A couple of weeks ago I went for lunch just as Robert Coe was talking at the ResearchED conference. This was a bit of a shame, because:
- It was a very interesting talk;
- At one point he asked if I was in the audience and would make myself known.
- Lunch was really nice;
- I was really hungry;
- I would not have known what do if I’d heard him calling for me to make myself known.
You can find the talk, along with lots of other goodies, on the ResearchED youtube channel.
One of the things he claimed was that lesson observations were an unproven method of improving teaching, which led to the following comments during questions:
This was widely reported and dismissed by HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw who claimed:
“I don’t know of any headteacher who doesn’t believe that classroom observation isn’t anything other than a help. The fact that we are an inspectorate and we do make judgements has made a huge amount of difference.”
This has led me to reflect further on what is wrong with OFSTED and what needs to be done about them.
Firstly, I should give a bit of background. About 10 years ago I went through a week long OFSTED and was satisfied to have my lessons based on whole-class teaching graded as “good” while others in my department who were using the latest trendiest methods (i.e. those popularised in Britain in the 1960s) were merely “satisfactory”. However, as the years went by, it became apparent that OFSTED was turning to the dark side, rarely did any trendy nonsense come through without us being told it was OFSTED approved. I was fortunate enough to escape the OFSTED gaze for many years, at one point going through an entire inspection without being observed but during that time there was a remarkable amount of hassle from managers who wanted group work and mini-whiteboards with minimal teacher talk or actual work because anything else would fail OFSTED. Unfortunately, the child-centred inquisition did catch up with me, and having believed Michael Wilshaw’s speech about what OFSTED want I was observed by an inspector while I was making kids from an often lively bottom set do challenging work in their books largely in silence (not because I had told them to be silent but because they were focussed on the work).
I was informed in scathing feedback from the inspector that I should have made the lesson more fun and that students should have been sat together talking about the work not spread out across the room, sat in rows and working quietly. While dealing with the fall-out from this observation, I googled the inspector and found that they worked for a consultancy who advise teachers on how to introduce more collaborative practices (i.e. groupwork) and “thinking skills” into lessons in my subject. They also had decades of history working with any number of organisations known by their initials promoting fashionable methods. Not surprisingly, I began researching how common my experience was and just how committed to progressive teaching methods OFSTED still were and eventually much of what I found out appeared in my many blogposts about OFSTED.
Since then the leadership in OFSTED seems to have bent over backwards in its efforts to declare that there is not meant to be an OFSTED approved teaching style and I have gone from hearing stories about how uninterested OFSTED bigwigs were in change to hearing about sincere efforts to change the culture of the organisation. All of which leads me to the question of whether OFSTED can be changed and what should be done about it.
Long before my recent writing on the subject I had argued that OFSTED needs to be abolished because of the indirect effect it has on schools. Managers force all sorts of rubbish on teachers on the grounds (rightly or wrongly) that OFSTED will require it. I have not really changed my views on this. OFSTED has spent years enforcing trendy teaching methods on schools. We know that Wilshaw’s changes did not end this, and even if he were to succeed in getting the message through to his own inspectors it may take many years, probably more years than Wilshaw will remain in post, to get the message through to schools. To speed this up school inspection needs a “year zero” – a fresh start – in which schools can be told that nothing they have been told in the past about how to teach counts any more. I believe that this requires more than incremental reform; it requires something far closer to starting again from scratch. Apart from the issues regarding teaching, I think there are fundamental questions about whether OFSTED is able to inspect such things as child protection and financial mismanagement in a two day visit. How many scandals over child abuse, child safety and corruption have occurred in schools with an OFSTED seal of approval? While I doubt this suggestion is going to appeal much to Michael Gove, I can see advantages to moving some of the oversight in these areas back to local authorities so schools can be continually monitored leaving OFSTED to focus on academic standards. I would like to see a new schools inspectorate with a narrower remit and a clear distance from past mistakes.
The current model of regulation needs to change. I apologise that I can’t remember who first suggested this analogy, but OFSTED (or a new inspection body) needs to be more like restaurant inspectors and less like food critics. They should say what is not fit for human consumption, not push a particular subjective vision of what is best. Or to offer an analogy of my own, they should be more like the British Board of Film Classification than like film critics. They should say what is not suitable for children, not tell us what is a work of art. The regulation of schools should be focussed on preventing the unacceptable. Identifying schools which are examples to all is a good thing, but it should not be the job of a regulator. Let other organisations praise schools; organisations whose agenda is clear and whose opinions can be accepted or rejected accordingly. Schools should be doing their job not chasing grades and the entire OFSTED spin-off industry of consultants and advisers needs to be shut down before it wastes any more money. Schools inspectors should set a minimum standard and that should be as objective as possible. If this does not do enough to improve schools then raise that standard, but there is little reason to think that efforts to impress OFSTED beyond a basic minimum impression of competence do anyone any good at all, and plenty of reasons to fear it does harm.
Beyond this, there are certain areas where the approach to inspection is, in my view, pretty indefensible. Robert Coe is right to question the effectiveness of observations, but even if we accept that suitably competent inspectors are able to judge lessons it seems absurd to suggest that they can judge every lesson they observe for 25 minutes so precisely that they can accurately put it into one of four categories. An inspector might notice in 25 minutes that they are watching a disaster unfolding or that a teacher doesn’t know their subject. On rare occasions an inspector might happen to stumble into something wonderful, although it is highly likely that this would be a show put on for the inspector which just so happened to fit the inspector’s taste than an indicator of general teaching quality, but most observations are going to simply be too brief to make any genuine judgement about the quality of teaching. It is no wonder inspectors rely on personal preferences or checklists of activities when they are expected to make such a judgement on so little evidence. Even the defenders of observation tend to suggest that it is only across the whole school, and when triangulated with results, that these judgements are meaningful, which makes giving grades to individual teachers which may affect their whole careers utterly unfair. Lesson observation should be based on whole lessons and should be pass or fail (with opportunities to pass on comments, but not grades, about particularly good practice). The existence of the outstanding grade simply encourages teachers to throw gimmicks at inspectors. There should also be a “no conclusions drawn” option for inspectors. They should be able to say when they find it impossible to judge what they’ve seen, not forced to guess and then climb down if the school kicks up a fuss.
Connected to the issue of what inspectors are looking for is the issue of how it is described. There is a strong tradition in education debate. largely on the progressive side, to use words in ambiguous ways or even to redefine words to mean something else. Phonics denialists will often redefine the word “reading” so as to include guessing the meaning of a word you can’t actually read. Students will be told to work in groups in order to show “independence”. I heard a senior figure in OFSTED explain that references to “fluency” in the new National Curriculum should be interpreted to mean understanding concepts, not being able to recall information. I cannot overstate the extent to which everything in education has to be clearly stated and clearly defined. This does not happen with OFSTED publications. It is hard to get across the bizarre conversations you can have about OFSTED criteria. I have shown people the section of the OFSTED handbook which says: “[n]ot all aspects of learning, for example pupils’ engagement, interest, concentration, determination, resilience and independence, may be seen in a single observation” only to be told that this simply confirms that they will be looking for those things generally. Very recently, I have been told that the passages in the latest handbook about how outstanding behaviour implies that “[p]upils’ consistently display a thirst for knowledge and a love of learning” means that students must be entertained by the teaching and that this will be expected if lesson observations are to be given an outstanding. I’m still being told that “independence” (meaning groupwork) is what OFSTED will want to see and that OFSTED will only tolerate marking in the form of a written dialogue with the student. The belief in providing “evidence” for OFSTED means I still hear of primary teachers being told to write the words “verbal feedback” in books and in some schools, incredibly, A.P.P. still exists.
It doesn’t help that there is still jargon in the handbook, the maths section talks of “requir[ing] pupils to think and reason for themselves” which in education debate can mean a ludicrous variety of things many of which require particular types of teaching and activity. Wilshaw may be intent on removing overly proscriptive phrases from the OFSTED vocabulary, but this has often just created ambiguity. It is not enough simply to say “we won’t require X”, you have to say “we are perfectly happy to see Z”. Anything which OFSTED have appeared to be against in the past needs to be directly rehabilitated and declared permissible in the handbook, otherwise old habits will continue. In particular, the handbook needs to state quite clearly that the ability to explain a subject clearly and effectively is a vital part of teaching, and while it might not be required in every observation, it is something that should be demonstrated across a school during an inspection.
Finally, the consultant culture needs to end. I think there are ethical issues about allowing people who work for a regulator to hire themselves out (even with restrictions) to give advice to people on how to cope with regulation, but there are also practical issues. Consultants don’t simply repeat what’s in the handbook, they give advice about what inspectors will want to see that goes beyond what OFSTED say officially. This creates a hidden framework for inspection which they then have the power to enforce. No consultant can be trusted to inspect a school because they are as likely to judge a school on the basis of how much it does the sort of thing they have recommended to others as judge it on the official criteria. If you’ve advised a school, say, to use mini-whiteboards in every geography lesson, then when you go into a school and see that it uses mini whiteboards in geography you will be biased towards that school. Gamekeepers should not be in the business of giving advice to poachers.
To sum up my views, inspection needs to be objective, transparent and based on stamping out the unacceptable. OFSTED’s history and much of what it does now, means it is ill-suited for that task.