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What OFSTED still needs to do

March 17, 2018

It seems incredible to think how far the schools inspectorate OFSTED have moved on since I was writing about them five years ago. Back then they seemed to be little more than the “child centred inquisition”, a way of enforcing the correct way of teaching, and the correct way was always progressive. They were also a nice little earner for contracted inspectors, who could work as consultants advising schools on how to pass OFSTEDs. This was usually by teaching the correct way.

Nowadays, OFSTED do not grade lessons; they do not let inspectors work as OFSTED consultants; they do not officially have a preferred style of teaching and they publish mythbusting information. The worst of their former inspectors can now be found trolling people on Twitter and complaining about how terrible it is that teachers can be openly traditionalist again.

But is there more that needs to be done?

I would make the following suggestions entirely as a classroom teacher (I realise there are plenty of bigger issues if you look at inspections from other perspectives, particularly the pressing need to inspect MATs directly):

  1. Get rid of the “Outstanding” grade for schools, or at least make it dependent on results, not inspections. The point of the outstanding grade seems to be that it should encourage Good schools to get better. However, anecdotally at least, it’s main effect seems to be to scare Outstanding schools into getting worse. I can only judge this from anecdotes, but because the period between inspections of outstanding schools can be so long, and because the schools are so invested in their outstanding status, you end up (after enough time) with schools that are both desperate to do well in an inspection and also a bit out of the loop about what inspections are like. This creates a space where panic and myths thrive and a number of teachers in outstanding schools that are due to be inspected have told me stories of terrible gimmicks that managers have inflicted on them in a panic.
  2. Improve accountability of inspectors. There are still inspectors who think there is a particular correct way of teaching and tell schools what they should be doing. It is not as blatant as it was. They don’t do what an inspector did to me back in the day and tell me a lesson was inadequate because bottom set year 10 were working quietly on algebra and not talking to each other. But I’ve very recently seen how an inspector can say they want to see more “challenge”, not because students were finding work easy, or because they could all do it, but apparently because there were no exercises of a particular type. I have two suggestions for increasing accountability of inspectors. Firstly, require them to record all advice give on teaching on a separate form, that can then be analysed over time. Secondly, survey teachers immediately after an inspection. While what one school says about inspectors can be a pretty limited and partial perspective, over several inspections it should be possible to build up a picture of what inspectors are doing.
  3. Don’t add to workload. There’s a lot of debate about how inspections could prevent teachers having too much workload. If there is a practical way to do that I would be interested to know what it is, but ultimately it’s not OFSTED’s job to set teachers’ working conditions. However there are still two ways in which inspection is adding to teacher workload. Firstly, inspectors look for consistency, i.e. whether a school’s policy is being followed by everyone. This means that where schools have counter-productive, workload increasing policies, OFSTED is creating an incentive for schools to police those policies aggressively even where the policies are terrible. OFSTED can’t be the final arbiter on which policies create too much workload, but an acceptance that will be looking for consistency only where consistency will not increase workload (with a few examples of what that means) would help matters. Secondly, while OFSTED is clear that they do not require lesson plans or folders of student information when they observe a class, inspectors still take them if offered and schools still encourage teacher to provide such things for inspectors. OFSTED should not just say “we do not require X” when mythbusting, they should say “we will not even look at X” and start with Xs that a classroom teacher might be told to hand over unnecessarily.
  4. Make “mythbusting” more proactive. I really like the way that if lots of schools are doing something ridiculous to prepare for OFSTED, then after a year or so it will become well known via social media or other teacher forums, and perhaps within another year or two it might appear in a mythbusting document and schools might slowly stop doing it. This is a great thing and a vast improvement on days gone by, when not only did almost every fad get described as “this is what OFSTED want to see” but also half the time there were inspectors who spread the myths as part of their consultancy work and probably did expect to see it when inspecting. However, there needs to be a better way of preventing new myths developing than hoping enough people ask Sean Harford on Twitter if they are true. Inspectors need to feedback to say “schools are doing this now” whenever something seems to be a craze during inspections, and OFSTED needs to react to that information by constantly updating its myths documents to remove any practice that looks like it might be being done entirely to impress inspectors but serving no practical purpose.

I now see OFSTED as an organisation that takes a fairly sensible attitude towards dealing with classroom teachers. But it still has a lot of unintended consequences for teachers, and it is time to put systems in place to address them.

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9 comments

  1. All these ‘freedoms’ that Ofsted has ceded are something of a poisoned chalice–inspectors all have their biases, and no matter what mechanisms are put in place, they will inevitably affect their judgement. At least when Ofsted had specific requirements, teachers knew what they were, and those requirements were open to challenge.

    To take an example: how many inspectors are really in sympathy with Bold Beginnings? Certainly, the amount of hysterical reaction from the EYFS lobby is going to be reflected in the personal opinions of a lot of inspectors. Hence, any school which decided to minimise the amount of time that teachers waste trying to gather photographic evidence of the magic moment when a Reception pupil is doing something that can be interpreted as ‘learning through play’ is going to get slated,

    There really is no way that Ofsted should be commenting at all on the quality of teaching and learning. Inspections should be limited to matters like governance–certainly something that needs more attention. It is not beyond the wit of our teachers and exam boards to devise objective measures of pupils’ learning which cannot be ‘gamed’ except by teaching the subject. There was a time within living memory that teachers did this unbidden, but ironically the Plowden revolution put paid to this, and with it went the freedoms that are now all but forgotten.


  2. I think I agree with everything you’ve said, and indeed with Tom above. I think where I am more cautious is with the suggestion that Ofsted should actually refuse to look at lesson plans. I think this would only make sense if they actually said they weren’t going to look at lessons full-stop. If I personally was told that they were going to come into my lesson to look for evidence of ‘learning’ (and possibly only briefly so) but that I couldn’t show them a context for what they were looking-at through a lesson plan, then I would feel a lot more stressed.


    • I wouldn’t.


      • Is that because you think that everything you’d want an inspector to know would be obvious from whatever was happening, or because you just wouldn’t care what was going-on in their mind?


        • Because I dislike the workload more than any judgement.


          • Fair enough. I think the problem there then is the kind of lesson plans schools are expecting teachers to prepare. I personally would like to be able to present the inspector with a brief context overview of what’s happening, where they’ve come from and where they’re going, and assuming I actually know what I’m doing with the children, that shouldn’t take me more than 5 minutes or so to outline on a bit of paper. I appreciate that’s not likely to be what some schools would be asking teachers to provide though.


  3. […] a recent blogpost I made the following comments about how OFSTED could […]


  4. […] written a couple of posts recently about OFSTED ( What OFSTED still needs to do and OFSTED and Workload) which brought up the issue of workload. I identified two problems in […]


  5. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.



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