Some Progress with OFSTED (and how little difference it makes)

December 19, 2013

Back 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 say in other official documents. In that blogpost I showed multiple examples of how the OFSTED subject specific guidance ignores the changes in the handbook and instead continued to push for independence and less guidance from teachers. It’s not inconceivable that this, and similar posts, would have been picked up on by those with the power to change things and I had heard rumours from more than one source that OFSTED were hoping to do something about this sort of problem (although the rumours also suggested that they considered it to be a problem of “language” rather than ideology). And so it can only be good news to see that if I now follow the link in that post to the subject specific guidance I find no documents and instead find this:

Screenshot 2013-12-19 at 09.24.37

This is not the first time something I have criticised on the OFSTED website has disappeared and, whether my blogpost was the cause, or it was just a coincidence, the absence of these documents has to be good news. However, this is also a good opportunity to have a look at how little effect such changes have, given the way OFSTED works. Firstly, we have what prompted me to look into this issue again. A primary teacher told me on Twitter that he was shown these during INSET:


These are two of the documents which have disappeared from the website. His school were given them by a consultant a few weeks earlier and he was assured they were up-to-date. This strikes me as one of the primary reasons why Wilshaw’s changes in OFSTED don’t change things on the ground. There are large numbers of private consultants, many who have worked as, or been trained as, inspectors who have a vested interest in being able to present “insider” information to schools. What they say will be the orthodoxy regardless of what Sir Michael Wilshaw says, and if what he says is that there is no fixed expectation or no checklist of things that must be done then consultants will continue with the previous orthodoxy. Until private consultancy is regulated, curtailed, or properly separated from involvement in OFSTED then we can expect old orthodoxies to continue.

Of course, what consultants say is only part of the problem. The question also has to be raised about whether inspectors have moved away from the old orthodoxy within the subjects. Having looked into it recently for this post and because it has always been the subject where the strongest differences between Wilshaw and his inspectors exist, I will look at primary maths teaching. Just to remind you, the old OFSTED subject guidance for mathematics said this is what outstanding maths teaching looks like:

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

By contrast (as you’ll have seen from those previous posts I’ve linked to), Sir Michael Wilshaw has praised a “didactic” secondary maths teacher, said a “boring” maths lesson was “fine” and indicated to the Times that “he had long seen a need to replace the national curriculum with one that emphasised … a more traditionalist approach, especially in maths and English”. So in practice, what have the inspectors doing maths surveys in primary schools been saying about the best ways to teach? Well there have been 4 survey visits looking at primary maths this term. Here are some of the highlights.

 Teaching in mathematics is good. Teachers … make effective use of games and practical tasks to catch pupils’ interest; for example, Year 6 pupils were calculating the costs to school of buying new sports equipment. Effective features in teaching seen were the frequent use of partner-work and encouragement to share thinking… The curriculum in mathematics is good. The emphasis on the four rules of number is supported by investigations and problem solving, with some links to work in other subjects and activities in termly ‘mathematics mornings’… Areas for improvement, which we discussed, include… widening further the use of ‘real-life’ situations and curricular themes to pose mathematical problems in all year groups which ensure the use and application of strategies taught in mathematics lessons…

Mill Hill Primary School

Pupils are being well equipped to be able to solve problems and to apply fluently their number skills when solving problems. It is apparent that they  enjoy the challenge of working together to solve problems. For example, the Year 3 and 4 pupils worked very cooperatively on a challenging problem that involved placing treasure on the pirate ship without sinking it… Pupils benefit from regular opportunities to consolidate their learning through well-prepared problem-solving activities that stretch their thinking and reasoning skills. As well as this, teachers ensure that pupils are developing a fluency in their understanding of number by reinforcing the links and relationships between numbers and operations.

The Billinghay Church of England Primary School

Teaching in mathematics is outstanding. The quality of teaching is always good with much that is outstanding. Teachers are expert at posing problems in an exciting and interesting context that enthuses pupils to work hard together to reach a solution. For example, in a Year 3 lesson, pupils were working fluently with digit combinations to help the Big Friendly Giant to remember the pin number of his mobile phone… A major strength of the curriculum is the emphasis on problem solving and reasoning as a means by which pupils further develop their fluency when handling numbers. As one pupil reported ‘We like problems because it gets your brain thinking more.’ During the inspection, pupils of all ages were seen successfully and independently solving problems or carrying out investigations involving shape, number, measures and data handling. Useful links are established between mathematics and other subjects of the curriculum.

Orchard Primary School and Nursery

Occasionally, adults were too quick to instruct rather than draw out pupils’ ideas and explanations. The mathematics curriculum has breadth and depth with a strengthening balance of well thought-out challenges for pupils to use and apply what they learn in mathematics lessons. The emphasis on practical experiences and use of resources, such as single unit cubes and ten-sticks, promote conceptual understanding and a smooth move into mental calculations. Although some mathematics is integral to work in other subjects, the content has not been rigorously planned to show how it augments learning and/or gives a fair coverage of mathematical aspects.

Reid Street Primary School (although it has to be acknowledged that this one, the most recent, had considerable emphasis on fluency and basic knowledge).

All of these have been since the most recent revision of the handbook, the one that states again and again that there is no one preferred style of teaching. The OFSTED webpage with the vanished subject guidance is dated 29th July 2013, so unless this refers to an earlier revision, these are all likely to have been produced since the old subject guidance went under review. It is worth mentioning that the criteria in subject guidance are not meant to be used in general inspections, but are frequently quoted as if they are.

Just as there is a block on change caused by consultants recycling old ideas, there is a bigger block caused by inspectors who are either ignoring the idea that there is not meant to be a preferred way to teach, or are simply unaware that an emphasis on problem-solving and investigations in primary maths is neither uncontroversial nor supported by good evidence of effectiveness. As ever, change from above in OFSTED does not mean teachers are no longer slave to the old regime as consultants and inspectors follow the same agenda they’ve followed for years.


  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. “Until private consultancy is regulated, curtailed, or properly separated from involvement in OFSTED then we can expect old orthodoxies to continue.”

    Ofsted inspection should arguably be completely separated from private independent consultancy. It seems to me that, in principle, we have a corrupt system when the same people who ‘inspect’ also provide consultancy to schools to ‘advise’ schools to get them through Ofsted.

    So, the current system makes jobs for the boys.

  3. What I find interesting is how the reports reference fluency of understanding – something that has probably come from good quality direct instruction. I don’t disagree that an end goal of Maths is open-ended inquiry, and I don’t blame schools for wanting to show that off. It’s dreadful if ofsted don’t recognise the process that gets you there.

    • Until inspections are ‘no notice’, teachers, particularly in primary education, will continue to put on crowd pleasing lessons when the inspectors call: returning to direct instruction once the coast is clear.

      • Unless they happen to be in a school where SMT enforce the OFSTED teaching style all year round.

  4. […] written a blogpost on Thursday about how OFSTED’s terrible subject specific guidance had disappeared from the […]

  5. […] was particularly bad, as I pointed out here. Even after they disappeared they still had an effect on the subject survey reports, and when they returned they were as bad as […]

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