Posts Tagged ‘OFSTED’


Bizarre Developments and Unfair Judgements on the OFSTED Website

January 19, 2014

I wrote a blogpost the other day about all the ridiculous things OFSTED had been saying in inspection reports in the last couple of weeks which utterly contradicted the most recent guidance for inspectors.

My favourite extracts were:

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because … Sometimes teachers give students too much information in lessons and do not encourage them enough to learn independently.


What does the school need to do to improve further?  Improve the quality of teaching and learning so that all is at least good and more is outstanding by …making sure that students have more opportunities for paired and group work to help them to develop independent learning skills…

These two spell out the ideology of OFSTED so clearly, and are not just out of sync with the most recent guidance from the Christmas holiday, but actually show that the orthodoxy from before Michael Wilshaw was appointed is as strong as ever, despite countless  letters, speeches, exhortations and revisions of the documentation. If you wanted to quickly demonstrate that inspectors on the ground are not remotely influenced by anything Wilshaw says or does, these two really show it. It’s no wonder so many schools are still obsessed with group work and minimising teacher instruction. If they get those particular inspectors, it could pay off.

However, despite carefully checking all the dates so as to avoid an overlap with my previous post on the same theme I completely missed something else about the dates. They stopped last weekend, with a single report published Saturday and then apparently nothing. A search of the site still finds no reports more recent than that, although as I’ll explain below, this isn’t strictly true.

(Update 19/1/2014: By altering the search parameters a bit, I have now found 11 reports. 1 secondary, but monitoring only, 10 primary. I suppose this could be a product of a really poor search engine and a post-Christmas lull, but this still seems low, and nobody’s reported having this trouble finding reports before, so who knows. I suppose it allows for more explanations, like inspectors stopping to be trained or something similar, than I gave credit to below.)

Now the obvious explanation for this hiatus is the problem with reports contradicting guidance. Rumours had reached me that there was concern (and action) at the top levels of OFSTED about this issue. As I reported here, a couple of the most contentious reports, those from the Durand Academy and John Ruskin School in Cumbria, where the bias over teaching style might actually have affected the overall grade had vanished. Furthermore, the journalist and activist Fiona Millar had reported here that:

[OFSTED] stress that the the report will be re-published in the very near future and that the Durand Ofsted was one of six removed from the Ofsted site due to concerns about “poor wording” in references to teaching style, in the light of recent Ofsted guidance on teaching and learning. This poor wording should have been picked up in the pre-publication period apparently, but wasn’t.

My best efforts haven’t located the other 4 reports. But this would indicate the the rumours I mentioned before were correct. However, as I said in an update to my blogpost about missing reports, this did “imply that only the wording, not the resulting judgement, is in need of review”. This has since been confirmed. Although they don’t show up on the search, the two missing reports have reappeared with a later publication date and some changes to the text, but none to the judgements.

Janet Downs indicates the changes to the Durand report in a comment on the Fiona Millar article [emphasis mine]:

The updated report contains some changes. For example:

1 “Pupils, particularly the youngest children and the more able, are not encouraged enough to work independently” has been changed to:

“…pupils, particularly the youngest children and the most above, are not always provided with enough challenging work.”

2 “…ensuring all pupils have clear next steps in marking and other feedback to help them in their learning, and giving them opportunities to respond to these comments giving pupils more opportunities to work on their own and to deepen their knowledge through activities that promote discussion, collaboration and challenge” is now:

“…ensuring that all marking shows pupils exactly what they need to do to improve their work.”

Some sections were removed including:

1 Pupils are not consistently given regular opportunities to reflect and act upon teachers’ feedback linked to their current levels of achievement.”

2 Pupils say that they enjoy school and they talk about their favourite lessons, for example, personal, health and social education (PHSE). They like lessons where they are actively involved. Older pupils told inspectors, ‘talking together increases our knowledge, the best learning is when we have lots of discussion and interaction.’ Lessons seen across the academy did not always encourage and promote this independence or collaborative learning.

3 Pupils know that they attend school to do their best. They are keen to achieve well and they show good attitudes to learning and to one another.

Quite why this editing was not done in the first instance and before publication is unclear.

– See more at:

While Janet might not know the reason for the changes, I have highlighted all the parts of the text which I complained about in my blogpost from two weeks ago.

As for the John Ruskin School, I have found the following changes (ignoring some improvements in punctuation) :

The section explaining why the school is not good has lost all but the first sentence of this:

  • Over time, teaching has not ensured that students made good or better progress. For example, students have not always been required to find things out for themselves and thus take more responsibility for their own learning.
  • On occasions, students are not given sufficient opportunities to support their classmates in their learning.

The section explaining what classroom practices should be embedded to improve the school further has lost:

  •  developing students’ independent learning skills so that they can take more responsibility for their own progress 
  • ensuring students are given even more opportunities to support one another in the classroom and act as extra resources for the learning of their classmates

The section on the quality of teaching has lost most of this:

Relationships between students and between students and the adults who work with them are a major strength. In the best lessons, for example a Year 8 ICT lesson in which teaching was judged outstanding, students are required to think for themselves and are also encouraged to support their classmates when they are finding things difficult. When this happens, students are proud of what they can do and are often surprised at how much they can achieve. On occasions, however, students’ independent learning skills are not fully developed and they are not expected to take sufficient responsibility for their own progress, nor are they encouraged to support their peers in their learning.

Although the resulting text still includes the following fragments elsewhere in the new text:

In a Year 8 ICT lesson, in which teaching and learning was judged to be outstanding, students showed that they were able to think for themselves…

Relationships between students and between students and the adults who work with them are a major strength.

Again I have highlighted the parts I complained about. So, it would appear that the reports have been altered by somebody who either reads my blog, or thinks roughly the same way I do about this sort of comment. However, I am not satisfied. The headline grades for the 2 schools have remained unchanged. Now, of course, it could be that the grades weren’t reliant on the evidence in the deleted sections. But there are two points in particular that now seem ridiculous, both of which may have affected the overall grade of the respective schools.

Firstly, the description of the teaching and learning at John Ruskin School now reads:

The quality of teaching requires improvement

  • Teaching requires improvement because it has not been good enough over time to ensure that students made good or better progress in their studies. However, the quality of teaching is now better than at the time of the previous inspection. Indeed, during the inspection, no inadequate teaching was observed and a majority of good and outstanding teaching was seen in both key stages and in a range of subjects.
  • All groups of students achieve well, or even better, when the challenge they receive in the classroom is closely matched to their abilities, to the progress they have already made and to the levels of attainment they have already reached. In a Year 9 French lesson, for example, excellent planning and teaching enabled students to work at their own pace and those with average levels of prior attainment were enabled to make the same outstanding progress as all other groups. In a Year 8 ICT lesson, in which teaching and learning was judged to be outstanding, students showed that they were able to think for themselves. However, in a minority of lessons, challenge comprises a ‘one size fits all’ approach and students of broadly average ability do not do as well as they could as a result.
  •  Marking is good and is now more regular and consistent than at the time of the previous inspection. Students receive accurate and often detailed advice on how they can improve their work.
  • Relationships between students and between students and the adults who work with them are a major strength.
  • The accelerated reading programme has a positive impact on students, particularly boys’ motivation to want to learn, and it also supports students’ learning in subjects other than English. It is, however, not yet fully implemented across Key Stage 3, to give boys that extra impetus to make the progress they should.

Except for the first line, does this sound like a “Requires Improvement” description to you? While the 2012 results weren’t great for the school, they appear to have improved in 2013 and you will easily find schools with worse results getting graded as good by OFSTED. It may well have been the removed passages that made the difference, which in turn may well have affected the overall grade.

As for Durand Academy, the text for behaviour and safety now reads:

The behaviour and safety of pupils are good

  • Pupils are respectful and polite. They move around the building exceptionally well; the organisation of large numbers of pupils is efficient. Pupils and teachers are well prepared for learning at the start of every lesson.
  • Almost all pupils have very positive attitudes to school. They say that they enjoy school. They enjoy their work and they are keen to do well. All pupils respond quickly to staff instructions; when a small minority of pupils find learning and behaviour difficult, adults are adept at calmly resolving the situation. High expectations of behaviour are consistently applied by all adults. This is a strength considering the large number of new staff every year.
  • The new inclusion rooms support vulnerable pupils who find academy expectations challenging. The provision is well managed, and the teaching assistants are patient and calm with each pupil.
  • Pupils told inspectors that they feel safe in the academy. They understand the various forms that bullying can take. They say that there is some bullying and name-calling but they reported confidently that it is dealt with by adults. A small minority of staff and parents commented on poor behaviour but most feedback during the inspection was positive. Parents expressed strong support for the academy’s consistent expectations for uniform, homework and pupils’ conduct.
  • The academy has only recently standardised the system for recording exclusions. Previously, the policy allowed for pupils to be sent home informally which was against statutory guidance; this is no longer the case. Current information shows that a small number of pupils have been excluded this term for aggressive and non-compliant behaviour. These incidents are recorded correctly.
  • Attendance is average. Academy systems to manage attendance data by pupil groups are under developed. Hand-completed paper registers are still used; a computerised system introduced in September 2013 is too new for academy leaders to analyse attendance trends with accuracy.
  • Care and support for the more vulnerable pupils are highly effective, and there are very strong partnerships with a range of external agencies.

Does this sound only good? It sounds exceptional to me. There isn’t much negative in the teaching and learning section either. Certainly, staff and leaders at Academy Durand will have every reason to wonder why they are no longer outstanding in any respect, and whether the now removed parts of the report actually determined their grades.

We now have a situation where OFSTED are trying to look as if they have changed. They are doing their best to brush the evidence of arbitrary and ideologically motivated inspections under the carpet. However, the more entrenched problem, of inspectors who still believe the old values were the right values, and the old expectations were the right expectations, clearly has not gone away. Until we start hearing of inspectors being sacked for ignoring the guidance and the handbook, schools will continue to expect the same underlying attitudes from inspectors on the ground, even if somebody does take a blue pencil to the reports after the first draft. I would suggest schools and teachers do everything in their power to use F.O.I. to get every scrap of information about their judgements, just to make sure the real reason for a disappointing judgement hasn’t been edited out of their report.


How have OFSTED behaved in the last 2 weeks?

January 16, 2014

As you may recall, I pointed out (on January 7th 2014) that some of the schools inspected before the new guidance (which clearly tells inspectors they should not be demanding independent learning and complaining about teacher talk and passive students) but published since then, have continued to make the very comments that the guidance warned against. In a couple of the cases, where this bias might have skewed the whole judgement, action has been taken and the reports are under review. This leaves the question of what the reports published since then have been like. Can you guess the answer?

School names are below the quotations.

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because … Some pupils are over reliant on adults and do not take enough responsibility for their own learning…

The quality of teaching requires improvement… Not all teachers give enough time to pupils to discuss their work, share their ideas and build their confidence. Consequently, lessons can be over controlled by the teacher, reducing the opportunity for pupils to take on responsibility for directing their own learning….

The behaviour and safety of pupils require improvement… Behaviour requires improvement and is not yet good because many pupils are not provided with sufficient opportunities to develop the necessary skills to take responsibility for their own learning, and are over reliant on adults for guidance…

Robert Blake Science College. The last part of this is particularly outrageous as this seems to be virtually the only significant criticism of the behaviour in the school.

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because … Students are not always given enough opportunities to take responsibility for their own learning…

…In the best lessons, teachers make sure that work is provided at the right level for all students, probe understanding with skilful questioning and give students opportunities to undertake a variety of tasks and take responsibility for their own learning. In less successful lessons the teachers provide too much direction and limit the variety of activities so that students are not given enough opportunity to work by themselves.

Chipping Sodbury School

What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve the quality of teaching so that students’ achievement becomes consistently good for all groups of students and across all subjects by… providing opportunities for students to engage in their own learning and become more active, taking responsibility for their own progress.

…In the less effective lessons, students do not get enough opportunities to take responsibility for their own learning by working independently or in groups to research and explore new ideas and topics themselves. Teachers do not give students enough opportunity to drive their own learning and students are too passive.

Marlwood School

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because… There are not enough opportunities in lessons for students to talk about their work and to work independently…

What does the school need to do to improve further? …Improve teaching so that it is consistently good or better by ensuring that … students have opportunities in lessons to talk about their work and to work independently so they are more actively involved in learning.

The quality of teaching requires improvement …There are very few opportunities in lessons for students to talk about what they are doing and to work independently so they are more actively engaged in the learning process.

The behaviour and safety of pupils require improvement …Sometimes in lessons they are passive and do not take part, particularly during questioning sessions or when listening to the teacher, and they are not involved in independent activities.

St Paul’s Catholic School. Again, this is one where behaviour seems to have been marked down mainly because of the type of activity in lessons.

It is not yet an outstanding school because… Pupils are not offered enough opportunities to take responsibility for their own learning or to develop as independent learners…

What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve the quality of teaching so that more is outstanding by …encouraging pupils to become more independent and take greater responsibility for their own learning.

The quality of teaching is good… However there are not sufficient opportunities for the  development of independent learning built into all lessons or subjects.

Leighton Middle School

The quality of teaching requires improvement… Too few lessons have opportunities for students to work independently of the teacher for periods of time, so that they are able to take responsibility for their own learning rather than relying too much on teachers for explanations and directions.

The International School (Birmingham)

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because … Sometimes teachers give students too much information in lessons and do not encourage them enough to learn independently.

What does the school need to do to improve further? …provide regular opportunities for students to learn independently

The quality of teaching requires improvement … Teachers sometimes direct students’ learning too much, preventing students from working independently. This limits students’ chances to discuss ideas with each other and to come up
with their own ways of solving problems. In the sixth form, while the teaching is improving and much is now good, teachers’ questioning is sometimes not searching enough, and work does not offer enough opportunities for students
to work independently.

John Willmott School

What does the school need to do to improve further? Raise the proportion of good and outstanding teaching and behaviour in order to accelerate … by… increasing the opportunities provided for teachers to learn from the best practice that already exists within and beyond the academy itself, with a particular focus on how the best teaching pushes students to think for themselves and work more independently…

In lessons that require improvement, students are less willing to work hard to achieve their learning targets, preferring instead to expect a lot of ‘scaffolding’ or significant help from teaching and support staff… teachers sometimes over-direct the lesson. This reduces the time available for students to work collaboratively and independently at thinking and solving problems for themselves.

De Warenne Academy

It is not yet an outstanding school because … students, in particular the most-able, are not always prompted to find things out for themselves… In some lessons, there are too few opportunities for students to actively participate in their own learning.

What does the school need to do to improve further?  Improve the quality of teaching and learning so that all is at least good and more is outstanding by …making sure that students have more opportunities for paired and group work to help them to develop independent learning skills…

Students are especially motivated in lessons where there is good pace and opportunities for active participation to develop their own ideas… Students respond well when they work in pairs and groups… Teaching is especially effective when there is a brisk pace and when teachers allow students to find out answers for themselves. In a small minority of lessons, teachers spend too much time explaining what is required and pace slows, so that students get less opportunity to complete work independently… Teaching is not outstanding because teachers do not always require students, particularly the most-able, to think more deeply about subjects they are studying. The use of problem solving and independent research so that students take more responsibility for their own learning is not a consistent feature of all lessons.

Whitcliffe Mount – Specialist Business and Enterprise College

Lessons are sometimes too closely directed by teachers. As a result, students do not shape their own learning often enough and instead are responding to a series of tasks or worksheets provided by the teacher.

Acklam Grange School

The best lessons are ambitious, helping students to work independently, think things out for themselves and achieve their very best.

It is not yet an outstanding school because … A small proportion of teaching does not yet give students the opportunities for the active learning they say they most enjoy and feel challenged by…

The best teaching is well paced, highly interactive and gives students responsibility for their learning so that they develop skills to work on their own and think things out for themselves.

Vyners School

It is not yet an outstanding school because … Too few students have developed sufficient confidence in their learning to be able to question and challenge new ideas and knowledge independently…

providing challenges in all lessons that help students to develop a lively and flexible response to problem solving so that they take responsibility for the quality of their work and become confident and resilient learners

Where teaching is good or better…Teachers begin lessons with imaginative activities which fire the enthusiasm of students and enable them to work independently … In the best lessons, teachers motivate students by creating opportunities for them to work creatively and solve problems together… Occasionally, activities are unimaginative and the teacher talks too much, giving insufficient opportunities for students to contribute ideas.

Thomas Knyvett College

Most mathematics teaching is of good quality and enables pupils to make good or better progress. However, in a minority of lessons, especially for pupils who find the subject hard, teachers focus too much on the need to remember routines with insufficient questioning of pupils, to probe their understanding, or linking to real-life applications.

Dorothy Stringer School

What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve the quality of teaching so it is consistently good or better by… providing as many opportunities as possible for pupils to work independently and find things out for themselves

Kirk Hammerton Church of England Primary School

Teaching is improving but does not always develop the necessary independent learning skills…

In less effective lessons, students were not given enough opportunity to work independently and develop their own ideas. This was because teachers talked too much and too little time was made available for students to work on planned activities… In the best lessons, students had opportunities to work in a range of different ways, including independently…

In all lessons there was a positive environment for learning. This is particularly the case where students are highly engaged and find lessons interesting because they have well-planned opportunities for independent working. No disruptive behaviour was seen in lessons, although students are less positive about their learning where lessons are overly teacher-led.

Perryfields High School Specialist Maths and Computing College

These were pretty easy to find, and represent the majority of reports I looked at, although I did look at more secondary schools than primary schools. Some of the above are not just in violation of the new guidance , but against everything OFSTED have been claiming for the last 2 years. It is staggering that there are still reports demanding more pair work and group work. Some, like the report for John Willmott School, seem at least as contentious as the two I read before that are currently “under review”.

I’m not intending to do another one of these posts until we have inspections carried out under the new guidance. Unless somebody finds something really incredible, of course.


Missing OFSTED Reports

January 13, 2014

A little less than a week ago I had a look at some of the OFSTED reports that had been published since the new OFSTED guidance came out, and found that the reports were as biased as ever about the type of teaching that was wanted and did several of the things that the new guidance warned against. I concluded:

I realise these inspections took place, and the reports were probably drafted, before the new guidance which means the inspectors have not necessarily been any more negligent or incompetent than usual. However, how can the judgements in these reports, which will have had a huge impact on those schools and on individual teachers have any credibility at all, given that OFSTED have since made it clear that inspectors should not be saying the things they have said in the reports? How can these judgements possibly be allowed to stand?

I suspect I am not the only person to have wondered this. Of the 5 reports that I mentioned, 2 of the more disappointing ones, John Ruskin School in Cumbria and the Durand Academy, have disappeared from the OFSTED website. I hope this indicates that either the schools concerned have appealed against what seemed like very unfair treatment, or that somebody within OFSTED has realised how little credibility they have when they condemn schools for things that “officially” are meant to be perfectly acceptable.

(Thanks to @OdysseanProject for pointing out the disappearance of the Durand Academy report.)

Update 15/1/2014: Fiona Millar of the Local Schools Network has been looking into the disappearance of the Durand Academy report, apparently unaware that any other reports had also vanished, suspecting political interference she had investigated:

I contacted Ofsted to ask them what had happened and felt the reply wasn’t altogether convincing. I was told by a spokesperson that there was ‘nothing untoward” about this decision. The report had been removed “to be reviewed”

Apparently a routine trawl of recent inspections to ensure compliance with the latest Ofsted guidance (which came into force on January 1 2014 so shouldn’t really have applied to 2013 inspections) found a few irregularities as inspectors hadn’t followed the new guidance (which didn’t actually apply to the Durand inspection) to the letter. In particular this related to comments about “teaching style”

I was assured that no pressure had been brought to bear either by the school or the DFE, but that the actions had been taken by “senior officials” at Ofsted.

“HM Chief Inspector and Ofsted’s National Schools Director are clear they will not accept reports that do not properly follow Ofsted’s own guidance, especially relating to particular styles of teaching,” was the official response. “All judgments and grades still stand pending the conclusion of this review.”

Update 16/1/2014: From a postscript to that same blogpost by Fiona Millar:

Since writing this original blog I have been contacted by Ofsted again. They stress that the the report will be re-published in the very near future and that the Durand Ofsted was one of six removed from the Ofsted site due to concerns about “poor wording” in references to teaching style, in the light of recent Ofsted guidance on teaching and learning. This poor wording should have been picked up in the pre-publication period apparently, but wasn’t.

A little concerning that they imply that only the wording, not the resulting judgement, is in need of review.



Have OFSTED Changed Yet?

January 7, 2014

As I reported previously, OFSTED changed their inspection guidance on the 23rd December 2013 to make it far clearer that particular types of teaching (particularly reduced teacher talk, “independent” learning or lots of different activities) were no longer required. Obviously, inspections carried out since then won’t have been published, but reports for inspections carried out before Christmas have been published since the guidance changed. You may be wondering if there are any signs of improvement.

These are from reports with a publication date later than the 23rd December.

However, a small number of teachers do not involve students sufficiently in discussion…  Even the youngest in Year 9 … show they can sustain their commitment to work without having to rely on direct adult supervision.

King Edward VI Church of England Voluntary Controlled Upper School

This is a school that requires improvement. It is not good because … students have not always been required to find things out for themselves and thus take more responsibility for their own learning. On occasions, students are not given sufficient opportunities to support their classmates in their learning.

What does the school need to do to improve further?… Embed the good and exemplary classroom practice which already exists … by: developing students’ independent learning skills so that they can take more responsibility for their own progress [and] ensuring students are given even more opportunities to support one another in the classroom and act as extra resources for the learning of their classmates…

In the best lessons, for example a Year 8 ICT lesson in which teaching was judged outstanding, students are required to think for themselves and are also encouraged to support their classmates when they are finding things difficult. … On occasions, however, students’ independent learning skills are not fully developed and they are not expected to take sufficient responsibility for their own progress, nor are they encouraged to support their peers in their learning.

John Ruskin School (Cumbria)

Teaching is typically characterised by … the provision of a variety of well-constructed activities, … opportunities for students to work collaboratively…  In less-effective lessons teachers provide too many answers themselves and their questioning does not allow or encourage students to think for themselves…

Parrs Wood High School

What does the school need to do to improve further? … Improve teaching further so that more is outstanding by ensuring that:
students are encouraged and have more opportunities to take more responsibility for their own learning…

…Occasionally, however, teachers … hold centre stage too often and students spend too long listening when they are keen to get on with their own, independent learning. This results in some passivity towards learning.

In the majority of lessons students have positive attitudes towards learning. However, sometimes students would rather sit back and let the teacher do the work for them.

Cardinal Newman Catholic High School (Cheshire)

And the one that got me looking at this, after @miconm and @Samfr pointed it out on Twitter, is for a school which was previously outstanding but is now only good, despite an excellent reputation (particularly for discipline) and progress from KS1 to KS2 appearing to be much better than in similar schools.

It is not yet an outstanding school because … Pupils, particularly the youngest children and the more able, are not encouraged enough to work independently…

What does the school need to do to improve further? Improve teaching so that more is consistently good and outstanding by… giving pupils more opportunities to work on their own and to deepen their knowledge through activities that promote discussion, collaboration and challenge…

Pupils … like lessons where they are actively involved. Older pupils told inspectors, ‘talking together increases our knowledge, the best learning is when we have lots of discussion and interaction.’ Lessons seen across the academy did not always encourage and promote this independence or collaborative learning…

Teaching requires improvement when teachers talk for too long so pupils do not get enough opportunities to work alone or in groups. In Key Stage 1 too many worksheets in books mean that pupils do not have enough opportunities to write independently…

Behaviour is not outstanding because pupils do not display a thirst for learning or take enough responsibility for their own learning.

Durand Academy

I realise these inspections took place, and the reports were probably drafted, before the new guidance which means the inspectors have not necessarily been any more negligent or incompetent than usual. However, how can the judgements in these reports, which will have had a huge impact on those schools and on individual teachers have any credibility at all, given that OFSTED have since made it clear that inspectors should not be saying the things they have said in the reports? How can these judgements possibly be allowed to stand?


A Christmas Miracle – OFSTED Get It Right For Once

December 23, 2013

Thanks to @ClerktoGovernor for being the first to point this out to me.

OFSTED published their Subsidiary guidance supporting the inspection of maintained schools and academies today. This is the section on teaching (points 64-67):

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.

When in lessons, also remember that we are gathering evidence about a variety of aspects of provision and outcomes. We are not simply observing the features of the lesson but we are gathering evidence about a range of issues through observation in a lesson. Do not focus on the lesson structure at the expense of its content or the wide range of other evidence about how well children are learning in the school.

When giving feedback, inspectors must not argue that they are unable to give a particular grade because of the time spent in the lesson.

Inspectors must not aggregate the grades given for teaching is a formulaic or simplistic way in order to evaluate its quality overall.

This isn’t even half-hearted or ambiguous. This is exactly what I wanted to see.

Thank you, OFSTED.

Now, the task for those of us in schools is to make sure this is shown to every SMT type, every consultant and every person with “teaching and learning” in their job description and that no inspector gets into a classroom without confirming that they are aware of this section of the guidance. Every union rep should be making sure that this is known to everyone carrying out lesson observations of your members. Every governor needs to make certain it’s reflected in their school’s teaching and learning policy. This is as good a protection as we’ve ever had. Don’t let it be ignored.

Merry Christmas.

Update 30/12/2013: I have written an analysis of why this is such an important change, in light of previous issues raised on this blog, here.


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.


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.


Liz Truss’s Textbook Speech

December 2, 2013

Education minister Liz Truss made a speech today which included the following defence of textbooks:

I want to start, though, with a defence of the textbook. Not just because I’m currying favour with publishers. Nor because I’m nostalgic about my dog-eared copy of ‘Tricolore’. But because the humble textbook represents something quite powerful. A textbook is a map, a guide. It’s a single thing you can pick, that starts off with basics and builds more and more on top, giving you what you need to know. That’s a beautiful idea – knowledge and understanding, there for the taking.

And think about how we use the word ‘textbook’. Call something textbook and you’re saying it’s the right way to do something. A textbook cricket shot. A textbook driving manoeuvre. One of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions is ‘exemplary; accurate’ or ‘instructively typical’. There’s an entire social meaning around the word ‘textbook’.

So it’s odd that almost uniquely in the developed world, in England, textbooks have fallen out of fashion. Buried deep in the 2011 TIMSS study – an international comparison of maths and science teaching – is an analysis of use of materials. Seventy-five per cent of teachers in countries studied use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 10-year-olds [fourth grade in TIMSS]. In Germany, it’s 86%. Poland – 78%. Sweden – 89%. Korea – 99%. In England – it’s 10%. We are an outlier. And in science, across the world, on average 74% of teachers use textbooks as the basis of instruction for 14-year-olds [eighth grade]. In Korea, it’s 88%. Hong Kong – 87%. Malaysia – 83%. Chinese Taipei – 92%. In England – it’s 8%.

Why is this? Why are textbooks unloved in England? I think it’s partly progressive education philosophy – exemplified by the Plowden report of 1967 – with its concept of child centred learning, and idea there’s no best way to teach.

I am sympathetic to this, but it misses the reality on the ground. The reason we are scared to use textbooks might relate to progressive ideology, but owes more to how it is enforced than its intellectual influence. In particular, like most things in education it comes down to the actions of OFSTED. I’ve tried using a textbook exercise in front of an OFSTED inspector, they do not like it. In their pro-groupwork phase working from a textbook would have been a mortal sin. If they have moved on from that, they now seem to want evidence that work is tailored to individual needs, so using the same textbook for a whole class seems to be right out. Mike Cameron on Twitter nailed this exactly by doing a search for the phrase “much over-reliance on textbooks” on the OFSTED website.

Here are some examples:

While teaching is mostly good there are times when it loses ‘crispness’ and clarity and tasks are not challenging enough. Despite their willingness to complete their tasks, pupils do not always achieve as much as they could do. Sometimes an over-reliance on textbooks and commercial worksheets limits pupils’ own responses.

St David’s Primary School (Ministry of Defence), July 2013

Year 11 mathematics lesson seen by inspectors, teachers use whiteboards effectively to illustrate and focus on teaching points. Conversely, in some lessons, there is too much reliance on worksheets, textbooks and uninspiring resources

Institute of Islamic Education, independent school, September 2011

Teaching in the academic subjects is not as effective as in the performing arts. This is because teachers are not adapting lessons enough to extend the understanding and skills of all pupils, especially more -able pupils. In some subjects, there is an over-reliance on textbooks.

Barbara Speake Stage School, June 2013

Almost all students have a very positive attitude to mathematics and are keen to do well. They respond best when given opportunities to discuss their mathematics and be more actively involved in lessons. This does not happen in all lessons and students report that they sometimes spend too long working from textbooks and worksheets emulating the methods and
techniques they have been shown by their teacher…

An over-reliance on textbook-based approaches sometimes results in students’ fragmented experience of the mathematics curriculum…

Too great a reliance is placed on pathways through textbook schemes to meet the needs of different groups of students.

The King David High School, Ofsted 2012–13 subject survey inspection programme: mathematics

An improvement in the teaching is teachers’ reduced reliance on textbooks and worksheets. A recently acquired textbook-based scheme of work still forms the basis of teachers’ planning but is being adapted more readily to suit pupils’ needs. The school has rightly identified that Key Stage 2 pupils would benefit from more opportunities to learn and practise skills in exciting, real-life contexts.

Holy Trinity CofE Primary School, Ofsted 2010–11 subject survey inspection programme: mathematics

Martin Fitzgerald, mathematics coordinator, is responsible for the work of the team of 12 teachers. He works closely with Derek. He emphasises that the department ‘… now works at the opposite end of the spectrum from “text-book lessons”. The danger with that approach was that pupils seemed to be making secure progress because they became adept at answering the questions, but they were seldom able to make that all-important massive jump when asked to apply their learning in real situations. An over-reliance on textbooks kills any hope of realising high expectations because it leads to pupils becoming dependent on the teacher. We knew we had to move on from that.’

OFSTED good practice report, Allenbourn Middle School, January 2012.

I could go on.

Added to this, of course, the government has also been keen to increase the power of headteachers to remove teachers they disapprove of, and, with performance-related pay, reward those they do approve of. How many headteachers are going to be rewarding teachers who rely on OFSTED unfriendly methods of teaching like using textbooks? How many would rather remove teachers who insist on using textbooks rather than entertaining the kids? The government, once more, seems keen on sabotaging its own objectives. Until they are willing to take on OFSTED they might as well refrain from expressing views about teaching. OFSTED, and not OFSTED at its best but the fear of the worst possible inspector, determines how we are meant to teach, and that isn’t through using textbooks.


Has OFSTED Changed Since Last Month?

November 27, 2013

Last night I did my regular trawl through recent OFSTED reports. I had written about some reports from early October here, and some from September here. For both of those two previous blogposts I had easily found OFSTED reports which showed a clear bias towards particular types of teaching despite all the claims that there is no preferred OFSTED lesson style. This time, however, looking at late October and early November inspections, I found very few such reports. Most reports were bland, talking about marking and questioning and sometimes differentiation. A few even praised explanations or subject knowledge. The usual condemnations of teacher talk and the constant promotion of “independence” were the exception not the rule.

When I mentioned this on Twitter, some of those who replied to me mentioned recent OFSTED training, which suggested a surprising and dramatic change in approach (by which I mean: doing what Michael Wilshaw says they should do instead of completely ignoring him). I asked one of them to send me a longer description and they sent me this (thanks):

I recently attended some OFSTED inspection skills training run by one of the main OFSTED providers. A big part of the training was watching clips of lessons and grading them. One of the most controversial clips was a KS3 Maths lesson: it was like something out of the Victorian era!

Children sitting in complete silence in rows, all the sums written on the board prior to the lesson, no differentiation whatsoever. The teacher explained the formula, children practised on a mini whiteboard, one child came up to the board to write the answer to the proposed sum then the children had a time limit to complete 20 similar sums, then mark their own answers afterwards. After which the process began again with a slightly harder sum. And was repeated again and again and again. I thought it was a 3/4 borderline; a number of people gave it a 4. The majority of us were gobsmacked when the trainer revealed the lesson was given a ‘2’ because the children’s books demonstrated they were making progress and the teacher spoke to individual students who needed help! If anything, it has given me real confidence to be myself and deliver my normal lessons during an OFSTED inspection. As long as the students are making progress over time and make some in the 20/25 minutes, it apparently doesn’t matter how they do it.

I don’t know how representative this is of other inspection providers, and even when I’ve been cataloguing the worst ideological excesses of OFSTED there have always been those with a different experience. However, this is clearly the best indicator yet that OFSTED no longer see it is as their mission to root out traditional teaching and replace it with chatting in groups. Please feel free to comment if your own experiences confirm or contradict this.


How To Sabotage Your Own Policy

November 24, 2013

I will argue here the government has sabotaged its own policy on maths teaching through the power it has given to OFSTED and to the NCETM, but first I will review what the debate in maths education is about. As with history teaching, or phonics, the trouble with writing about maths is the long history of the debate about the subject. My usual method of providing an introductory summing up about what’s at issue is to quote the following from the American maths professor, W. Stephen Wilson description of the opposing side:

There will always be people who think that calculators work just fine and there is no need to teach much arithmetic, thus making career decisions for 4th graders that the students should make for themselves in college. Downplaying the development of pencil and paper number sense might work for future shoppers, but doesn’t work for students headed for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) fields. There will always be the anti-memorization crowd who think that learning the multiplication facts to the point of instant recall is bad for a student, perhaps believing that it means students can no longer understand them. Of course this permanently slows students down, plus it requires students to think about 3rd-grade mathematics when they are trying to solve a college-level problem. There will always be the standard algorithm deniers, the first line of defense for those who are anti-standard algorithms being just deny they exist. Some seem to believe it is easier to teach “high-level critical thinking” than it is to teach the standard algorithms with understanding. The standard algorithms for adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing whole numbers are the only rich, powerful, beautiful theorems you can teach elementary school kids, and to deny kids these theorems is to leave kids unprepared. Avoiding hard mathematics with young students does not prepare them for hard mathematics when they are older. There will always be people who believe that you do not understand mathematics if you cannot write a coherent essay about how you solved a problem, thus driving future STEM students away from mathematics at an early age. A fairness doctrine would require English language arts (ELA) students to write essays about the standard algorithms, thus also driving students away from ELA at an early age. The ability to communicate is NOT essential to understanding mathematics. There will always be people who think that you must be able to solve problems in multiple ways. This is probably similar to thinking that it is important to teach creativity in mathematics in elementary school, as if such a thing were possible. Forget creativity; the truly rare student is the one who can solve straightforward problems in a straightforward way. There will always be people who think that statistics and probability are more important than arithmetic and algebra, despite the fact that you can’t do statistics and probability without arithmetic and algebra and that you will never see a question about statistics or probability on a college placement exam, thus making statistics and probability irrelevant for college preparation. There will always be people who think that teaching kids to “think like a mathematician,” whether they have met a mathematician or not, can be done independently of content. At present, it seems that the majority of people in power think the three pages of Mathematical Practices in Common Core, which they sometimes think is the “real” mathematics, are more important than the 75 pages of content standards, which they sometimes refer to as the “rote” mathematics. They are wrong. You learn Mathematical Practices just like the name implies; you practice mathematics with content. There will always be people who think that teaching kids about geometric slides, flips, and turns is just as important as teaching them arithmetic. It isn’t. Ask any college math teacher.

Roughly speaking, the tensions are between those who emphasise the procedures (both written and mental) and those who emphasise applications in context and the ability to talk about maths. In the most recent versions of the debate that I have encountered  the former would claim that they are aiming for fluency and the latter would claim that they are aiming for conceptual understanding. Neither would claim not to be pursuing the other’s goal; those emphasising fluency would claim it leads to greater understanding and those emphasising conceptual understanding would claim it leads to greater fluency. Ultimately, both sides would say you have to teach both fluency and conceptual understanding, but the choice of which to emphasise will have a huge impact on teaching methods. The more you emphasise fluency, the more you will spend time on deliberate practice and relying on explanations, rather than “discovery” to result in understanding. The more you emphasise conceptual understanding, the more time you will spend using card sorts and cuisenare rods, having discussions, trying to learn maths from problem-solving and outsourcing calculations to calculators. It is best described as a spectrum rather than a dichotomy, with only the most extreme of the advocates of conceptual understanding saying kids don’t need times tables and only the most extreme (or possibly those who don’t understand the word “rote”) saying kids should learn procedures without understanding them. Emphasis also changes depending on which key stage is being discussed, with fluency being the most obvious goal for very young children learning to count or add numbers under 10 and conceptual understanding being a clear priority at A-level.

This debate maps fairly closely to wider debates about knowledge and skills. However, maths, probably more than any subject, is probably the one that most easily lends itself to the traditional emphasis on knowledge and fluency. It is very easy to find maths teachers on the less fashionable end of the spectrum, particularly among those with maths degrees or those old enough to have lived through the National Numeracy Strategy, one of the rare times that the official pedagogy in any subject was traditional. It is common to find schools where setting in maths in every year groups reflects the need to address differences in knowledge. However, the conceptual understanding side have remarkable dominance over university departments of education and, unfortunately as this is where so much power lies, OFSTED.

Politically, there have been sudden changes in which side was dominant. The emphasis on fluency resulting from the National Numeracy Strategy in the late 90s was followed by a period of weak leadership that let the conceptual understanding side gain the upper hand. Things have changed since 2010. Ministers have advocated fluency and most importantly, the new National Curriculum in maths has emphasised it. However, the big question to me has been whether ministers and documentation backing fluency would make any difference. When the ideological difference is one of emphasis people can always play lip service to one idea while focussing on another. Nobody need say they are against fluency to sabotage this policy direction; they need only say that, while of course fluency is important and they assume people will be working on it, the really important good practice to be shared is that focussing on conceptual understanding. If those with power over education take that attitude then nothing will change. Ministers will change the documentation but not the education that is being delivered.

Now, it was always going to be the case that OFSTED would sabotage the policy in this way. Their latest maths report, Made To Measure in May 2012, emphasised conceptual understanding (the word “understanding” appears 97 times in the report including 11 mentions of “conceptual understanding) and relegated fluency (“fluent” appears 3 times in the report but every time is mentioned only alongside understanding; fluency is mentioned 6 times but in 4 of those cases it is alongside “understanding”). Examples of best practice in maths given by OFSTED have been at the extreme trendy end and I summarised them (and compared them with Michael Wilshaw’s views) here. Worse, OFSTED have claimed (for instance, in these course notes released under the Freedom of Information Act) in a truly Orwellian fashion that “The definition of fluency incorporates conceptual understanding”, an interpretation which would make arguing for one side impossible. Although they accept that students should be fluent (presumably with that definition of fluency), this is OFSTED’s description of what outstanding maths teaching looks like:

Teaching is rooted in the development of all pupils’ conceptual understanding of important concepts and progression within the lesson and over time. It enables pupils to make connections between topics and see the ‘big picture’. Teaching nurtures mathematical independence, allows time for thinking, and encourages discussion. Problem solving, discussion and investigation are seen as integral to learning mathematics. Constant assessment of each pupil’s understanding through questioning, listening and observing enables fine tuning of teaching. Barriers to learning and potential misconceptions are anticipated and overcome, with errors providing fruitful points for discussion. Teachers communicate high expectations, enthusiasm and passion about their subject to pupils. They have a high level of confidence and expertise both in terms of their specialist knowledge and their understanding of effective learning in the subject. As a result, they 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. Teachers exploit links between mathematics and other subjects and with mathematics beyond the classroom. Marking distinguishes well between simple errors and misunderstanding and tailors insightful feedback accordingly.

Of course, as far as I am concerned any government which tolerates the existence of OFSTED is already limiting their own power to make meaningful educational change and can expect to be overruled in this way by a body that has more power over teachers’ practice than government.

The other big factor will be how the new curriculum is explained to teachers, particularly primary teachers. Will fluency or conceptual understanding be emphasised? Will teachers be given advice on how to train kids in recalling number bonds and times tables and applying traditional algorithms or will they be encouraged to get kids talking and playing with pictures? I was shocked to hear that NCETM had been funded to “roll out” the policy. Subject associations are not known for their traditionalism and NCETM has in the past produced one of the most destructive explanations of what an OFSTED lesson should look like and a “consultation”  where:

Participants consistently reported that:

• too much time is spent developing “fluency in recalling facts and performing skills”to the detriment of other aspects;
• much greater emphasis should be placed on the remaining four learning outcomes, with particular emphasis being placed on “conceptual understanding and interpretations for representations” and “strategies for investigation and problem solving”.

In 2010, a submission to parliament from the NCETM claimed:

1.  There is substantial evidence of what constitutes effective mathematics teaching, which includes the Cockcroft reportMathematics Counts (1982), A Study Effective Teachers of Numeracy (1997), a review led by the NCETM Mathematics Matters (2008), Ofsted’s report Understanding the Score (2008).

Together these reports have identified the following characteristics of effective mathematics teaching:

  • Builds on the knowledge learners already have.
  • Exposes and discusses common misconceptions and other surprising phenomena.
  • Uses higher-order questions.
  • Makes appropriate use of whole class interactive teaching, individual work and cooperative small group work.
  • Encourages reasoning rather than “answer getting”.
  • Uses rich, collaborative tasks.
  • Creates connections between topics both within and beyond mathematics and with the real world, in particular drawing out connections between different representations of mathematics (eg graphical, numerical, algebraic).
  • Uses resources, including technology, in creative and appropriate ways.
  • Confronts difficulties rather than seeks to avoid or pre-empt them.
  • Develops mathematical language through communicative activities.
  • Sets high expectations for pupils in mathematical challenge, achievement and enjoyment.

2.  These principles of effective teaching are widely accepted by teachers who have specialised in mathematics teaching and learning in their ITT or later in their career.

Their director has a background in Key Stage 5 teaching and advocates “a way of thinking of teaching maths which involves understanding and enjoyment” and criticises “the idea of maths as just being a set of questions where your aim is to get the answer right to the question without any kind of meaning” although he admits this “has a place” in learning. Of course, what this means in practice is what matters. So far it doesn’t look promising. A blogger who went on their training course for those implementing the primary curriculum observed:

The NCETM approach is to emphasise that fluency can only be achieved, and should only be achieved by building on a foundation of good conceptual understanding.  Their training and the training that we in turn will be passing onto schools explores the key role that representation and the use of concrete apparatus has in building up this conceptual understanding.

This idea, that fluency will happen without teachers being trained to teach it well and, instead, teachers need to be trained to deliver conceptual understanding is also evident in the training videos NCETM have produced. These are the videos they have produced on times tables and advertised on their website as “Videos to support the new implementation of the new Primary Curriculum”. There are suggestions that students will also be practising recall of times tables, but look at what they think needs to be passed on to teachers:

Under the influence of OFSTED and the NCETM schools are going to continue to think “conceptual understanding” and the activities alleged to promote it, rather than deliberate practice, are the key to maths education. The government has created a curriculum which emphasises fluency in maths and then given all the power over maths education to people who have a completely different emphasis. This is not going to be half as good as the National Numeracy Strategy, this is a change in words at the top which won’t reach the ground. This is the government sabotaging its own policy.

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