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OFSTED Under Fire

March 16, 2013

I have no idea who this is, but they clearly have a point and I needed a picture for this blogpost. [Update: I’ve found out who it is. Let’s never speak of this again]

It’s been an interesting week for those of us with a burning obsession with OFSTED’s crusade against people and schools who actually teach.

As you probably know, Monday saw the sudden disappearance of their “good practice” videos. No longer will English teachers be aware that inspectors endorse the idea that flip cameras are “essential” to English departments or that running around the woods filming each other with them is the best way to interest boys in literature.

Tuesday saw a story in the Independent which to those of us working in education is firmly in the “doesn’t everybody already know this?” category, which nevertheless was probably a bit of an eye-opener to outsiders.

Ofsted inspectors are hiring themselves out for up to £600 a day to advise schools on how to pass its inspections, it was revealed yesterday. An investigation by the website Exaro found that while the schools’ regulator bans its staff inspectors from working as consultants, more than 1,000 contracted inspectors are allowed to sell their services to schools. Some even offer to carry out “mock” inspections, in return for payment.

There’s plenty to object to in any powerful employee of the state making private money by exploiting their position. Also there’s plenty wrong with an inspection system where advice on how to “play the game” is more important than exam results or good teaching. However, one aspect of the consultancy racket wasn’t mentioned in the article, and that’s the extent to which it may be one of the reasons for OFSTED’s failure to change in response to the wishes of their chief inspector. If inspectors have raked in the cash for telling schools “you must do groupwork, discovery learning and stop teachers from teaching” it makes it far less likely that they will then go into schools and act as if they have no preferred style of teaching. The judgements of an inspector who runs a private consultancy are always going to be suspect.

Imagine a very traditional teacher in a core subject who believes that learning of knowledge, not vague personal qualities, is the immediate aim of lessons (perhaps, the outstanding “didactic” maths teacher the chief inspector described in his speech here). Imagine they are observed by an inspector who also works for the consultancy Improve Education. According to their website, in English they advise on “developing a range of  practical strategies to build confidence, initiative and independence in pupils”. In maths their training promises to “Build pupil confidence, motivation and independence”. In science they promise to “Secure impact on pupils’ thinking and learning skills”. Now OFSTED themselves say (in a post-Wilshaw change to the inspection handbook):

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

But this consultancy takes money training schools in how to show these “aspects of learning”. How will the inspector/consultant judge that traditional teacher? In line with the handbook, or in line with the advice they have been selling to schools?

And, as a note for non-teachers here,  just because these phrases might seem vague, doesn’t mean this is not important. In schools (and in those OFSTED reports which condemned lessons dominated by the teacher) these sorts of phrases carry a lot of weight and tell you a lot about the style of teaching. If you know an inspector is looking for “independence”, “resilience” or “thinking skills” you are likely to teach in particular ways, usually emphasising groupwork, problem-solving and discovery learning. It would be a brave (or foolish teacher) who interpreted “independence” to mean students quietly doing written work, “thinking skills” to be exemplified in solving 100s of challenging equations or “building resilience” to be brought about by writing particularly long essays. As long as consultants are making money telling people how to do the “OFSTED preferred style of teaching” how can anyone believe the chief inspector when he says there is no OFSTED preferred style of teaching?

Wednesday saw yet another OFSTED abuse of power in the shape of the publication of the inspection report into King’s Science Academy, a free school in Bradford. On the face of it, it does not seem ridiculous that a new school just settling into its facilities might be graded as “requiring improvement”. Contacts I have in new schools elsewhere have had similar experiences. The criticisms in the “teaching and learning” section of the report do not seem unreasonable, at least to those of us who do not know the school. What is outrageous are some of the statements in other sections of the report. Remember when reading these that OFSTED are not meant to have a preferred teaching style; inspectors are not meant to be looking for “engagement, interest and concentration” in every observation; free schools are meant to be able to do their own thing, and that the government have pushed academic rigour.

Under the heading “This is an academy that requires improvement. It is not good because:” we read:

The length of the academy day and intensive academic programme can detract from students’ enjoyment of learning, especially towards the end of the day when their attention wanes.

Under the headline “What does the school need to do to improve further?” we read that the school must get more students to make good progress by:

…ensuring that all students work independently and do not rely too much on teachers telling them what to do.

Most bizarrely of all, under the heading “The behaviour and safety of students” we read:

Students were keen to talk to inspectors and to express their opinions about the academy. They identified the lessons they enjoy and also the type of teaching they like best. This is when they take an active part in lessons and are able to investigate things for themselves; not always being told what to do in lessons and to carry out instructions. Some students told inspectors that they think that the academy day is too long, especially when they choose to, or have to stay for an extra hour to do their homework.

Based on those three sections alone it is hard not to endorse the comments of the school’s  principal who observed that: “they could not understand our model of education”. Now this is a school that has been visited and praised by the prime minister. It was described by the Telegraph as being the school which “comes closest to David Cameron’s vision of what a free school should be“. Being celebrated by politicians does not mean the school is any good, and if a free school is failing to deliver it should be held to account, but it does make one wonder by what right OFSTED can condemn its curriculum, expectations or style of teaching. Now I know there are those reading this who will think all of those comments are a perfectly fair thing to say about traditional teaching, an academic curriculum, or a schools that makes students work hard. But once again, that is the view of somebody with a preferred style of teaching and a belief that certain qualities should be observed in all observations (even those at the end of the day). It is not the sort of opinion OFSTED is meant to be expressing. They are not in line with those of government, their chief inspector or their own handbook. What mandate do OFSTED have to express this ideological judgement on how and what children should learn?

Of course, this point will probably be lost in political controversy about free schools. I’ve already been told on Twitter that my objection to the behaviour of OFSTED is down to some views I must hold about the politics of the free school policy. So I will take the opportunity to also lay into a less controversial recent OFSTED report that has been brought to my attention. The leaders of the Fallibroome Academy in Macclesfield are unlikely to object to the series of “Outstandings” which appear on their report, but it is as ideologically loaded as that for the King’s Science Academy and just as much a part of OFSTED’s crusade against traditional teaching. Apparently, even in this much praised school, to say “the quality of teaching is outstanding” still entails that teachers:

…involve students actively in their  learning and make them think for themselves. On very rare occasions, progress slows in lessons where students do not have enough independence…

Inevitably:

What does the school need to do to improve further? Make teaching and learning even better by ensuring that all teachers … make the most of students’ excellent behaviour and very positive attitudes, by giving them more opportunities to work independently

Even more inevitably:

In a few lessons, teachers talked too much.

Now, I am of the view that, unless Wilshaw takes control of his own organisation, the OFSTED campaign against didactic teaching is going to continue. It may even take ministerial intervention to stop it. Which is why I was intrigued about my final bit of OFSTED news. Michael Gove told headteachers on Friday that: “One thing Michael [Wilshaw] acknowledges is that while there are many great inspectors, some of those who carry out inspections for Ofsted need to raise their game.” I’m hoping this indicates that the message is getting through to ministers but some of his additional comments suggest he is still complacent about about who really has power over schools and, despite the whining of the education esrtablishment, it’s not the politicians.

13 comments

  1. Is ‘working independently’ a euphemism for ‘working in groups’? Do OFSTED ever directly praise ‘working in groups’, or do they always substitute ‘working independently’?

    ‘What mandate do OFSTED have to express this ideological judgement on how and what children should learn?’

    Of course, this is the bigger question. How independent should OFSTED inspectors be of government policy?


    • “independenty” usually means talking to each other not the teacher. OFSTED have praised working in groups more explicitly.


  2. ‘…ensuring that all students work independently and do not rely too much on teachers telling them what to do.’

    I wish my teachers had told us what to do and actually led the lessons. In the mid-80’s leaving students to work independently was all the rage and many of us have had to make up for it through self-study or progressing through a career.

    As a teacher I realised that independent learning was all very good, but most pupils spend too much time chatting about irrelevant topics and enjoy independent learning better that more directed learning because they don’t have to think too hard. As a pupil it’s great, but once you’ve left school you look back with bitter regret that the ‘teachers’ didn’t do more teaching.


  3. The criticism of the length of the school day is astounding. Imagine, a longer school day and the added indignity of homework also. Actually it sounds like the school I teach at but it is independent. How many independent schools could be similarly criticised?


  4. “Students were keen to talk to inspectors and to express their opinions about the academy. They identified the lessons they enjoy and also the type of teaching they like best. This is when they take an active part in lessons and are able to investigate things for themselves; not always being told what to do in lessons and to carry out instructions. Some students told inspectors that they think that the academy day is too long, especially when they choose to, or have to stay for an extra hour to do their homework.”

    Basically sounds like too often the pupils were not engaged or bored. Question is I suppose is can you still learn when you are bored? Or what can be learnt when you are bored? I’m pretty sure pupils can appear engaged or attentive but may not actually be learning the intended knowledge. Longer term though surely any school regardless of type is going to struggle if students are not engaged for significant amounts of their time at school.


  5. Independent learning is only ever any use when pupils are applying existing knowledge (or, indeed, skills). It’s completely hopeless for taking on new knowledge or skills.

    It makes me despair that supposedly intelligent people cannot grasp this simple fact.


  6. Just read the alternative inspection for King’s Academy from Dec 2012 by ‘Challenge Leaders’. On many points it totally contradicts the Ofsted report. I can well believe the school has some work to do (marking done externally?) but the Ofsted inspection looks very fishy in the light of that other report.
    In what kind of mad world are teaching methods questionable because students say they prefer it when lessons are more fun? Of course they do – I prefer fun also. Oh, the students would prefer not to be doing homework after school – you astound me!


  7. How can we be sure OFSTED inspectors are not simply applying, “what pupils say”, for vested political interest? In other words, fabrication.
    Also, I think more active teacher control and involvement is the best safeguard against pupil bullying. Children working together in peer groups invariably means some will be dominant while others lack confidence. I’ve seen it happen.


  8. tut tut Heather.

    For shame!

    You appear not to be heeding the opinions of immature children and adolescents!

    How very dare you.

    I would urge you to take a leaf out of my book.

    My young child has expressed a dislike for going to bed at bed-time.

    So from this moment forth, I am ceasing to send her to bed.

    Ok, so it may make her ill, depressed and badly tempered, but her wish is my command!


  9. I know someone who thinks bedtimes are a form of fascism…


  10. Thank you for this Andrew – cogent, compelling stuff.

    This is the bit that I get most upset by: “It would be a brave (or foolish teacher) who interpreted “independence” to mean students quietly doing written work, “thinking skills” to be exemplified in solving 100s of challenging equations or “building resilience” to be brought about by writing particularly long essays.”

    This is exactly what independence, thinking & resilience is; it should be foolish to interpret in any other way.

    Keep fighting the good fight!


  11. Oh, and I love your pic of Alistair Smith! Surprisingly, he said almost nothing I could find fault with. He even said that any school which has ‘done’ SEAL is the past 4 years cannot be considered an expert school. He has definitely moved away from all the L2L stuff.


    • My source at the Berkhamstead event suggests his conclusions stretched the evidence somewhat, but I will make up my own mind when the video is made available.



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