Why I don’t think OFSTED can be reformed

November 11, 2013

This 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, or changed beyond all recognition immediately, rather than gradually reformed over time.

1) Gradual reform has already had plenty of time and failed.

Having written many, many blogposts about OFSTED’s advocacy of progressive teaching methods, I would like to think I can tell if change is really happening. I have heard a few more positive stories in recent months from people who were being inspected, but when I was researching this post by flicking through OFSTED reports from inspections in early October I was amazed that it was as easy as ever it was to find examples of inspectors endorsing progressive education apparently without any awareness that it might be controversial or that they were meant to be reporting on learning, not teaching style. Perhaps there were less references to the evils of teachers talking, but there were more references than ever to the importance of students working independently and directing their own learning.

2) Changing the rules doesn’t change the people.

I despair at what I hear from OFSTED inspectors. In case you missed it, here’s an anecdote from David Didau’s Learning Spy blog:

I spent some time discussing and dispelling various Ofsted myths and for the first couple of workshops all went well. Staff felt inspired to be the expert in the room and clear about what was and wasn’t expected by Ofsted. But in the third workshop someone interrupted to say that the Ofsted inspector down the hall was telling people the exact opposite of my message. Upon investigation I discovered that this inspector was telling people the following:

  • Detailed lesson plans were required for all observed lessons
  • Progress needed to clearly demonstrated in 20 minutes
  • Teacher talk must be minimised
  • Students must be learning independently for significant proportions of every lesson.

To say I was flabbergasted is putting it mildly. But, rather than accept that this was all true, I decided to speak to the inspector over lunch. I had every expectation that his views would be much more nuanced than had been reported and that we would be able to find common ground. I was wrong. The inspector really did seem to think that these thing were true and really had been training teachers that they should be doing them. Needless to say, I made my views clear and was able to support the points I made with reference to the Handbook. I’d like to report that all ended amicably and the inspector thanked me for my perspicacity. This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not the case. This was the point at which our discussion ended:

“Yes, that what it says, but it’s not what we actually look for, and it’s not how we judge schools. If schools want to guarantee a good outcome they need to follow my advice.” Or words to that effect.

To me this isn’t particularly shocking. The progressive ethos has not been driven out of OFSTED even if it has been driven out of the handbook. Several of the people who wrote subject reviews for OFSTED full of the trendiest nonsense imaginable are still in post. The culture goes deep and often ideas from progressive education are simply assumed by people who are completely unaware that there is even an argument. When people tell me my blog has had an influence on their educational thinking, the thing I hear most often is not “your arguments convinced me that yours is the right side in the debate” but “until I read your blog, I hadn’t realised there was a debate”. OFSTED inspectors, even when told to be neutral about style of teaching, may not even know what neutral is. This point stuck in my mind recently while reading Mary Myatt’s blogpost here. In this post Mary, an OFSTED inspector, is explaining how OFSTED won’t put too much faith in individual lesson observations, and how it is what happens over time, not in a twenty minute observation that matters. However, she phrases it like this:

A handful of lesson observations do not a judgement make. They have to relate to how much progress students are making, over time. Not every ten minutes.

There’s no silver bullet for this. Certainly not a checklist of what some schools think what Ofsted wants. It’s good, thoughtful, student centred practice, day in, day out. [my italics]

Now if you are aware of the debates over traditional and progressive teaching methods, you’ll know that traditional methods are often accused of being “teacher centred” while progressive methods are described as “child centred” or “student centred”. For an OFSTED inspector, particularly one who has blogged before about there being no preferred style of teaching, to use that term is staggering. The terminology used by one side of the debate is assumed to be shared by all.

3) OFSTED are not a coherent organisation under anyone’s control.

I’d heard it claimed before that OFSTED don’t actually exist, but most recently Mark McCourt emphasised it to me when I spoke to him over half-term. While I don’t really understand the set up, inspections are actually delegated to private contractors. Different companies operate in different parts of the country. When we talk about OFSTED and OFSTED inspectors we are very often talking about employees of particular private companies. Add to this the use of inspectors who are also operating as consultants and you start to wonder who actually has control here. Whose line do inspectors follow? That of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector? Or the private company which employs them? Or the consultancy (and their customers) who they work for on the side?

And if this wasn’t bad enough, sometimes there are even more questionable interests involved in inspection team. According to the Local Schools Network, the following story recently appeared in Private Eye:

The Eye reported how “sharp-eyed parents” noticed the team that inspected Wanstead High School included Moazam Parvez, a head of a neighbouring school. Ofsted judged the school as “requires improvement” – a drop from a previous judgement of “good”.

Ofsted also judged the London Nautical School as “requires improvement”. The Eye found the  inspection team included Sir Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation academy chain which sponsors academies in London and has taken over a number of “failing” schools including Downhills.

In 2011, the Eye had received assurance from Ofsted that if any inspectors were “involved in an organisation in competition with the school under inspection” then Ofsted would regard it as “a conflict of interest to be avoided”.

The Eye asked Ofsted whether the inclusion of Parvez and Moynihan in inspection teams was a breach of that protocol. Ofsted promised an explanation but “answer came there none”.

Who does actually trust an OFSTED inspector to be independent and objective, regardless of what happens to be in the handbook?

4) Would the “reformed” OFSTED actually be of any use?

I think this is the most depressing point of all. Even where inspectors have moved away from their old requirements for groupwork and minimal teacher talk, the new elements of the inspection handbook are being turned into another mechanical checklist anyway.

I am hearing stories of schools forcing teachers to mark in completely impractical ways (the inspiration behind my last blogpost) because the OFSTED handbook talks about “Consistently high quality marking and constructive feedback from teachers ensure that pupils make rapid gains.” A common interpretation in schools, and one that seems to be confirmed by some OFSTED reports, is that marking must now, not only include feedback from the teacher to the student, but have feedback from the student to the teacher. Mary Myatt’s blog seems to confirm this:

What inspections are looking for is that there is high quality feedback which crucially is acted on by the student or pupil. Too often what we see is feedback without any response. So, how can it be moving learning forward? The kid has ignored it, not because they cant be bothered, but because they haven’t been expected to… And that misconceptions are picked up and used as the focus for discussions either in the book or in the classroom.

Now while I have no objection to this particular style of marking (if done well it probably is the most effective sort of marking), I do have issues about the effect on workload and the effect it has on setting teachers’ priorities. Having every book marked this way and giving time in lessons for student responses  might actually be even more onerous that having to do groupwork in observations.

Another craze in OFSTED-chasing schools results from this passage in the handbook:

Inspectors must consider whether: teaching engages and includes all pupils, with work that is challenging enough and that meets their individual needs, including for the most able pupils

Now it is entirely possible, given his views on setting, that Michael Wilshaw only meant to discourage schools from putting students with drastically different requirements in mixed ability classes where the work is matched only to the lowest common denominator. However, this has been interpreted by some schools as a need for “differentiation”, providing different resources and opportunities to learn for different students. Combined with previous fads for AfL and showing progress every 20 minutes, teachers being observed are now often expected to produce a multitude of different resources (often with levels on) for observations and to find a way to distribute them that can be justified to the observer (self-assessment and moving kids around the room seem particularly popular). This approach is to be followed even where classes are similar in ability or where it would be entirely possible for students of different abilities to use the same resource.

While this might be down to schools misinterpreting the requirements of OFSTED, there are enough OFSTED reports complaining that classes are all doing the same work to convince schools this is what inspectors want to see. Again, it is almost enough to make one wish for the days when a card sort done in groups would tick the boxes.

As long as OFSTED exists, and as long as it observes lessons and gives detailed gradings, then teachers, managers and inspectors will be looking to create a formal, or informal, checklist of what must be done. Changing the checklist from groupwork and mini-whiteboards to dialogic marking and an ocean of levelled worksheets might reflect changes in priorities but it remains as mechanical and as burdensome as before. The teacher who simply tells kids what they need to know and then makes them practise using what they’ve been told until they won’t get it wrong will still be seen as inferior to those who “play the game” no matter how well their students learn.

In conclusion, a reformed OFSTED would still be a bureaucracy that teachers and school leaders  will have to second guess rather than a simple check on failure. Worse, unless more evidence is forthcoming that OFSTED has changed most of that second guessing will be based on the same trendy nonsense that OFSTED have been forcing on us for years now. Wilshaw’s decrees are not going to work. If we want teachers to teach, then OFSTED will have to go.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. Then is it time for a petition – something proactive?

    I could have written this posting myself as it fits in so completely with my own thoughts.

    So, we know the problem, what is the solution?

    I think it is corrupt when the same people who represent Ofsted also work for private consultancies to prepare schools for Ofsted.

    The tragedy is that whilst schools are looking upwards to second guess what Ofsted may want to see in their schools, they have taken their eyes off a focus of the joy of teaching and learning and how best to provide for the children in their care.

  3. As a trainee teacher, I am utterly disillusioned with the state of our education system at the moment. Despite apparent criteria Ofsted judgements are worryingly subjective. I have no idea what an Outstanding lesson should even contain anymore as it appears to change each week. My school were inspected earlier in the year, and my HoD was informed in her feedback that the inspector had ‘stayed in the lesson longer to find a reason to not give her outstanding’. What hope do our youth have?

    • Hence why I left teaching within a year of passing my PGCE. None of it allows teachers to actually teach and pass on a love of learning.

  4. The thing that troubles me is what would it be replaced by? And would that replacement be staffed by the same people who think the same way? (I don’t think we can expect there to be no inspection system – and going back to hmi??)

  5. Today I was listening to a teacher who is also an Ofsted inspector take us through the new Ofsted guidance at the PiXL conference. He said “there is no preferred teaching style”. He emphasised this point.

    He then went on to show the part of the handbook that included knowledge:

    “Teachers and other adults authoritatively impart knowledge to ensure students are engaged in
    learning, and generate high levels of commitment to learning across the school.”

    He was then at pains to point out that this was not a contradiction – and explained that this did not mean that one had to teach didactically “as there are lots of ways of imparting knowledge in a lesson”.

    This last emphasis reminded me of this blog. It seems to me that no matter what they are told, inspectors will look at the stuff they already agree with favorably, and manipulate the stuff they don’t agree with. Of course, there may be many ways to impart knowledge that aren’t telling – I can’t think of any that are more efficient though.

    The inspector then spent some time talking about things he advises, that are not compulsory – data on seating plans and such like, and “a photocopy of some well marked work”.

    He then went on to say “I would look at this, some inspectors will ignore it…”

    So he was very open about being inconsistent.

  6. […] Why I don’t think OFSTED can be reformed (teachingbattleground.wordpress.com) […]

  7. The school in teach in has Ofsted in right now. I will share my experiences of my 1 observation so far and the overall outcome when they have left.

    • Well, still haven’t been told what Ofsted think, and we are not optimistic.
      A flavour of the anecdotes so far – a 3 awarded due to two kids not displaying learning behaviour for two minutes, despite the rest of the lesson displaying all the characteristics of an “Ofsted lesson”.

  8. It’s worrying that so much of the education system appears to use methodologies (if that’s the right word) that are far weaker than the intellectual standards we set for our pupils. Confirmation Bias (only seeing what you’re already looking for)is hardly rocket science. Let alone the idea of developing teachers’ strengths in the way we are supposed to be developing pupils’ strengths. It’s rotten to the core.

  9. What’s even more depressing is the number of teachers who already seem to have been reduced to box-ticking automatons, and don’t think to challenge these things.

  10. […] in November of this academic year, despite numerous and repeated clarifications by HMCI, it appeared that it was clear that minimal […]

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