Archive for September, 2013



September 30, 2013

I’m not sure I’d be quite as vitriolic as I was when I wrote this for a strike 5 years ago, but I think it’s worth reblogging ready for tomorrow. My more considered views from earlier this year are here.

Scenes From The Battleground

I wrote before about how I support the strike because, although pay isn’t that bad (well not unless you are in a shortage subject) teachers are discontented and should start kicking up a fuss.

However, my school will be remaining open with only a minimal number of us on strike. Overwhelmingly, my fellow NUT members would rather be scabs than rock the boat, even though some of are a lot unhappier at work than I am. It was not an option I considered, even as I began to feel more and more exposed on the issue. I suppose I have personal reasons for this. My grandfather worked on the railways before the war and used to tell me stories about how workers would be maimed at work, then sacked for being disabled (even though they could still work), and the only way to stop that was for the rest of…

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What the Echo Chamber is and isn’t

September 28, 2013

The Echo Chamber

Much of this is already covered by the “About” page but, given the strange bursts of debate that happen on Twitter about this, I thought I’d spell out what the Echo Chamber is for and how it works.

The name The Echo Chamber was chosen deliberately. It was a response to two things:

  1. Education debate in the media which only covered a narrow range of views and, in particular, presented teachers as only having a narrow range of views.
  2. The danger that those of us who stood outside of those views, no matter how prominent in the blogosphere, were only heard by each other.

I had talked in my blog on The Education Spectrum last year about how education debate which could take place in at least two dimensions, was often reduced to a single left-right spectrum shown on the red line in the diagram below:

The idea of the Echo…

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Blogs for the Week Ending 27th September 2013

September 27, 2013

I’ll Accept No Excuses for OFSTED

September 27, 2013

My last blogpost listed a whole bunch of examples of recent OFSTED publications which showed an organisation still wedded to the progressive orthodoxy that teacher talk is bad and students should work independently and maybe even discover things for themselves. There was one particular line of response to this I was expecting, and I did predict it, but I didn’t predict where it would come from. Mary Myatt, who was an OFSTED inspector who was lead inspector on one of the inspections whose reports I quoted and also writes a rather good blog, blogged the following in response:

First of all, teacher talk is neither good or bad per se. But the quality of teacher talk does matter. There are lessons where the teacher talks for a long time, but the talk is definitely adding to learning because it is usually explaining, outlining problems, highlighting difficulties and encouraging pupils to engage with the topic. Other lessons where the teacher is talking for too long are not contributing to learning. And this is usually because pupils already know what they are expected to do and are keen to get cracking. So we need to think about how much talk is needed and when to let the children start their own work. And again whether this work is silent and solitary or paired and voluble is neither good or bad in itself. It is good or bad in so far as it contributes to learning.

So I think Andrew has a case if the inspection reports he found had said that teaching was not outstanding because there was no use of six hats, coloured cups or Kagan structures etc. However the reports are identifying some of the things which stopped progress being as good as it might have been. So it is not unreasonable to say that in these circumstances the quality of teacher talk was not having the impact it might have had. [my italics]

I was expecting somebody to make the argument that just because OFSTED repeatedly attacks teacher talk, that doesn’t mean they are in any way against it. It just means they happen to have seen some teacher talk and, objectively and without prejudice, decided it was bad. Although I was expecting this argument to appear in the comments from one of my regular commentators rather than in a blog, I had done my best to pre-empt it. I had written:

I don’t want to suggest that there is never a problem with teacher talk and that it would be fine just to lecture, but reports which condemn teacher talk for its quantity, rather than its quality, suggest an ideological position about the best way to learn that still urgently needs to be addressed. [emphasis added]

I had added this to indicate that I would challenge any attempt to spin the OFSTED reports as condemning only particular instances of poor quality teacher talk rather than showing a hostility to teacher talk. Evidently I didn’t make this clear enough. So let me spell it out:

  1. I easily found multiple examples of teacher talk being condemned, I found only one example of an explanation being praised. This does not suggest neutrality.
  2. The phrases used explicitly complain about the quantity of teacher talk, not the quality. There were five separate instances of the words “too long” being used to describe talking or explaining. There were no explicit descriptions of the quality of the talk.
  3. Other phrases used showed clear preferences for teaching methods. It is apparently possible to be “too didactic” and for lessons to be “too dominated by the teacher” for OFSTED’s tastes. Students should be working “independently” and “find things out for themselves” or “explore”.
  4. This is an organisation whose bias against teacher talk has been observed or suggested countless times before. Enough times for the secretary of state for education to condemn it; enough times for consultants to offer courses in “Talkless Teaching” to impress inspectors; enough times for teachers up and down the country to report that they had been given arbitrary time limits on talking during lesson observations by their schools. It is also an organisation whose utterances are studied by schools to identify what is wanted. Even if the anti-teacher talk message in the reports was accidental, they are still culpable as the likely consequences are obvious.

So, no, this excuse fails to convince. If it convinces you, come back to me when you find a recent OFSTED report complaining that teachers did not spend enough time explaining content, that students spent too long working independently, or that learning was harmed by reliance on students discovering things for themselves rather than being told about them by their teachers.


When will OFSTED change?

September 25, 2013

I know I’ve mentioned this before, and I’m sure I’ll mention it again (and again and again), but one of the proudest moments of my blogging life was when Michael Gove said the following earlier this month:

…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.

The reason this particular utterance made blogging seem worthwhile was that this did not seem to be a case of the secretary of state for education finding something he agreed with and praising it, but actually a case of the man who we are told never listens to teachers reading something and being influenced by it. I’d like to believe he is right, and that OFSTED are changing for the better and I have heard rumours that they are looking to change.

However, given this was at the start of this term, I can’t resist pointing out how little sign of change OFSTED have shown recently regarding their attitudes to teacher talk. A few days after that speech OFSTED released a report on careers guidance which complained that “a Year 10 assembly to launch work experience was too didactic and provided no opportunities for the students to participate”. I’m trying to imagine what participation is meant to take place in work experience assemblies. Singing hymns? Shouted responses? Football chants? Only people utterly hostile to teacher talk could expect a work experience assembly to be a fully interactive experience. To quote the SecondaryCEIAG blog where I found out about this: “An assembly to launch work experience would be, by its very nature, a session jam packed of content the children need to make note of and remember such as deadlines to meet, websites to visit and paperwork procedures to follow.”

The OFSTED reports for the inspections carried out just before the summer holiday showed plenty of examples of what Gove described. Here are a few, which weren’t hard to find, all from inspections in July (the relevant school’s name is listed in brackets afterwards):

It is not yet an outstanding school because students do not have the opportunity to learn by themselves often enough because lessons are sometimes too dominated by the teacher…

Teachers are keen to ensure that students have the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in examinations. However, they are sometimes so zealous in trying to convey knowledge that they spend too long talking at the students and do not give them enough time or opportunity to find things out for themselves.

(Wymondham High Academy Trust)

It is not yet an outstanding school because… in a few lessons, teachers talk for too long. This does not allow enough time for pupils to work by themselves.

…Occasionally pupils have too little time to work by themselves when teachers talk to them for too long.

(Dymchurch County Primary School)

Teaching does not always promote pupils being independent in lessons; sometimes, they are too reliant on adult support so their progress is restricted…

Progress is limited, too, when teaching fails to make enough demands upon pupils to work independently and, as a result, they become too reliant on adult support.

(Elmhurst School)

Pupils show that they are capable of undertaking open-ended tasks to challenge their thinking and boost their independence, but are not given enough opportunities to do so.

(St Margaret’s, Collier Street Church of England Voluntary Controlled School)

In less successful lessons students are not given the opportunity to reflect on their learning or try out ideas because the teacher talks about ideas for a lengthy period of time.

(Archbishop Ilsley Catholic School)

It is not yet an outstanding school because … in some lessons the pace of learning slows because teachers talk for too long and do not take enough account of students’ ideas…

There are occasions when the lesson is dominated by the teacher and students do not have sufficient opportunity to share their own ideas. When this happens the pace of learning slows.

(Lea Valley High School)

In the lessons that required improvement, work did not sufficiently challenge students or enable them to practise their skills and the pace of learning was slowed. This was often because teachers spent too long explaining and did not allow students enough time to do their individual work or work with others.

(Grace Academy Darlaston)

Students …. are able to work independently without too much teacher intervention.

…Some sixth form lessons have a slow pace, are too dominated by the teacher

(Springwood High School)

Teaching that is not yet outstanding tends to be overly formulaic and does not free students up to explore or contribute more widely.

(Trinity Academy)

…too often, teachers ask questions which just confirm what students know rather than developing their understanding of the subject.

In a few lessons, such as a Year 9 performing arts lesson, students are given the opportunity to take total responsibility for their learning. In this lesson, the teacher, because she knew the ability of the students so well, arranged the groups so all students had a role which challenged them. In their groups they supported each other exceptionally well, making sure each of them participated and was listened to. Excellent questioning, and a focus on understanding and using keywords, all contributed to the students making outstanding progress.

(Cleethorpes Academy)

There is little reason here to think OFSTED has changed its preferred teaching style. It is still independence and discovery that is celebrated and teacher talk that is condemned very often simply for being teacher talk. I don’t want to suggest that there is never a problem with teacher talk and that it would be fine just to lecture, but reports which condemn teacher talk for its quantity, rather than its quality, suggest an ideological position about the best way to learn that still urgently needs to be addressed. Let’s hope Gove is right and it will be.

Additional note:

Another curiosity in a report was this:

Teachers have become more effective in sharing the objectives for learning with students, but still do not do this well enough in all lessons.

(The Marlowe Academy)

This might be fair comment but it is hard to see how it fits with Michael Wilshaw’s expressed opinion that:

…OFSTED, should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end and so on and so forth.


Another Problem with AfL

September 24, 2013

Earlier this month I wrote a blogpost The Problem with AfL which explained that while I am in perfect agreement with the principle of formative assessment, i.e. using assessment to find out what students don’t know and then teaching them it, the practice that has grown up around it is often harmful. However, I now realised that in my list of 4 problems I missed a 5th one. I shall now address that here:

5) AfL is being used to deter time spent practising.

There now seems to be a pervasive idea that when you use AfL techniques during a lesson to identify that students can do something then you must allow those who can to move on to something else. Often this thought is expressed using the dread word “differentiation”. This might seem to make sense and you might ask: “why would somebody continue to spend time learning something they can already do?” The trouble with this is that this question has a very simply answer, and that answer is “practice”. As we all know, what students can do in one lesson immediately after being taught, is not the greatest indicator of what they’ll be able to do the next lesson. It is not enough to simply get something right once, you need fluency . So while it may be important to find out who can’t recall or do something you have just explained, it is not the case that those who can are automatically in a position to move on. You may well want students to, not only be able to do something, but do it fast, without thought, and effortlessly. Combined with the need to “show progress”, AfL is now being used as an excuse to avoid effort and practice and simply throw new ideas at students in an effort to ensure they “show progress”. This fits in with the idea, which underlies so many educational gimmicks, that there are pedagogical shortcuts that will take the effort out of learning. Personally, I think students are only truly secure in their ability to recall something or do something when they can do it effortlessly. Ironically, this is the point where they will show least interest in wanting to move on.

Please say if you think I’ve missed any other problems with AfL.


What I’d do about OFSTED

September 21, 2013

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.

That said:

  • 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.

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