They’re Back – OFSTED Subject Specific Guidance Notes

December 21, 2013

Having written a blogpost on Thursday about how OFSTED’s terrible subject specific guidance had disappeared from the website for “review”, I was surprised to see the revised versions appear yesterday.

I don’t have time to locate the old versions and see exactly what’s changed, but nothing much jumps out as having changed at all. I documented in this post in March all the ways in which independence from the teacher is praised in OFSTED guidance. Looking through what I wrote then (and ignoring PE, EBE and Design and Technology as the guidance notes for these are still absent) the only change to any of the statements I found then pushing independence is the following for languages:

Precisely targeted support from other adults encourages all pupils to develop independence and a desire to use the target language for real communication.

has changed to

All pupils develop independence and a desire to use the target language for real communication due to precisely targeted support.

Other than this, all the existing demands that students show they can work independently are still there. While nobody is against independence resulting from education, demands to demonstrate it to OFSTED (and to demonstrate “exceptional independence” to be considered outstanding), can only discourage traditional teaching. This is particularly true when there are complaints about “teaching methods [which] do not encourage independent thought” in science and passages like this about outstanding maths teaching:

Teaching is rooted in the development of all pupils’ conceptual understanding of important concepts and progression within the lesson and over time.

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

 … [Teachers] use a very wide range of teaching strategies to stimulate all pupils’ active participation in their learning, together with innovative and imaginative resources, including practical activities and, where appropriate, the outdoor environment.

The contrast between this description and the views about maths of the chief inspector and ministers, not to mention the emphasis of the new National Curriculum, shows exactly how little OFSTED have changed and how much of a threat they remain to traditional teachers who believe that explanation and practice are more important in maths than discussion and investigation.

While I haven’t time to read all the guidance for every subject, I couldn’t resist looking up groupwork. You may recall that Michael Gove had criticised OFSTED’s promotion of groupwork, saying:

…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. [my italics]

This was in September. Yet in a brief look at the new subject guidance I easily found examples of groupwork being required to be viewed positively under the subject survey gudance. In modern languages, outstanding achievement requires students “understand that in order to be successful they will need to work collaboratively”. In Art, teaching will require improvement if there “are limited opportunities for pupils to collaborate with their peers”. Good achievement in English requires that:

Pupils express their ideas clearly and well in discussion and work effectively in different groups. They are able to show independence and initiative, for instance raising thoughtful questions or helping to drive forward group work.

There are plenty of other beautiful examples of progressive education ideology. The description of outstanding achievement in history mentions knowledge once, but has four different points about types of critical thinking and two about attitude. In RE, outstanding achievement requires that students “show significant levels of originality, imagination or creativity in their responses to their learning in RE” while inadequate teaching can be identified where “Teachers do not ensure that lessons are structured around the development of skills of enquiry and reflection”. Outstanding English teaching must include “innovative classroom approaches, including well-planned drama activities”.

While these descriptions should only impact on subject survey visits, this guidance, and the resulting subject reports, will be fed into schools as what is best practice in each subject, or even what will be required in all OFSTED inspections. Once again, OFSTED is making life uncomfortable for anybody with a more traditional view of pedagogy. Once again, what the chief inspector says and what the secretary of state says seems irrelevant to the behaviour of OFSTED’s subject specialists. Once again, the lack of political will to take on OFSTED results in an organisation acting as if it is accountable to nobody.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. I felt a bit despairing when I read the new subject criteria. I knew they were bad before but it was depressing to see that Ofsted have not changed. I teach history and apparently my teaching requires improvement because I don’t ‘reflect on continuing developments in teaching and learning for my subject’. Surely with all the ingenuity of all teachers to date there is enough outstanding practice to make it odd that more innovation is necessary for even ‘good’ teaching? That is aside from the fact that we all know that ‘innovative practice’ is a loaded term implying a certain sort of teaching style.
    To avoid ‘requiring improvement’ my teaching should also ‘engage all groups equally well’. I have never known a teacher achieve this and nor should they. People are allowed to prefer learning about some subjects than others. What if students had been up all night playing Call of Duty? Has the teacher still failed when they are disengaged?
    OK if these were a few statements within reams of criteria there would be little point complaining. However, there are only 8 or so criteria within each level so these points make up a significant proportion of what it means to ‘require improvement’ and that within a culture of obsessive box ticking to appease Ofsted.
    What is most tragic is that there are so many better ways of describing outstanding teaching. I recommend G Yates’ article ‘Refections on the database of educational psychology and effective teaching research’ (thanks @websofsubstance for the link). It starts slowly but goes on to talk about the research that has been done into effective teaching. All I can say is that those researchers knew their stuff. I would love to list the whole chart (article has gone behind a pay wall since I obtained it) but it says great things like describing a skilled teacher as having ‘extensive pedagogical knowledge with multiple ways to teach the same content. [their] Planning appears cursory and brief, but actually involves chunking many tasks, activities and draws upon a rich improvisational repertoire. Under ‘ability to explain’ it says that good teachers have ‘clarity of speech coupled with excellent use of mental modelling principles.’ It also lists how expert teachers have ‘developed a schemata enabling them to read classroom life visually in great depth.’ There are plenty of really good statements in there that really DO describe what it means to be an outstanding teacher. Why, oh why, despite all Gove’s rhetoric, are we still having our teaching judged using such ridiculous criteria? The criteria appear to be pushing the ideological principles of a constuctivist clique when infinitely better descriptions are available that are actually pretty acceptable to teachers of whatever pedagogical inclination.

  3. […] Why has OFSTED recently published subject specific guidance which still suggests judging lessons (in subject surveys) on the basis of […]

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