Some thoughts on the ‘Ofsted Style’
‘Right.’ Mr Goodheart reclaims everyone’s attention. ‘I’d like to remind everyone about our push on independent learning. Remember that this is what Ofsted will be looking for, when they finally get here.’ He smiles in a way that suggests he doesn’t really believe what he is saying. ‘We simply cannot have a situation where teachers are teaching and children are listening.’ I sit up in my chair, not entirely sure if I’ve heard correctly.
Katharine Birbalsingh, To Miss With Love (2011)
The chorus of approval from the blogosphere that has met Policy Exchange’s recent report on Ofsted, Watching the Watchmen, is well deserved. Summaries and judgments on its recommendations can be found here, here and here. In brief, Policy Exchange recommend a two tier inspection system of brief ‘Short Inspections’ concerned primarily with pupil achievement, and longer ‘Tailored Inspections’ for schools where Short Inspections highlight problems. More controversially, they recommend that lesson observations be almost entirely scrapped. The report uses the favoured analogy that Ofsted should be less of a food critic, more of a hygiene inspector.
These recommendations are precisely targeted at significant problems within Ofsted, and I would be delighted to see them implemented. However, I was left with some queries:
- The Ofsted Style: Watching the Watchmen makes allusions to an ‘Ofsted preferred teaching style’, but seems wary about explaining what such a ‘preferred’ style may be. This is a shame, because it is an issue of significance across the education establishment. The Ofsted preferred teaching style is, put simply, a child-centred approach with lots of active learning, group work, and pupil independence. It is against teacher led lessons, teacher talk and text books. In addition, it is biased in favour of critical or ‘higher order’ thinking, over knowledge accumulation and repeated practice. The ‘Ofsted Style’ combines this child-centred approach with a wholly unrealistic expectation of demonstrating pupil progress within a single lesson. A pithy description of the sort of teaching this counter-intuitive combination produces comes courtesy of Old Andrew: ‘A lot of teachers have been told that Ofsted will require them to stop teaching their classes and, instead, make children sit in groups knitting their own yoghurts, pausing only to be lectured on the minutiae of how to distinguish a level 5c from a level 4a.’ There is no need to dance around the terminology: most Ofsted inspectors prefer ‘progressive’ approaches to teaching, and recoil at the sight of ‘traditional’ teaching. They are simply reflective of the wider prejudices within much of the education establishment. Read this hilarious account from of ‘teaching badly, really badly’ from a History teacher at a private boarding school, and ask yourself what Ofsted would say about such lessons. How lucky this teacher is only to have the Independent Schools Inspectorate to fear.
- What data? Watching the Watchmen places a lot of emphasis on ‘data’ as the main basis for an Ofsted judgement, and their proposed biannual ‘Short Inspection’ would be ‘heavily data driven’. This is sensible up to a point, as external assessment is about the only source of judgment that is least open to the whims and fancies of the individual inspectors. However, it also poses problems. A secondary Free School would have to go through two, probably three ‘Short Inspections’ before they had any external data according to which Ofsted would judge their performance. This would leave them dependent on showing progress through internal data, and as any teacher knows, as soon as a measure becomes a target, it is opened up to all sorts of perverse incentives. The idea that all pupils should make two sub levels of progress every year (using the National Curriculum Levels) is a plague which causes otherwise honest teachers to rig their mark book to cover their back when it comes to performance management. Short of the return of Key Stage 3 Sats, it remains an open question what data can reliably be used to judge the progress of pupils during their first five years of secondary school.
- From Good to Outstanding: Some have asked why the Watching the Watchmen did not go the whole hog and recommend discarding the whole system of grading schools. Within the ratings, the borderline between Good and Outstanding seems particularly cruel, and perhaps one where an unwillingness to teach in the ‘Ofsted Style’ can be most costly. This is not without significance. As one respondent to the report commentated, being given ‘Good with Outstanding features’ left a school’s staff ‘miserable’ and ‘depressed’. In addition, if a school wants to become a teaching school, they must be graded ‘Outstanding’ – thus, the inspection apparatus has the power to perpetuate an ‘Ofsted style’ in the training of new teachers. Perhaps instead of scrapping grades altogether, a three tier system – inadequate, requires improvement, and good – would suffice. If anything, it would allow an ‘outstanding’ teacher to return to its normal meaning in schools and no longer mean, as it currently seems to, one who is an enthusiastic user of lollipop sticks, flipped classrooms and carousel activities.
- Why Wilshaw’s message is getting lost: Perhaps the most interesting part of the report, and something of which I was not previously aware, is the fact that Additional Inspectors (AIs) are outsourced to Regional Schools Inspection Providers, such as CfBT, Serco, and Tribal. Consequently, AIs are not in the direct employment of Ofsted and are less likely to listen to Wilshaw’s insistence that there should be no preferred teaching method. As is nicely outlined on page 27, Wilshaw has made seven public pronouncements to this effect in just two years, yet the most recent Ofsted reports still suggest such a message still is not getting through. Watching the Watchmen usefully explains that contracted out AIs are ‘twice-removed’ from the central control of the HMCI, making them far less likely to pay attention to Wilshaw’s guidance. Let’s hope those contracts are not renewed in the years to come.
Watching the Watchmen is an excellent report, and it recommended structural alterations would no doubt have positive effects. However, I fear that the ‘Ofsted style’ is so woven into the DNA of schools, in important areas such as performance management and CPD, that it must be tackled head on if it is to be defeated.