Do OFSTED pay attention to their chief inspector or their handbook?

March 23, 2013

A couple of people who I respect enormously have, during my recent OFSTED campaign, picked me up on one point: why do I write as if the organisation, and its chief inspector, have very different agendas? Or to put it another way, when Sir Michael’s words contradict his organisation’s actions why believe that it the organisation, rather than his words, which misrepresent his intentions?

My only answer really is that having heard him speak I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt on the issue of good intentions. He seems to be saying the right things as if he believed them. He was at it again this week, according to the Times (via School improvement.net )

 Sir Michael said children needed an element of rote learning, a grasp of basic facts and to master reading, writing, spelling, punctuation and grammar before they could learn at a higher level, and many prep and private schools used a similar approach.

As a head teacher he had long seen a need to replace the national curriculum with one that emphasised such a more traditionalist approach, especially in maths and English, he said.

“I am extremely upset and concerned that there should be this level of criticism for what I think is absolutely essential – more rigour in the national curriculum and a greater focus on basic skills,” Sir Michael said.

However, no matter how good his intentions might be, it is worth asking what difference anything he does makes. Here I want to look at one example of OFSTED at the centre (presumably under Sir Michael’s direction) making an important central change which is then immediately ignored by other parts of the organisation. As I’ve discussed before, the old OFSTED handbook contained the following phrase in its description of “outstanding” teaching:

 Teaching promotes pupils’ high levels of resilience, confidence and independence when they tackle challenging activities.

For good teaching:

 Teaching generally promotes pupils’ resilience, confidence and independence when tackling challenging activities.

This could be interpreted in many ways but in education “independence” has become code for minimising the role of the teacher and the amount of direct instruction. This is something that, perhaps, may only becomes apparent when you hear teachers say apparently contradictory things such as “I do lots of groupwork in order to encourage independence” and I realise some may doubt that this is the usual interpretation (although it can be argued that guidance at the time made clear it was the correct interpretation). What cannot be doubted is that when the post-Wilshaw version of the OFSTED handbook appeared in late 2012 this phrase was removed and the only refernce to “independence” was:

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

Now, whatever your precise understanding of the text, this seems to be a significant change from requiring the promotion of independence as a feature of outstanding teaching, to only mentioning it as something that does not need to be seen in every observation and it appeared to underline the message Sir Michael had communicated that there would be no OFSTED-approved teaching style. I have certainly seen the old text used in schools as “proof” that OFSTED require a particular method of teaching, and disappointment on the part of true believers when they discovered that text was no longer a canonical part of the Gospel according to OFSTED. We can assume that this could not have happened by accident or against Sir Michael’s wishes and that anyone claiming that OFSTED are still looking for “independence” was behind the times and anyone specifying that this must include groupwork must be unaware of Sir Michael’s repeated claims that no particular teaching style was required.

For these reasons, a good test of how much this kind of central change makes would be to see whether it has affected the subject guidance documents. These materials are to be used when surveying the quality of teaching of individual subjects in schools, providing more detail and at times providing a more detailed interpretation of the general criteria and forming the basis of any subject reports. These were updated in the early months of this year, and because they are written by subject specialists and so provide a good indicator of how much effect the OFSTED handbook changes have had across OFSTED. If we look to see what these say, after the requirement for independence was removed from the handbook, we find how little things have really changed under Wilshaw.

From the science guidance we find that outstanding achievement requires:

Pupils show exceptional independence; they are able to think for themselves and raise their own questions about science knowledge and understanding and scientific enquiry.

Good achievement means:

Pupils regularly work independently, often taking the initiative in individual work and when working with others.They show confidence and competence in the full range of stage-appropriate practical work, including planning and carrying out science investigations in groups or individually

Achievement which requires improvement means:

 Pupils are generally dependent on their teachers, particularly when the teaching methods used do not encourage independent thought.

Inadequate achievement means:

Pupils rarely work independently or take the initiative in their work.

From the English guidance, we find out that outstanding achievement means:

Pupils have learnt to be effective independent learners, able to think for themselves and to provide leadership, while also being sensitive to the needs of others.

Good achievement means:

Pupils express their ideas clearly and well in discussion and work effectively in different groups. Pupils are able to show independence and initiative; for instance, raising thoughtful questions or helping to drive forward group work.

An outstanding curriculum means that:

Independent learning and wide reading are very well promoted.

A curriculum in need of improvement means there are only:

Some opportunities are provided for pupils to work independently.

In history, inadequate achievement means:

Pupils rarely demonstrate enthusiasm, initiative, creative or the ability to learn independently in history.

In RE, outstanding achievement means:

Pupils show exceptional independence; they can think for themselves and take the initiative in, for  example, asking questions, carrying out their own investigations, evaluating ideas and working constructively with others.

Good achievement means:

Pupils show independence; they can think for themselves and take some initiative in, for example, asking questions, carrying out investigations and working with others. 

And inadequate achievement means:

Pupils rarely show the ability to work independently or take the initiative in RE.

In modern languages, outstanding achievement means:

Pupils show exceptional independence in their studies and can use a range of resources, including ICT, to develop their language skills and investigate aspects that interest them.

Almost all pupils work hard, develop resilience and understand that language learning is often challenging, purposeful and collaborative.

Good achievement means:

Pupils are able to work independently when given the opportunity, taking the initiative in their work and when working with others.

Achievement requiring improvement means:

Pupils can occasionally work independently and take initiative in developing their work but more often are dependent on their teachers for written and oral prompts when trying to create new sentences….

…Some pupils are reluctant to work in pairs or groups using the target language and frequently return to English.

Inadequate achievement means:

Pupils are unable to work independently or take the initiative in their work.

Outstanding teaching means:

Precisely targeted support from other adults encourages all pupils to develop independence and a desire to use the target language for real communication.

Good teaching means:

Planning is informed by a good level of subject expertise. As a result, teachers use an appropriate range of resources and teaching strategies to promote good learning across all aspects of the subject and ensure pupils develop the skills they need to become independent language learners.

An inadequate curriculum means:

Pupils are given insufficient opportunities to develop creativity, linguistic competence, cultural understanding or the skills needed to be independent language learners.

Even in PE, outstanding achievement means:

They know how to improve their own and others’ performance, and work independently for extended periods of time without the need of guidance or support.

Achievement requiring improvement means:

Pupils are too dependent on the teacher and cannot work independently for sustained periods of time without their support or guidance.

Inadequate teaching means:

Too much teacher talk, low expectations and few opportunities to learn independently lead to long periods of inactivity.

In maths, outstanding achievement means:

Pupils … show exceptional independence and take the initiative in solving problems in a wide range of contexts, including the new or unusual. Pupils think for themselves and are prepared to persevere when faced with challenges, showing a confidence that they will succeed.

Good achievement means:

They are able to work independently, and sometimes take the initiative in solving problems in various contexts.

Outstanding teaching (in a section which also contradicts Wilshaw’s previously indicated views about maths teaching) means:

Teaching is rooted in the development of all pupils’ conceptual understanding of important concepts [so much for Wilshaw’s “element of rote”] and progression within the lesson and over time.

…Teachers nurture mathematical independence, allowing time for thinking and encouraging discussion. Problem- solving, discussion and investigation are integral to pupils’ learning of mathematics…

 … [Teachers] use a very wide range of teaching strategies to stimulate all pupils’ active participation in their learning, together with innovative and imaginative resources, including practical activities and, where appropriate, the outdoor environment.

Good teaching means:

Teaching develops pupils’ understanding of important concepts as well as their proficiency in techniques and recall of knowledge, equipping pupils to work independently.

In EBE (Economics, business and enterprise), outstanding achievement means:

Pupils on formally assessed economics and business education courses show exceptional independence; they are able to think for themselves and take the initiative in, for example, asking questions, carrying out their own investigations and in working constructively with others. They show significant levels of originality, imagination or creativity in their understanding and skills within the subject.

Good achievement means: 

Pupils on formally assessed economics and business education courses are able to work independently when given the opportunity, taking the initiative in their work and when working with others. They demonstrate some originality, imagination or creativity in their subject work.

Achievement in need of improvement means: 

Pupils on formally assessed economics and business education courses are generally dependent on their teachers but can occasionally work independently and take the initiative in developing their work.

 Inadequate achievement means:

Pupils on formally assessed economics and business education courses rarely show the ability to work independently or take the initiative in their work. They rarely demonstrate creativity or originality in their subject work.

In geography, outstanding achievment means:

Pupils show exceptional independence; they are able to think for themselves and take the initiative in, for example, asking questions, carrying out their own investigations and working constructively with others. They show significant levels of originality, imagination or creativity in their understanding and skills within the subject.

Good achievement means:

Pupils are able to work independently when given the opportunity, taking the initiative in their work and when working with others. They demonstrate some originality, imagination or creativity in their subject work.

Achievement requiring improvement means:

Pupils are generally dependent on their teachers but can occasionally work independently and take the initiative in developing their work. Occasionally, pupils show creative or original responses in their subject work.

Inadequate achievement means:

Pupils rarely learn independently and rely heavily on the teacher to provide answers.

In music, inadequate achievement means:

Pupils rarely show the ability or willingness to work independently or take the initiative in their work.

Now I realise there is a lot of ambiguity about the word “independence” and it is easy to find interpretations of the word that everyone would be quite happy with. But what is the point of removing a word from the OFSTED handbook other than to say it will not be expected to be seen in every observation, only to set out guidance a few months later suggesting it is a core attribute of what achievement looks like in almost every single subject? Who is really setting the agenda here?


  1. I’m not keen on defending Ofsted, but I think you’re barking at the moon a bit here. To you, the word independence seems to be equated with “progressive” teaching which I’m aware you despise. I don’t see that at all, pupils can show independence perfectly well in a very traditional teaching setting through the quality and originality of questions they ask to the teacher or in their written work.

    My interpretation of the above is that independence is (rightly) important and desirable in all subjects, but that the new guidelines just show that an inspector should not expect to see it within the 20 minutes that they might see. I hope this is to stop schools making teachers plan in ridiculous ways (four part lessons etc) just so that a potential ofsted inspector can check every single box on his list. I don’t see a contradiction between the statements.

    Of course, whether individual inspectors follow the guidelines properly is another matter. From my experience of two Ofsteds (2004 and 2011), I have generally found the inspectors to be decent, reasonable people who have looked to find the positive. The biggest problem I find is school leadership and their fear of Ofsted. Rather than being confident about what their school consistently does well and being willing to defend it, they’re constantly second guessing what Ofsted’s flavour of the month is, and making teachers waste time producing paper trails and staged performances.

    • I think I said quite clearly that there was more than one possible interpretation of “independence” and it could be interpreted as something desirable. The key point, however, is that whatever it means OFSTED saw fit to remove it from the handbook as a requirement, yet we then see subject specialists pushing it in the subject guidance as a requirement.

      Should subject guidance be based on the pre-Wilshaw handbook or on the handbook drawn up under the current leadership?

    • I think the problem is very much concerned with interpretation, by OFSTED, leadership teams, and so on. It sounds like you have had inspection teams that have taken a reasonable view, but that doesn’t seem always to be the case.

      It would also be interesting to know if your experience would differ under the new framework (2012 mark 2 rather than mark 1), which does appear to be considerably more aggressive, and I think there is evidence to suggest (here and elsewhere) it is being applied more prescriptively.

      Some of the questioning from inspectors seems to take of the form “Would you not agree that X shows that Y is true?”, focussing on quite narrow issues (rhetoric that reminds me a little of the “When did you stop beating your wife?” type of question.) The agenda on our recent inspection (I write as a governor) seemed to be very tightly steered by the inspection team, with little room for arguing the wider case.

      I have a lot of sympathy with school leadership on this. It looks more and more that headteachers are only a couple of bad inspections away from the end of a career, and it’s a huge risk to “bet the farm” on being able to persuade an OFSTED inspector away from their initial impressions. Much easier to “play the game” and try to give them what they are looking for, rather than banking on trying to convince them (by implication) that they are looking for the wrong thing!

      The other factor I have seen is a tendency that if you point out fairly manifest inconsistencies between the content of inspection reports and MW’s speeches, DfE guidance etc. (thinking here specifically of the role of governors covered in another post), then the tendency seems to be to tell you that’s it’s somehow your fault that you’ve misinterpreted what was written, rather than reflecting that it is an interpretation shared by many others, so a reasonable conclusion would be that the words were at best ambiguous, even if they don’t reflect a real contradiction. (Although personally I think the contradictions are real enough!)

  2. Was it actually removed from the handbook as a requirement? My interpretation of “Not all aspects of learning….will be seen in a single observation.” is that these things are still expected, but just that the inspector cannot mark a lesson down just because he hasn’t seen direct evidence of it in one particular observation. To me it’s a pragmatic change to try to reduce oversimplistic box ticking.

    • “Was it actually removed from the handbook as a requirement?”

      Yes. I believe I mentioned this at the start. I’m well aware that an apologist for OFSTED can argue that independence doesn’t mean what I think it means (although the usual context in schools doesn;t vary tremendously) and that just because the only mention of it in the handbook is in a negative context, it doesn’t mean it is not required as some level.

      However, and perhaps my blog was not clear on this, if that was the case then removing it from the handbook would be deeply misleading. Removing something from the handbook, except to say how unimportant it now is, surely suggests it should no longer be something looked for in subject surveys?

  3. Yes, we all support ‘independence’ even if meanings differ. However, do we all think the independence described in these statements is something that should be observed in all lessons and shown by all pupils? That is a bizzare expectation. It is not even desirable in all lessons and while teachers reading these descriptions can probably think of students that ‘work independently showing creativity, imagination’ etc etc we know this is never the majority of students, certainly not by my meaning of the word independence anyway. That is unless ‘independence’ is actually code for a certain style of teaching as OA explains. Group work, discussion etc can certainly be planned for every lesson and many schools know that is what Ofsted want to see and will tick the independence box nicely if it is laid on. Whether it is actually an indication of ‘independence’ is another matter entirely.

    • The trouble with this is that so much progressive education discourse is in code. My blog can point out the inconsistency between handbook and subject guidance here, but only those familiar with the situation in schools will know why it is important, and only those hostile to the progressive consensus will have reason to care.

  4. I’m certainly not an ofsted apologist, I think that the whole system has many damaging effects on schools and pupils education as we all “play the game”, chasing whatever flavour of the month rather than concentrating on actually teaching our pupils well in ways that we know works for us. Ofsted has far, far too much power and should be working WITH schools to improve education, not used as a stick to beat them.

    However, I don’t actually see much in the guidelines that I actually disagree with, particularly since the update. What we should be willing to do is argue about how the guidelines are interpreted in our classrooms.

    For example, in my SEN English class I would like my pupils to be able to write quietly in their own in their books for 5-10 minutes based on my instruction and a good discussion we’ve had in task where they’ve all contributed. That’s BIG ask for some of them given their special needs and issues, and I might achieve it once or twice a term. To me that fulfils most of the outstanding criteria: “Pupils have learnt to be effective independent learners, able to think for themselves and to provide leadership, while also being sensitive to the needs of others.” Unfortunately for an Ofsted inspector to actually recognise that achievement, they would have to take the time to understand something about my pupils and talk to me about the context of that lesson. And, depending what’s happened to my pupils at home or in the corridor on the way to the lesson that particular day, it might not be achievable on any given day anyway, but with discussion the inspector should at least recognise what I intended to achieve, even if it went awry because of factors beyond my control.

    So, if you don’t think that independence should be synonymous with group work, then you as a professional should be willing and able to explain to Ofsted about how pupils do show independence in your classroom. I totally agree that teachers should be free to teach in their own style and be confident about explaining how and why they teach in that way and why it’s effective. But because Ofsted are so powerful very few teachers or even school leaders are brave enough to have that discussion and justify themselves in that way. It’s a crying shame and I think there’s a few reasons for that. It’s partly the system and the constant political use of Ofsted as a blunt, heavy tool in the name of “driving up standards”. It’s partly due to careerist school leaders who will bend over backwards to please ofsted and therefore make their CVs look good (even at the expense of their own colleagues and pupils). It’s partly because the quality and approach of Ofsted inspectors seems to vary so hugely (as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been lucky). I think that the detailed wording of the Ofsted guidelines are in many ways the least of our problems.

  5. Some of your examples relate to definitions of good/outstanding achievement. Others relate to definitions of good/outstanding teaching.

    The two are very different. I think it is perfectly legitimate to include the ability to work independently among the desiderata of pupil outcomes.

    That is quite a different thing to making group work part of the definition of good or outstanding teaching.

    I think you are probably right in thinking that HMIs will tend to conflate the two. Keep shining that light!

    • I did consider the distinction, but achievement is a section in the main handbook and all OFSTED reports too, and also it is guidance for subject inspections of schools not, say, exam criteria. In practice it doesn’t matter where you put it, they’ll still look for it in lessons.

  6. There are some clearly some false assumptions evidnet from the Ofsted paperwork about how independence is created and measured. I’ll try and explain. From my understanding of the achievement descriptions regarding independence above, the outstanding achievement is what I tend to see from my A* students at GCSE. It is to some extent because other students don’t have that approach that they do less well. As I told my students when setting their Easter revision, it is nearly always the students that will do best that come to me after the holidays with lists of questions from their holiday revision. If you must find evidence of independence from all abilities it means the understanding of the word ‘independent’ must have been changed to mean ‘engaged in activities without the teacher’ and ends up being a judgement of the style of teaching rather than a real assessment of how effectively students can learn. Of course I know some students can show signs of independence despite being less able but the trend is inescapable.

    It is very reminiscent of the problems with the A level Politics markschemes since they were changed to emphasise the skills of learning over the learning itself. Endless analysis (i.e. skills) marks are available to students when nearly by definition they ARE a C or D grade student because they can’t understand the material well enough to analyse it. This leads to markers (like inspectors) chasing banal indicators of analysis (ironically learnt by rote, as the students by definition can’t analyse well.)
    If all the students in schools rated outstanding really were producing cohorts of effective independent learners it certainly isn’t reflected in their GCSE grades. Possibly they are producing studnets used to not getting much guidance from the teacher but that sounds like a choice for them of ‘sink or swim’ to me.

  7. ‘Pupils have learnt to be effective independent learners, able to think for themselves and to provide leadership…’

    How many leaders should there be in a classroom?

  8. in reality there are 3-4 leaders (in bad schools).

    they are the nastiest or indulged or most violent

    or have the most vociferous parents.

    in good schools there is just one- the one with the degree and the leather elbow patches….

  9. Durand Academy inspection is fascinating.
    It gets absolutely fabulous results and so had to be given outstanding overall in its last inspection. However, apparently pupils do not get enough opportunities to develop knowledge and understanding through discussion so it got 2’s in relevant judgements. Well, they seem to have managed to achieve outstanding levels of knowledge and understanding somehow. Of course, we all know what that criticism is code for, its just funny that they are still criticised and downgraded despite achieving fabulous levels of knowledge and understanding, that schools that listen to Ofsted advice on this subject can only dream of.

  10. […] in March 2013, I wrote one of my blogposts about the difference between what Sir Michael Wilshaw and the OFSTED handbook say and what OFSTED […]

  11. […] exactly what’s changed, but nothing much jumps out as having changed at all. I documented in this post in March all the ways in which independence from the teacher is praised in OFSTED guidance. Looking […]

  12. […] too much scope for misinterpretation. The subject guidance used for survey visits (as criticised here) have now been removed from the website. The guidance on quality of teaching (out soon) will be […]

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