Why That OFSTED News Is So ImportantDecember 26, 2013
A lot of people read my last post about the changes to the OFSTED guidance (11,302 page views at last count). The response to the changes which I saw from teachers on social media was overwhelmingly one of delight. Even people who probably don’t have the same views on pedagogy as I do, welcomed it because it indicated that teachers might have more freedom to teach how they choose; a principle that is accepted well beyond those whose style of teaching is furthest from the “OFSTED model”.
However, I suspect the importance is clearest to those who have kept up on the recent controversies (particularly on this blog) over how inspectors behave. While the full text addressed a lot of points that have been raised by a lot of people, the first paragraph was almost point for point about the issues raised here and I will review every every part of it here. It begins:
Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style.
This is a message which I had, foolishly, publicised back in October 2012. I drew attention to it in a blogpost which transcribed a speech by Sir Michael Wilshaw and quoted from the (then) most recent OFSTED handbook, both of which explained that there was no preferred teaching style. I did so because I had heard again, and again, in schools that teachers were expected to use groupwork; minimise time spent explaining and leave students working “independently” as much as possible in order to meet OFSTED requirements. As an advocate of “traditional” rather than “progressive” teaching methods, I wanted people to know that traditional teaching wasn’t condemned by the inspectorate.
I was wrong. Not much later, I had the misfortune to go through an OFSTED inspection and saw first hand how inspectors could ignore results and look only for the approved style of teaching. I could rant about my personal experience at great length, but for the sake of anonymity I will keep details to myself. Nevertheless, I was soon looking to see whether my experience was typical or not. I found out that it was. Far from having no views about the styles of teaching I kept finding the same few criticisms of teaching in OFSTED reports from inspections that were suppose to have been carried out under the very handbook I had quoted from. I also found preferred teaching styles and methods in other documents produced by OFSTED. This is why the next point is key:
Moreover, they [i.e. inspectors] must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance.
While the three documents mentioned above seem to have the right message about teaching styles (particularly in the redraft of the handbook from last summer), and Wilshaw has reinforced this elsewhere, plenty of other OFSTED documents have had, and do have, a very clear agenda. In this blogpost I listed examples of a very “progressive” approach to maths teaching in OFSTED “good practice” videos and case studies. In another post I indicated some similar content in other best practice videos (including one for English in which it was claimed flip cameras were “essential”). These were temporarily removed but soon returned. The subject specific guidance (meant for subject surveys) 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 ever.
For example, they [inspectors] should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.
I found repeated complaints about teacher talk and teachers dominating lessons in OFSTED reports from September 2012 – February 2013 which can be found in this post. Some examples from March 2013 are in this post. It was also in reports from summer term 2013 and the report on careers guidance (quoted here). It continued last term as demonstrated here. It has become so much a part of what is expected that one company offered training in meeting “OFSTED’s minimum talk expectations” . What is particularly important in the new guidance is the mention of ” unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time”. The standard excuse (discussed here) is that when OFSTED condemn teacher talk they are actually condemning a lack of learning that, it is asserted, has resulted from it. Now the burden of proof seems to have shifted to the inspectors.
The next part of the guidance says:
It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual.
The possibility that OFSTED were demanding differentiated work far beyond what was practical was one I raised here.
The next part is, again, particularly welcome:
Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable.
Comments from OFSTED reports about the need for independent work can be found in my post about September 2012- February 2013 reports. And in the reports in this March 2013 post. It was also in reports from summer term 2013 (quoted here). It continued this term as demonstrated here and here. It also featured heavily in the subject specific guidance. It even appeared in the style guidance for writing reports (see the second part of this post).
On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.
This seems to sum up some of the other points rather well. OFSTED had been following an ideology, much established in England since at least the sixties, which claims that less is always more when it comes to teaching, and that students learn more when left to work through activities, talk to each other or research for themselves. Often this is combined with a belief that to be told something by a teacher is boring and oppressive, while there is something inherently “engaging” (a weasel word for “entertaining”) about the “child-centred” methods. As well as the continual demands for “independence” and condemnations of teacher talk, it also resulted in other dubious practices endorsed by OFSTED. The belief that it was better for questions and activities to be “open-ended” (i.e. not have one particular answer or intended outcome) was one example of this. The promotion of poorly structured methods for teaching literacy was another.
These are complex debates, and OFSTED had, for over a decade, silenced one side of that debate. That the debate continues was shown by a few responses to the OFSTED news that were more cautious or even negative. Some of those on the “progressive” side of the educational debate feared either that teaching would suffer if traditional methods were permitted, or that what was now permitted would become compulsory. The latter point is, I’m sure, legitimate and the correct location of the limits of teacher freedom are a difficult issue and one worth returning to in more depth, although it is a bit rich to hear from those advocating an ideology which has been the unchallenged orthodoxy in so many schools for so long. The former point is one I have no time for. Teaching is about learning and far from being a threat to that, the case for traditional teaching has always been strong and usually shouted down rather than directly challenged. The evidence that explicit instruction should not be minimised is incredibly strong, as pointed out by Kirschner et al (2006). More widely in the debate about what works (for instance as shown in Hattie’s Visible Learning), the high effect sizes for direct instruction, and low effect sizes for problem-solving learning and discovery learning, illustrates how harmful OFSTED’s preferences are likely to have been. And while there is no clear-cut evidence that, mixed ability teaching, groupwork or project-based learning are ineffective there is equally no good evidence for why they should be generally preferred to the alternatives. This empirical background to the ideological debate is one that, still, too few teachers have heard.
Which brings us to another point, that of restitution. Highly effective teachers have been bullied out, forced to change teaching style, or had their careers utterly ruined by OFSTED’s war on traditional teaching. While we can celebrate the moves to stop this in future (while being acutely aware that it might only be a temporary reprieve) what can actually happen to undo the damage and injustices already done? There are schools run by people who are only there because of their willingness to denounce traditional teaching in favour of the latest fad. There are those who have left teaching rather than abandon traditional teaching. This does nothing to rebalance the scales or change the balance of power so that those advocating progressive education no longer have the whiphand within schools. The harm done by OFSTED is a fact of life and we have no reason to think that under a weaker secretary of state it might not quickly return to old habits. I described in this blogpost what I think needs to be done about OFSTED (and here why I thought gradual reform wasn’t working and here some of the problems with how OFSTED is organised). That said, I do think a small part of that blogpost on what should change has now been addressed, specifically this part:
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…
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.
But, of course, this could just be another false dawn. I had recently suggested here that there were indicators from reports and training that OFSTED had already changed. I may have spoken too soon; people have contacted me with details of some very recent reports. The following two examples come from reports published just before the Christmas holidays based on mid-November inspections:
What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve teaching so that it is at least good by:.. giving students time to work independently and to think for themselves… Students become bored when teachers talk for too long and give them too few opportunities to tackle high-quality independent work. . As a result, they become over-reliant on teachers.
Farnborough School Technology College, Nottingham
The quality of teaching requires improvement… In the lessons where teaching was less effective, the pace was too slow because the teacher talked too much. In these lessons the students were given too few opportunities to think for themselves or discuss their developing knowledge and understanding with their classmates… Students spoken to in Key Stage 3 were particularly unhappy about the slow pace of some lessons.
Newman Catholic School, Carlisle
These are two schools which got a 4 and a 3 respectively. Whether they would have done better if they had conformed to the “OFSTED teaching style” is an open question, but one which will no doubt affect how those schools respond to the reports. At least now any school getting feedback like this would be able to challenge it directly as evidence that inspectors were exceeding their authority. It remains to be seen how much actual change will now happen, but vigilance will be key. If inspectors are ignoring the guidance, teachers, unions and SMT need to be challenging them on it, not just when it affects a school’s grade, but whenever it can have influence on practice or policy within schools. We now have what was most needed, clear guidance that traditional teaching must be permitted, we must work hard to make sure that this is understood by every inspector, consultant and school.