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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.

19 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. Thanks for this. As a relatively new teacher, yet to be OFSTEDed, I’m both dreading and intrigued by the inevitable terror of it all. This is the clearest article I’ve read on the issue and it’s certainly given me food for thought. Thank you.

    But yes, I do use mini whiteboards.


  3. Mini-whiteboards are simply the modern equivalent of slates, and are useful in the same ways and for the same things. I use them in English Language A level for testing stuff which I’ve taught in class and should have been learnt at home (currently IPA symbols, grammatical concepts, etc): it’s a very good way of checking right/wrong answers quickly without having to walk round the whole class. I didn’t even know that they were OFSTED-recommended, and am now wondering whether to throw them in the bin, since practically every ‘initiative’ I’ve been told to use in the last 20 years has been rubbish.


    • I’m not against mini-whiteboards, just the idea that they are a silver bullet. Too many experiences of lesson observations where I knew exactly how each student was doing being criticised for having no AfL because I didn’t use mini-whiteboards.


  4. Have you been able to meet with Michael Wilshaw? If not, it’s a missed chance for Ofsted to become more rational and to learn from past mistakes. If even M.W. can’t introduce consistancy into the inspections what hope is there?


  5. All through the last academic year I kept reading about Ofsted judgements in blogs and reports, while I taught my yr 11’s. I knew I was working really hard for that class, teaching them well and I knew they were learning and getting the satisfaction that comes from growing in confidence. The thing was I teach in the independent sector, am barely ever observed and think that most of my lessons would have been satisfactory or lower by Ofsted standards. They were frequently unbalanced, not especially varied, sometimes a bit dull (though actually kids were quite forgiving and positive) and dreadfully ‘teacher led’. I admire well crafted lessons but if time is an issue my focus is just not on polished delivery but instead on planning to ensure coherent teaching of content over time so kids assimilate as they go, building a bigger and bigger picture. I give the kids lots of written work, mark it and make sure they know how I expect them to do better (specifically, not using meaningless NC levels). I do try and highlight what is intrinsically interesting in the material and I think all my careful planning focusing on what kids need need to know and in what order, means I explain clearly and set homework that is well targetted practice.
    Ofsted inspections of 25 min lessons necesarily focus on style over substance. My analogy is that Ofsted focus on the icing on the cake, what can make a lesson attractive rather than what is essential. My (great) efforts were in areas inspectors probably wouldn’t notice much (I don’t even think they would like the way I mark). On the TES forums I often read lesson descriptions Ofsted might love but if they were a cake it would the tempting sort that once actually bitten you leave on the plate. Well I thought I had taught those kids really well and results suggest I had. GCSE results were outstanding and the value added on the class was through the roof. My point is, how could I have got things so right doing stuff Ofsted don’t really even look for and when ignoring so much they prioritise in inspection reports? For me it seems like the most giant exercise in barking up the wrong tree.
    So I agree with Coe now I have watched the talk (also having missed him for a nice lunch). Thanks OA for a great post, especially one in which you agree with the point I have thought for a long time that lessons don’t need to be given a range of grades. If lessons are inadequate then that should be highlighted but beyond that you need more evidence to pass judgement.


    • Your lessons sound outstanding to me, Heather – but then i also teach in the independent sector and am much more interested in my subject than in teaching per se.

      I expect (nay, hope) that I too would be given a low mark by OFSTED. Among real teachers (like you, me and AO), this ought to be a badge of honour, don’t you think?


      • Behind the irony lies an absolutely critical point. Ofsted has never been interested in scholarship. It takes one to know one…which is really also of course what lies behind Robert Coe’s criticism of their methodology.


  6. A well thought out and delivered suggestion.

    A win- win.


  7. Ofsted have wasted 20 years of being able to draw in and aggregate valuable data so, on hearing Professor Coe speak, I couldn’t resist the inevitable question. I have been asking them that question about data at BETT and any other public facing outings they have had, for years, and to always be greeted with the equivalent of a corporate facepalm. Interesting times… I’m not particularly into Ofsted bashing as much as I once was, having mellowed over the years, but it is good to see that the evidence is stacking up about quality of observations or even just observation in general. This whole snapshot culture has got to change.

    re: Consultants – as a consultant I only go in to deal with curricular issues now and again. My last outing was to teach a series of lessons on computing in front of staff and then to have a breakdown of what they thought afterwards and how they might apply it in their context if at all…Also to bring to people all the resources I have been able to acquire in my time not teaching and which they could not possibly garner from a standing start in their own time. These are usually pointers to other teachers and what they have done and their contexts and (increasingly joined up) communities. I’m not a big fan of being parachuted in at all and that was one reason I never took the easy route of taking up the Ofsted ‘franchise’ in the boomtown years – frankly I didn’t care for the whole enterprise.

    Usually I just recommend how a school can do it for themselves – often for free and as a STEM ambassador I also work in schools for free. We do have a role sometimes you know ;)


  8. I am only a Governor, but lessons from our latest Ofsted inspection would back up everything that you say. Until things change, however, I would suggest a couple of ways that schools could protect their pupils and staff (and indeed Governors).

    First, never allow inspectors to do anything unsupervised, be it observing lessons or interrogating pupils or even just going around the school. Perhaps each inspector could be allocated a Year 10 or 11 minder, since the pupils are arguably the most independent people involved in the process. This would bring the additional benefit of Pupil Participation. Secondly, I would recommend keeping a recording (ideally video) of the whole process.

    This would obviously have resource implications for the school at the time of inspection, but would put inspectors “on notice” that their procedures and behaviour are not entirely beyond scrutiny. It would also minimise the scope for subsequent disagreement about who said what, and when, and how.

    These precautions in themselves should reduce the risk of a botched inspection. And the resource implications of a botched inspection have to be fully experienced to be believed.


  9. A very well reasoned post, providing a sound rationale for the sector’s distaste for its regulator. Your final point about inspectors’ moonlighting as consultants highlights a particular problem. The govt seemed to take this conflict of interest seriously in another context when it decided to stop Chief Examiners telling schools what to prepare their students for. It seems to me even more serious – more like corruption than conflict of interest – where they are taxpayer funded, and where they wield so much power. Like the above commentator, I am a governor, and am working out how to help the school develop resilience against the insidious effects of Ofsted … it is surely wrong to have to think like that!


  10. Leaving aside the critical question of whether or not learning can be observed, can classroom observation (which can only observe behaviour) of a single class be the basis for a fair assessment of a teacher’s competence? Economist and longtime academic Thomas Sowell (in “Inside American Education” 1993) suspects it is not. To assess whether a teacher’s students are really improving, he suggests, you would need to see them several times over a fairly long period. Just seeing a class once, an observer can’t tell how that particular lesson fits into the overall curriculum for that class, or even whether it fits in at all.


  11. […] to stop child protection and financial scandals (ideas for what to do about OFSTED can be found here). I don’t think Labour can credibly promise simply to reverse the harm being done to pay and […]


  12. […] is really just a follow up to this post: What I’d do about OFSTED I thought I’d spend a little more time emphasising why I think OFSTED needs to be abolished, […]


  13. […] post-script: in linking to his blog, most of the way through writing this, I realised Andrew has made many of the points I was making. I’ve read his blog before so I’ve no doubt I was subconsciously influenced when writing: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/what-id-do-about-ofsted/ […]


  14. […] What I’d do about OFSTED […]



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