Archive for October, 2009



October 23, 2009

I used to wonder why teachers had it in for OFSTED, the school inspection agency. The inspections were a hassle, and very stressful, but they weren’t that often. If every five years somebody wanted to pop in and tell me my lessons were good then it wasn’t the worst thing in the world for me as a teacher. My experience was also that the judgements given by OFSTED inspectors seemed much better than those given by managers. They seemed more focused on learning and behaviour, and less on playing games and inclusion. As somebody who was concerned about poor schools then it seemed to make sense that this form of accountability existed and the schools which most failed their pupils would be identified.

My opinion has changed. OFSTED has ceased to be a regulator; it is is now a magic word. The word “OFSTED” has mystical power over teachers. It is used by the dark wizards of senior and middle management to cast a spell on gullible teachers which saps their will and turns them into bad teachers. It works like this:

If you have a bad idea then saying “OFSTED” turns it into a good one. For example: “Students should be working in groups every lesson. It’s what OFSTED will be looking for.”

If your staff don’t respect your judgement, then saying “OFSTED” reminds them of their wretchedness: “If anybody here thinks OFSTED is definitely going to consider all of their lessons to be excellent then you might have another opinion about this, but unless that is the case then you need to listen to what I’m saying.”

If you are a manager who isn’t very good at teaching then you can even things up by using the power of OFSTED to screw up other people’s lessons. For instance you can say “You must not spend more than twelve minutes in the lesson teaching, it is (or is going to be) one of the new OFSTED criteria” and people will believe you.

It is only a matter of time until senior managers cease to use any vocabulary other than the word OFSTED, and will be free to simply address the school at INSET meetings by saying “OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED, OFSTED” conveying meaning only by the pace at which they speak and the tone of disapproval in their voice when they are looking at anybody who is not as fully OFSTED compliant as themselves. (I believe this may already have begun to happen in some schools.)

Now, in almost every OFSTED I have ever been through there has been an intense period of advice from managers, LEA consultants, advisors and the like, usually based around trendy ideas and box-ticking followed by a last minute revelation that OFSTED actually want something completely different (and more obvious) like marking in books, schemes of work for every subject, results that suggest students actually make progress. Advice given pre-OFSTED is usually terrible, and I have got my “goods” in OFSTED observations by ignoring it. Better advice is available from asking teachers who have recently gone through OFSTED what they got it in the neck for, and being ready for trouble. At the last OFSTED I went through, on the Sunday before the inspection, the headteacher rampaged through my department looking in every exercise book for signs of marking, having only just realised that this was important. Having reached a state of apoplexy with what he found, he arrived at my classroom to find me sat there marking and was extremely grateful. I knew what I needed to do, even if the many expensive advisers had left it to the very last minute to suggest that this might be an issue.

This is because OFSTED is a bullshitter’s charter. People who nobody would ever listen to based on their track-record or their qualifications gain power through uttering the magic word and watching people panic. It doesn’t matter what OFSTED actually want, there is just enough ambiguity for people to pretend they have an insight and then watch everybody dance to their tune. Worse, they have this effect even on people doing a good job, who will only get worse by listening to bad advice. Forget results, forget teaching, forget what works, every mad initiative and silly suggestion is justified by the magic word.

Here’s my solution: get rid of performance-related pay, reward good results with OFSTED immunity. Schools where the results show students make good progress should not have their teaching and management inspected. Teachers who get good results should be given a notice to put on their door saying “Successful classroom, so just fuck off” which compels all inspectors to leave them well enough alone. Members of SMT for any school which gets an “outstanding” from an OFSTED should, either simultaneously or one at a time, be given the opportunity to slap the lead inspector in the face for wasting everybody’s time. Any headteacher who turns around a failing school should be allowed to go to Christine Gilbert’s house on New Year’s Day for the next four years and empty a bucket of live eels over her head and pee in her fireplace. Accountability needs to be about identifying failure and doing something about it, not bullying the successful into becoming more like the failures.


Hard Work

October 10, 2009

“Contrary to popular belief, the brain is not designed for thinking. It’s designed to save you from having to think, because the brain is actually not very good at thinking… Compared to your ability to see and move, thinking is slow, effortful and uncertain.”

Dan Willingham (2009)

“The going was hard; there was nothing to be got without learning how to get it, and it was understood that nobody went to school in order to enjoy the sort of happiness he might get from lying in the sun.”

Michael Oakeshott (1975)

“Enjoyment of learning and attitudes … Are pupils happy with their work? Are they proud of it? Are pupils interested in their work and in what they are learning? Or are they easily distracted?”

OFSTED (2009)

“Kids, you tried your best, and you failed miserably.  The lesson is, never try.”

Homer Simpson

Learning is hard work. It can be interesting. It can be inspiring. It can be satisfying. It can be rewarding. It can even be enjoyable. What it can’t be is indefinitely easy. Unless you are wasting time learning trivialities, then even if you are a very fast learner you will reach your limit and sometimes find yourself out of your comfort zone. Eventually, you have to engage in the uncomfortable pursuit of thinking. Eventually, you are exposed to more knowledge than you can comfortably absorb without mental exertion. Eventually, you will feel at least some desire to give in. Eventually, you will require some discipline to make progress, whether it is your own self-discipline, or external pressure applied by your peers or your teacher.

Now, this is pretty much common sense. Isn’t it?

Well no. The belief that there is a short cut to learning is widespread. Perhaps we all have a special learning style, which if utilised would mean we grasp everything easily. Perhaps clever use of ICT can speed knowledge straight into our brains. Perhaps we can be taught extensively without ever losing interest, just so long as what we are learning is made “relevant”. Perhaps science can be relied upon to tell us the perfect way to be taught. Perhaps we can be guided to discover everything we need to know for ourselves without even having to be taught it directly. Perhaps, learning would become easy if we were taught a list of words to describe it. Perhaps, all the difficulty is simply a result of an undiagnosed medical or psychological condition which, if treated, would make learning easy.

This might all be nonsense, but it is what many people want to believe. It often seems that the people who believe it, even teachers who believe it, are rarely academic high-fliers themselves, but this just makes it all the more convenient to believe. Academic failure can be a result of teachers failing to make it easy, rather than our own weakness of will, or lack of ability, when faced with a challenge. Good teaching does aid learning, but now, instead of expecting good teachers to teach us more knowledge for the same level of effort, we expect them to teach us the same amount of knowledge while we make less effort. Suddenly a good teacher ceases to be one who taught us a lot, and becomes one who made us comfortable. Pleasure replaces achievement as the proof of good teaching. If it can’t be made easy it must be chucked out. If it can’t be made painless then it is cruel to inflict it. Students must never be forced to learn, or even suffer the indignity of failing to learn. The learning process becomes more important than the content of what is learnt and the most important thing a teacher can be judged on is whether their students had fun learning. A teacher who is more concerned with the depth of learning rather than the pleasure in learning must hate children. Mr Miyagi would have been a monster. Jamie Escalante was a disgraceful bully. Nobody must ever save us from ourselves. Nobody must ever make us achieve. We can all be happy failures, so long as nobody tries to make us succeed.


OFSTED, The quality of teaching and the use of assessment to support learning, Briefing for section 5 inspectors, 2009

Oakeshott, Michael, A Place of Learning, 1975

Willingham, Daniel T, Why Don’t Students Like School,  Jossey-Bass, 2009

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