively involved in tasks so that they retain their interest and do not disengage or become restless…

The quality of teaching requires improvement… Although teachers use a range of different strategies to help students to understand and broaden their knowledge and skills, in some lessons, work is over directed by the teacher and there are few opportunities for students to find things out for themselves. In these lessons, students sometimes become passive or restless and disengage from the lesson. Opportunities are missed in allowing them the independence to take more responsibility to drive their learning forwards or be more actively involved.


Arnold Hill Academy Responds to the OFSTED Shambles

January 26, 2014

I don’t know whether to take this to indicate that OFSTED are willing to revise the judgements, rather than just the wording, from their December 2013 inspections (something I have argued should be happening) or simply as an indicator that OFSTED is now in such a state that schools think it’s worth pre-emptively dismissing what they say. Nor do I know anything about this school (and while I’m happy to hear anecdotally what it’s like by email, I’m not planning to allow a discussion of that in the comments on this post).

However, this statement appears on the website of Arnold Hill Academy and the tone strikes me as the only sane way for schools to respond to what’s going on. It also raises questions about just what OFSTED are up to at the moment. (Thanks to @KateKelly20 for pointing this out to me.)

Ofsted admit their own inspection process is flawed!

Staff and Governors at Arnold Hill Academy were surprised recently when the Ofsted Regional Director for the East Midlands, Louise Soden, admitted in a letter to the Principal that the Ofsted inspection of the Academy before Christmas had been “flawed”.

This expression of concern about the quality and practice of Ofsted’s inspection of Arnold Hill Academy has come at a time when the watchdog has come under wide criticism for changing a number of schools’ inspection reports because they contradicted their own official guidance. Ofsted admitted recently to the Times Educational Supplement (TES) that “…the reports of all other inspections carried out before Christmas [have] also been put on hold to allow further checks for errors”

There then follows a link, which doesn’t seem to be working, which is presumably intended to be for this article.

Arnold Hill Academy had a subject-based inspection in July 2012 and was judged by Ofsted to have ‘Outstanding’ achievement, curriculum, leadership and management. A previous Ofsted inspection in September 2010 judged Arnold Hill to be a ‘Good’ school.

Ofsted inspected Arnold Hill Academy on 5th and 6th December 2013 and were expected to have published their report within 15 working days of this inspection. However, Ofsted’s decision to now delay publication of their report amidst concerns over the quality of their own judgements and practices is causing unnecessary anxiety amongst pupils, staff and the wider community.

Having deemed the initial Ofsted inspection as “flawed” a follow up visit was made to the school on Monday 13th January and the Academy are currently awaiting written feedback following that visit. The Chair of Governors, Nigel Bradley, said “We have always valued Ofsted as an agent of change however we are concerned that Ofsted now regard their own practice as ‘flawed’. The initial inspection in December provided what we felt was an accurate reflection of where the Academy’s strengths and weaknesses lie.”

On Thursday 16th January Arnold Hill Academy submitted a detailed complaint to Ofsted regarding their concerns around the impact of Ofsted’s indecision, conduct and inconsistency on the school community. Ofsted have acknowledged receipt of this complaint but not yet responded to the Academy other than stating merely that they will “aim to send a response….no later than 3rd March 2014”.

Robin Fugill, Principal at Arnold Hill Academy said “We recognise that Ofsted’s delays may cause staff, pupils and parents anxiety so we will ensure they are kept up to date with developments on a regular basis”.

I think there is an issue here in that a lot of the consequences of OFSTED inspections stem from the reaction of the governors and local community to an inspection report. If it is now widely known that the inspection system is a shambles, then that reaction may be very different.


Two More Edited OFSTED Reports

January 25, 2014

In my last post, I went through the OFSTED reports that I had commented on here to see if they had been edited after being published. However, I failed to comment on the first report I had discovered to be altered, that of John Wilmott School. I also missed changes to the report of another school, Bushey Academy, as I (carelessly) hadn’t noticed any problems with the original. Apologies, for the omissions, all I can say is, I was very busy last week and 5 am blogging is not always going to be perfect. I will now look at the changes to those reports here.

John Willmott School

The words “how well they are doing or” have been removed from:

When teachers mark work, they do not always tell students how well they are doing or how to improve their work, or make sure that they follow any guidance given.

The following section (a favourite of mine) has been removed:

Sometimes teachers give students too much information in lessons and do not encourage them enough to learn independently.

The recommendation that the school “provide regular opportunities for students to learn independently” has been removed.

The following section has been removed:

Teachers sometimes direct students’ learning too much, preventing students from working independently. This limits students’ chances to discuss ideas with each other and to come up with their own ways of solving problems.

In the section about the sixth form, the complaint that “work does not offer enough opportunities for students to work independently” is now a complaint that “work does not offer enough opportunities for students to do their own research”.

The following phrase has been removed:

In the best lessons they encourage independent writing…


The Bushey Academy

The sentence:

Teaching is good because teachers have high expectations and plan lessons carefully.

has been changed to:

Teaching is good because teachers have high expectations and plan work carefully for the needs and abilities of different groups of students.

The word “Some” has been added to the beginning of the following:

Students do not always heed the advice their teachers give about how to improve their work

The recommendation that the school:

Improve the quality of teaching by ensuring consistent high-quality marking across all subjects that involves students in a dialogue with their teachers about how they are improving their work.

is now a recommendation that the school:

Improve the quality of teaching
– by ensuring consistent high-quality marking across all subjects
– by ensuring that students take account of the guidance they are given in order to improve their work .

This might reflect a realisation that schools have become overly pre-occupied with particular styles of marking.

Students develop in confidence through frequent opportunities to work collaboratively, either by checking and advising each other’s learning, or as part of a team.

has been replaced with:

Students develop in confidence by checking and advising on each other’s work.

The following section:

Students do not readily share their perceptions of what they find challenging or difficult with their teachers because, in a small minority of lessons, students are too passive in their learning.

has been replaced with:

Students do not readily share their perceptions of what they find challenging or difficult with their teachers. In a small minority of lessons, teachers do not always expect them to join in with discussions or answer questions.


Some of these changes bring new things to light – the evaluation of marking is apparently under some consideration – however, this is the same story as before. No judgements change even where the reasons given have been removed, and some of the most ideologically charged statements have been rephrased to avoid particular words but retain the same basic content. There is no change in approach, nor ideology, only a desire to express it less openly.


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