Can OFSTED stop publishing ridiculous reports, even if they try?

January 27, 2014

I’m struggling to keep up with developments regarding OFSTED, particularly as they’ve been in the news recently (I’ll try to comment on that tomorrow or Wednesday) but I am not going to miss the opportunity to write a post about the letter to inspectors Sir Michael Wilshaw sent out last week. I’m not the first blogger to present the text of this letter (it was on this blog on Saturday and an extract was available here  earlier in the week) but I can’t resist repeating it, and commenting. I will include the full text, with some additional observations throughout and further comments at the end.

Over the last 18 months, I have emphasised in a number of speeches that Ofsted is not prescriptive about the way that teaching is delivered and does not recommend a suite of preferred teaching styles. Inspectors should only be concerned with the impact that teaching has on children’s learning, progress and outcomes. Our new guidance on the inspection of teaching in schools reinforces this. I quote:

‘Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they 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.

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. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. 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.’

Nevertheless, I still see inspection reports, occasionally from HMI, which ignore this and earlier guidance and, irritatingly, give the impression that we are still telling teachers how to teach. Let me give you a few examples from recent reports I have just read:

‘Teaching will improve if more time is given to independent learning’

‘Insufficient time was given to collaborative learning’

‘Students are not given sufficient opportunity to support their classmates in their learning’

‘Pupils are not sufficiently engaged in their own learning’

‘Teaching requires improvement because pupils do not get enough opportunities to work alone or in groups’

‘Weak teaching is characterised by teachers talking too much.’

I think what’s most gratifying about reading these very familiar sounding phrases is that it suggests that, finally, the chief inspector is doing what I’ve been doing for almost a year now and actually reading the reports his organisation puts out. This would also explain why so many reports recently had been changed or held up, with these sorts of phrases being removed. Of course, this leaves the question of what he was doing up until this point. He seemed content to change the various documentation which tells inspectors what to do, and then just leave it at that when it is ignored. There is still no sign of any specified sanction or consequence for any inspector who ignores the advice, but at least they now know he’s watching them.

It is quite acceptable for a teacher to talk a lot as long as the children are attentive, interested, learning and making progress. If not, it is quite legitimate for inspectors to say that poor planning and lesson structure meant that children lost focus and learnt very little.

There is so much more that could be said about teaching without infringing the professional judgement of teachers to decide the most appropriate style of teaching to get the best out of their students. For example:

Do lessons start promptly?

Are children focused and attentive because the teaching is stimulating?

Is the pace of the lesson good because the teacher is proactive and dynamic in the classroom?

Is homework regularly given?

Is literacy a key component of lessons across the curriculum?

Do teachers use display and technology to support teaching?

Are low expectations resulting in worksheets being used rather than textbooks?

Are the most able children provided with work which stretches them and allows them to fulfil their true potential?

Are children expected to take books home to do their homework and return them the following day?

Does marking give a clear indication of what the children have to do to improve and are clear targets being set?

Is the structure of the lesson promoting good learning and are children given sufficient time to practise and reinforce what is being taught?

Do teachers have sufficient expertise to be able to impart to students the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed?

Does the school have a robust professional development programme which is improving the quality of teaching by disseminating good practice across the school or college?

Are teaching assistants supporting teaching effectively or are they simply ‘floating about’?

These are some remarkable recommendations. Some seem quite random, or possibly out of date. While I can imagine that there was once a time when worksheets were seen as less demanding than textbooks, I’m not sure that can really be claimed these days. A lot of my worksheets are photocopies from old textbooks, used because the newer textbooks are too dumbed down. @cazzypot has written a critique of these suggestions on her blog. I’m, perhaps, more sympathetic to these than she is, but only with the proviso that they are used to gauge whole school expectations not assess individual lessons. Too many of them are dependent on the culture of the whole school to be a fair way to judge individuals.

In summary, inspectors should report on the outcomes of teaching rather than its style. So please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.

In saying all this, I recognise that a report-writing orthodoxy has grown up over the years which owes as much to the formulaic approach of the national strategies as to any guidance that Ofsted has given inspectors. We must continue to break free of this and encourage inspectors to use their freedom to report in language that has meaning and relevance to the institutions we inspect and the parents and students who read our reports.

Only by doing this can we hope to use inspection to raise standards.

It is an interesting point about the national strategies. It would indicate that some of his inspectors reflect a culture that involves an orthodoxy older and more established than Sir Michael’s involvement in OFSTED. As a comment on Twitter pointed out (when Mark McCourt made similar observations), OFSTED are “like the Dementors who act for but are not under [the] control of the Ministry of Magic”.

However, the phrase “please, please, please” is also revealing. How much influence does he have to change anything? There is new guidance. There is a precedent for reviewing, editing or delaying reports that don’t comply. There is a begging letter. Will inspectors comply? Well, as I understand it, this letter was published on the 22nd. That same day the report for King Solomon High school was published. It told us:

In the best lessons… Students respond well to the chance to think things out for themselves and choose the work they do. In a mathematics lesson, students who had already grasped the concepts being taught were then tasked to lead the learning of others. They responded well to the challenge and others say they benefited from the support they received from their peers…

…The best behaviour in lessons results from high quality teaching where there are plenty of opportunities for students to find out things for themselves in a supportive, but challenging, environment. This does not happen often enough and results in some students not taking an active role in their own learning.

Well, that was on the day of the letter. How about since? This is from the report from Forest Gate Community school published on Friday, for an inspection in the final week before the holidays. This is one of the two most recent reports from secondary schools. Published after the letter; after reports had been withdrawn and rewritten; after all this fuss and over a month since the new guidance, quoted above by Sir Michael Wilshaw, warned against condemning passivity or demanding independent learning.

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because … Often, there are limited opportunities for students to be actively involved in lessons, leading, on occasion, to poor behaviour…

What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve the quality of teaching … by ensuring that all teachers: plan lessons which provide opportunities for students to become more independent and take responsibility for helping themselves to improve… Improve behaviour in all lessons by allowing students to be more actively involved in tasks so that they retain their interest and do not disengage or become restless…

The quality of teaching requires improvement… Although teachers use a range of different strategies to help students to understand and broaden their knowledge and skills, in some lessons, work is over directed by the teacher and there are few opportunities for students to find things out for themselves. In these lessons, students sometimes become passive or restless and disengage from the lesson. Opportunities are missed in allowing them the independence to take more responsibility to drive their learning forwards or be more actively involved.



  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. It must feel like some sort of bizarre endurance test at times, but do please keep this up.


  3. Inspectors will comply once the large academy chains start looking to the courts to overturn judgements. After all they have a lot of money riding on a ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ rating.

  4. One day someone will offer you a book deal based on this – if they haven’t done so already… Based on Wilshaw’s letter with suggested feedback, and the continuing reports, it strikes me that inspectors genuinely don’t know what else to say other than the normal statements – they lack the language to express anything other than what they are currently saying.

  5. Yes, spot on. You can have a policy, and a monitoring system to monitor compliance with the policy. And a system for monitoring that.

    But there is only one way known to mankind to check that the system monitoring the system is working, and that is the spot check. Look for problems. Were they picked up? If not, why not? Look at random cases. How were they handled? Was that what was intended when they policy was written? Now you can see it in reality is that what you want or is the policy wrong? Pick a file at random. Read the whole thing from beginning to end. Are you happy with it? Talk to the case workers. Are you satisfied with how things have been handled? Can it be improved?

    Spot checks are the master control.

    If you aren’t doing spot checks you have a cargo cult system, where everyone can follow procedures and write reports confirming that procedures are being followed, and monitoring is occurring according to procedure. But nothing works as it should.

  6. I know you are the zeitgeist at the moment but… is it not possible that in Forest Gate School the children *are* being restless because the over-directed teaching is bad? That the teaching *isn’t* good enough? That there may be genuine reasons why it would be a good thing for students to be more independent in their lessons? Or that when the students were being told everything it *didn’t* lead to them understanding it?

    Are we still allowed to consider that as a *possibility*?

    • I can’t believe people are still making this argument. There is a difference between identifying a problem with the quality of the teaching and saying that it is of the wrong type. There is a difference between criticising the quality of teacher talk and the quantity. There is a difference between saying kids didn’t learn, and saying they didn’t learn in the right way. Inspectors should say if teaching is not effective, they should not be saying, they believe it’s ineffective because good teaching has a particular style and set of priorities.

      And, of course, this has been spelt out in the guidance. People might believe that teaching has to have less direction and more independent learning and discovery to be good, but if they don’t believe they can comment in line with the guidance they should quit, not ignore it.

      • So it would be preferable if the Forest Gate report had merely said: “the inspectors saw students misbehaving in lessons and learning was not taking place, therefore the teaching grade is inadequate”? I suppose I can see merit in this. Of course, the complaint would be that there isn’t enough information about why the inspectors felt this way. But, okay.

        • If the interpretation of why learning is not happening is little more than “they didn’t do the OFSTED-style lesson” then yes, they should keep it to themselves. Otherwise, all we have is schools concerning themselves with the style of teaching, not the outcome.

          • I still think this could be resolved if Ofsted did what they promised back in September and would release the notes from all outstanding lesson observations. We would soon then see if they really do appreciate a range of teaching styles (you suspect they don’t; I think they might). Why they haven’t done this when it was announced by the DfE that they would is entirely beyond me.

    • I think you have a point. But by the same token why do we never see a comment such as:

      “the teacher held the class captive by an outstanding explanation of Shakespeares prose”


      “The class engaged in a prolonged exchange with the teacher who was able, using his expert subject knowledge, to explain to the students why historical events impact upon their current lives”


      “the group teaching session was ineffective because the activity did not lend itself to group work. As a consequence only one learner in each group was working”

      If you read OFSTED reports they say the same thing over and over again, The Inspectors go in with a pre-conceptualised idea of a school based on long term data and then uses the framework to write a narrative to explain the data.

      That is the only reasonable explanation when you read OFSTED reports.

      • Those are great examples of what we don’t ever see in Ofsted reports!

  7. In other words…..

    OFSTED are not even attempting an objective review of teaching, presuming that it is even possible to do that, but applying pre-determined categories to classroom practice.

    The argument that OFSTED shouldn’t make judgements on teaching practice because it’s not objective is a good one but not in my opinion a relevant one.

    The simple fact is that OFSTED isn’t even doing that. They are simply looking at a bunch of legitimised words and then applying them to what is in front of them.

    The likelihood is that there is no correlation between active learning and behaviour in the cases observed. If you go in looking for poor behaviour and have a ready made excuse such as “not enough active teaching” then that’s what you will see.

    Of course if you bought into constructivism you would know that arguably we construct ideas through the use of language and symbols and not some vague notion of objectivity and would have a whole raft of theory to explain OFSTED’s risible inability to write a report.

    (I threw that last paragraph in for the author)

    • I am sure you are right in many cases but reports like Durand Academy show a school with outstanding behaviour only brought down to good by lack of independent learning behaviours. When I read reports I suspect that it is also usual enough for schools to be pulled down to good from outstanding by the more zealous inspectors, despite their data.

      • “I suspect that it is also usual enough for schools to be pulled down to good from outstanding by the more zealous inspectors, despite their data.”

        Hi Heather

        I’m not sure of your point here. I was really making a point making reference to some of the recent blogs on observations about objectivity.

        What I am trying to say here is that the argument that OFSTED inspections are not objective is not relevant although true.

        Rather that there is not such thing as objectivity.

        if you socially construct a framework and legitimise certain concepts (such as independent learning) inspectors will inexorably start to see the world through the prism of those concepts.

        OFSTED reports are a classic example of cognition at work. demonstrating social constructivist principles. They are simply writing reports using the cognitive tools at their disposal (in this case pedagogic concepts such as independent learning).

        I am also making the point that those of an objectivist mind set can point out the ridiculous nature of OFSTED reports but cannot easily explain them.

        OFSTED Inspectors are not guilty of a lack of objectivity but guilty of a cognition that is susceptible to conceptual incoherence.

        It’s my weird mind at work.

        • I should also say a weirdness partially based upon Vygotsky

  8. I have a love/hate relationship with OFSTED. I do believe teachers need to be accountable for their standard of teaching to the Government, the parents but most importantly to the students themselves. In theory, OFSTED should provide this.

    Where it goes wrong – and is picked up in all your posts on this topic – is OFSTED explicitly or implicitly dictating what style of teaching makes for good teaching. Instead, I believe their reports should simply explain what the teacher IS doing in the classroom and how effective their particular style is rather than dictate what is missing.

    When I began my career as a classroom teacher, I was observed by one teacher trainer who said I had a ‘ringmaster’ style of teaching – all up at the front, singing, dancing entertaining, as it were – and that though this worked for me I should try other styles too.

    I took that advice and while I learned a lot by trying different approaches, I quickly learned that, for me, that ringmaster style works extremely well and I suck at other styles! Sure, I talk a lot – sometimes whole lesson plans have gone to pot because my class and I have got hooked on something and no one does an ounce of ‘work’ – but the classes were never bored and always reached the same or better standards in tests as my fellow colleagues.

    The point is, my style is not my neighbour’s style and OFSTED likewise can’t decide what should be in the classroom. They can say what is there and whether or not effective learning is taking place through that approach. Anything more is presumptuous and, quite honestly, morally wrong.

    In defence of OFSTED, I’ll say that I’ve been blessed that I’ve not had ideological conflicts with any of the many inspectors I’ve had in my classroom over the last 20 years (nearly) and, as a result, they usually got it pretty right. It CAN be a good thing – I remember growing up in pre-OFSTED days and I wouldn’t ever want to see a return to those times. Schools were chaos!

    • Couldn’t agree more – I fell out with a a Head in a previous school who produced a performance / lesson appraisal for a mythical teacher (wittily called “Bill Shakespeare”) outlining all the characteristics of a perfect lesson and perfect teacher – and said we should appraise the members of our department according to the extent to which they matched up with this identikit perfect teacher – and said it was then our responsibility to make sure that over time they / their lessons matched up more and more with the characteristics of this imaginary Bill Shakespeare’s lessons…

      • How appalling. If build-it-yourself teachers are required then I suggest we just make teachers into prison guards to watch over the classes and plug children into computers to learn everything from a machine – I’m sure that would be just as effective as such ‘standardised’ teaching!

  9. […] bloggers Andrew Old and @cazzypot have both analysed all these examples in detail. Most seem uncontroversial, if a […]

  10. […] It is in refuting the third response, however, that I think it is possible to begin to see why everyone in education should be interested in why Baroness Morgan will be unwelcome in Ofsted’s Store Street HQ come September. Ofsted has never been short of critics: Chris Woodhead, the last Chief Inspector under the Tories and the first under New Labour, was so reviled that the NUT website still carries a blog from a teacher wishing him dead. The impact of Ofsted inspection decisions on a school is such that no one in education—-not even me, who is proud to defend the role of Ofsted in the school system—-thinks about a visit from HMI without some trepidation. And, of course, the political debate around education has often made Ofsted a hot topic, as when Downhills School in Haringey was instructed to take on academy status as a result of poor Ofsted reports. Recently, however, a stronger strain of criticism has emerged. Whilst the theme is similar to that in the blog referenced above (that Ofsted is imposing terrible things on our children), the content is very different: Ofsted’s reports have been clinically dissected to illustrate that inspectors continue to endorse and expect a child-centred pedagogy, predicated on a progressive educational ideology. Certainly, it is not necessary to accept in full that Ofsted is in the grip of its own Summer of Love to follow Old Andrew’s evidence that reports have violated the guidance laid down by the Chief Inspector; indeed, the Chief Inspector has himself pointed this out. […]

  11. […] OFSTED to still be writing much the same things (as shown here), almost 5 months after Gove vouched for them, seems to give those in the DfE every right to be […]

  12. […] We then saw a period where reports that contradicted this were held up or rewritten, and a few weeks later, Sir Michael Wilshaw told inspectors: […]

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