What inspirational teaching looks like according to Ofsted

//What inspirational teaching looks like according to Ofsted

So, as we know, Sir Michael Wilshaw is determined to make clear that Ofsted has no preferred teaching style. Right? Wrong.

Just in case you were breaking open the Spumante to celebrate a return to common sense and autonomy, Ofsted have released a brand new example of best practice in English just so as we’re all clear on exactly the type of thing inspectors are looking for.

I really don’t want to denigrate anything the school in question has done in order to be awarded their outstanding badge; their results speak for themselves:

In 2013, 83% of the cohort gained a GCSE grade at C or above in English and 31% of entries gained an A or an A* grade in English Language; both figures are significantly above average. GCSE results in English Literature, taken by most students, are even higher. Students of all abilities make outstanding progress over key stages 3 and 4. In 2013, 85% made the expected progress in English compared with a national average of 69%. Furthermore, 42% made more than expected progress compared to 30% nationally.

This being the case, maybe it might be fair to assume that Ofsted took the view that whatever the school is doing, it’s obviously successful. I don’t want to comment on that as I have no knowledge of the school in question other than that provided in the good practice document. However, the fact that Ofsted chose this school to hold up as an example of what good looks like speaks volumes of their preference for a particular set of values and preferences. This is something that the report explicitly claims: “This case study illustrates the teaching and learning styles in English, explains how the curriculum at Key Stage 3 and 4 has been refocused, especially in Year 9, and how the rigour of assessment and monitoring contributes to outstanding teaching and learning.”

Here are some of the highlights from the report:

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 09.08.36

So, I’ve got nothing against ‘engaging, fun, seemingly unconnected tasks’ per se except that if we’re going to spend time on them then we can’t do something else instead. You may believe that ‘engaging, fun, seemingly unconnected tasks’ are in fact the very best way to start a lesson, but Ofsted’s not supposed to believe any such thing, and there’s a real danger that Wilshaw’s message is going to get lost in the clutter of Inspector Gadget and his ‘engaging, fun’ chums. I’ve also got real issues with Airman by Eoin Colfer being held up as an example of high expectations for Year 7 students. I’ve not read anything by Colfer, and I’m sure pupils ‘absolutely love it’, but really, is this the best we can do? Does this demonstrate rigour, and the belief that, in the words of the school’s Headteacher, “only the best is good enough”? I’ve written before that the texts we teach in English ought to be culturally rich rather than culturally familiar; texts that pupils wouldn’t necessarily encounter left to their own devices and which will be genuine examples of “the best that’s been thought and known”. Surely this is better than relying on “references to students’ cultural knowledge and experience”? This is most certainly not the experience of English I want for my own children. But I digress: these are but my own preferences.

We then have clear, unambiguous praise for “creative and active thinking”, whatever that is, and we’re told that “active tasks [that] involve physical movement” are desirable. Whatever you think of this, it’ directly undermines the message in the December 2013 guidance to inspectors that inspectors should 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.” Why does this matter? Because schools are scared stiff of failing inspections and scrutinise these reports to divine the entrails of what Ofsted want. Telling teachers that using the popular dance songs and Boggle boxes is the way to go is more likely than anything else to result in dumbing down, trivialisation of learning and low expectations of what pupils are capable of engaging with.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 09.11.32

But can I really complain about practice that is rooted in the “broader context of actively engaging students’ interest”? Maybe not, but instead of relying on cartoons to actively engage students’ interest, why not teach them something engaging and interesting? But for that matter, is using Little Miss Sunshine really likely to engage Year 9 pupils? I seem to remember something of a spat a few months back when Gove criticised the use of Mr Men to teach history. Why then is Roger Hargreaves’ oeuvre acceptable in the teaching of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry?

Now lots of things that this English department do seem great. Their approach to marking and assessment appear to have clear impact and I’m sure the teachers are hard-working and conscientious. None of this is intended to rubbish what they do. My complaint is that if this what Ofsted hold up as good practice, many schools and teachers will, inevitably, scramble to emulate it. Maybe, it might represent good practice in the hands of those who have thought hard to produce sequences of lessons which will have a particular effect. Maybe. But maybe not. In the hands of someone trying to second guess what will please an inspector the result is likely to be rubbish.

At the very least, I’d like to see Ofsted publish an example of good practice that wasn’t all about cartoon characters and active learning. If they really mean it when they instruct inspectors not to “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” then they must show examples of where this has been done successfully. If we are to believe them when they say, “Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable” then we need some evidence that they actually mean it. For a start, let’s see some examples of good practice that include effective teacher talk.

I was in the very privileged position of being able to make these points to Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s Director of Schools. I am hopeful that he was listening.

Related posts

“The kids absolutely love it!” The phrase that launched a thousand gimmicks
Is there a way to avoid teaching rubbish in English?
Principled curriculum design: the English curriculum

2014-02-18T17:27:12+00:00February 18th, 2014|Featured|


  1. Chris Curtis February 18, 2014 at 3:33 pm - Reply

    I agree it makes for an interesting read, David. You are right to highlight that people will copy and emulate some of these teaching approaches in their own schools. It is the danger of making these ‘best practice’ documents. I think the interesting points in the whole article are:

    *Results are above national average
    *Data is robust and students are regularly monitored
    *GCSE work is started a year early or something similar
    *A senior examiner is HOD

    I have no issue with the school, but I question what is the best practice being highlighted here. I don’t doubt it for a minute that it is great, but I am unclear as to what is the best practice. The teaching? The management? The curriculum? The progress over time? Is everything being evidenced as best practice? What are we to infer from this article? The numerous mentions of assessment, marking and progress suggests the real motive. It suggests that the marking is consistent, rigorous and continuous.

    Maybe, these ‘best practice’ documents should highlight best curriculum / management structures. I feel for the teachers here, because I think they probably do a very good job, but I think the teaching here is being presented as the ‘cherry on the cake’. Three paragraphs out of twenty or so paragraphs explicitly focus on the teaching. I don’t get a full picture of what they do in the teaching.

    Hats off to the school. Put your thinking caps on, Ofsted.

    • David Didau February 18, 2014 at 4:19 pm - Reply

      You’re quite right Chris. I have no beef with the school but the way they’ve been presented makes them look silly.

  2. 124lincoln February 18, 2014 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    WHat OFSTED seem to consistently fail to focus on is the student in all of this. What does David or Jane or Paul get out of this lesson and of their lessons over time? Do they love reading? Do they challenge themselves? Do they write intelligent, challenging points in an articulate manner? Or does everyone just have lots of fun?

    • David Didau February 18, 2014 at 4:21 pm - Reply

      Well, to be fair, the school’s results do seem pretty good

  3. Debbie Hepplewhite February 18, 2014 at 3:57 pm - Reply

    Excellent commentary above – I shall share it with others. Thank you.

    Don’t hold your breath re Michael Cladingbowl listening. I note that he has very recently written a piece appealing for ‘feedback’ from teachers about the future direction of Ofsted – but he has certainly not appreciated the feedback we have given him – in truth, our complaint.

    ‘We’ refers to a group of 6 nationally recognised phonics specialists collectively engaging with Ofsted, represented by Michael Cladingbowl HMI, regarding the same kind of issue you are raising here about the influence Ofsted is likely to have by promotion of reports such as the one you have highlighted – but in our case it was about videos shown on the Ofsted site linked to early years and primary literacy entitled, ‘Literacy: the non-negotiables’.

    We wrote detailed letters, reports, had phone conversations, asked many questions and thoroughly debated the misleading nature of the phonics practice seen on Ofsted videos linked to schools described by Ofsted as ‘outstanding’ – but definitely not outstanding in our experience and by the government’s guidance and expectations.

    All our efforts were to no avail.

    Further, we made a formal complaint about Ofsted to Michael Gove who simply handed the complaint over to Ofsted to deal with (back into the hands of Michael Cladingbowl who wrote to use yet again saying the same things that were not satisfactory to us previously) – the very institution that we had complained about in the first place – so that was a waste of time.

    I’ve written a blog posting about this here but without any details of the year-long exchanges:


    It is irrelevant that our issue with Ofsted is about phonics, just as it is irrelevant that the report you have flagged up here is about secondary English – the relevance as you very clearly point out is this persistence on Ofsted over-emphasising all-singing, all-dancing, fun, engaging activities (by Ofsted’s definition) which is in danger of skewing teachers’ better judgement and leads consultants, arguably, down the wrong track.

    Of course I think any school, teacher, company etc can produce reports and video footage ad infinitum – but for Ofsted to do this is out of order – surely beyond their remit and certainly exploiting their clout.

    I’m not sure, however, what their remit really is – and when I asked Michael Cladingbowl specifically, this was one of several questions that it would appear he chose, or neglected, to answer.

    I think this emphasis on quirky creativity is also dangerously patronising to our pupils – as it suggests that they are only engaged, only having fun, only capable of learning, only enjoy learning, when they are entertained.

    If we are not careful, this will become a self-fulfilling scenario and hyped-up activities will be the only type of teaching/learning that school-attending pupils will have experienced.

    Surely part of our role as adults and teachers is sharing with young people the beauty of simple things: the power of words, the wonder of nature, the appreciation of music, art and crafts, delicious natural flavours of nutritious foods, the exhilaration of dance, sport, camping – and so much more.

    Instead, everything nowadays seems to require some kind of dressing-it-up process, disguise, sweetening the pill. I believe we are going seriously astray with such a notion and thank goodness we have yourself, and some other key bloggers, who have taken this issue seriously enough to contribute rational thoughts to this very serious debate.

    Warm regards,


  4. Phil Stock February 18, 2014 at 4:33 pm - Reply

    I worry about Ofsted publishing case studies of good practice like these. Is it really their place to offer examples of what they deem to be outstanding? One cannot help but infer that these studies represent their preferences, particularly as the ones offered are consistently in the same vein of teaching style.

    I am personally not a big fan of overly long Powerpoints, crammed with information that is hard to read and difficult to take in during one lesson, not to mention reducing poetry about the suffering of WW1 to Mr Men cartoons. I don’t know if you have looked at the hyperlinked resources, but they provide a greater insight into the lessons and schemes of learning. These, though, are simply my preferences, which though I think they are informed from a combination of thinking, researching and my own teaching experience, I would not foist them on to another school unless I was absolutely convinced about their efficacy.

    This school is obviously doing well and deserves congratulations. However, as Chris has already suggested, it is difficult to determine what exactly is the cause of their excellent outcomes. A look at their Ofsted dashboard seems to suggest that as recently as 2011 their expected levels of progress for English were even higher than the 85% lauded in the case study – at 91%, which is 6% more than then 2013 figure. I am no data whizz, but if Ofsted are implying that their excellent GCSE outcomes are the result of a KS3 overhaul, this claim seems a bit circumspect. In fact, if the 91% figure is accurate you could even argue that the KS3 changes have actually lowered standards, not raised them. Anyway, maybe I’m digressing off the point, and I certainly do not want to denigrate the achievements of what looks like a great school, which are indeed impressive.

    My point is simply this: it is not Ofsted’s role to select examples of best practice from subject areas and offer them to schools and colleges. It sends out the wrong message and in a lot of cases leads to schools scrambling to replicate their findings, which may or may not be valid in the first instance.

    • David Didau February 19, 2014 at 3:53 pm - Reply

      I completely agree Phil. If Ofsted claim not to have a preferred teaching style then they shouldn’t reveal their preferences by publishing reports like this one.

      Your point about their exam performance is interesting and if true, worrying. But, as you say, I’m not interesting in dissing the school either. However, with the proposed GCSE changes, this curriculum does not look like a good preparation for the diet of high-quality non-fiction that they will have to digest.

  5. chemistrypoet February 18, 2014 at 5:24 pm - Reply

    The other questions to ask are, who wrote the document? Who signed off on it? When was it prepared? Who checked that it is compatible with the new guidance?

    I find it hard to believe that Ofsted can make the cultural changes necessary to implement the new de-emphasis on teaching style. This stuff isn’t easy. Ensuring accountability and excellence is difficult when the desired outcomes aren’t well defined. In this case it seems that Ofsted have found what they think is an excellent English department, but then not been able to generalise what they see and separate out the key characteristics (looks like confirmation bias?).

    Need a different accountability structure designed to embed the new approach……

    • David Didau February 18, 2014 at 5:28 pm - Reply

      I think that’s a very fair point: I’m pretty sure this IS a good English department, but if this is the best Ofsted can do to describe why it’s good then it’s a woeful effort.

  6. Jay Helbert February 18, 2014 at 5:54 pm - Reply

    Why should we rely on an inspectorate that seemingly few teachers trust to tell us what good teaching is? Why should we strive for the perfect Ofsted lesson when we could be striving for the left lesson?

    • David Didau February 19, 2014 at 3:55 pm - Reply

      Did you mean ‘best lesson’? If so, why indeed? I guess that’s a dig at my book title, is it? Fair enough. I wouldn’t have chosen the title but I was very flattered to be asked to write it and I do make the point on the first page that there’s no such thing as a perfect lesson and that we shouldn’t really care what Ofsted think.

      • Jay Helbert February 19, 2014 at 9:55 pm - Reply

        Sorry David, for the typo and because you thought I was having a dig at the book title. Have downloaded the book and am looking forward to reading it. My comment above was a more general one about teachers overly worrying about OFSTED/HMIe or schools directing developments towards what these bodies want. It is akin to teaching to a test IMO, get the teaching and learning right and the test scores follow as a consequence. Get the teaching and learning right, as well as the school culture and discipline and the inspector’s report will reflect that. The inspectorate is there to qualify assure, not as the aim of education.

        Keep up the superb work.

        • David Didau February 19, 2014 at 9:56 pm - Reply

          Ah, thank you. Sorry if I was pissy. I completely agree of course.

  7. Pastoral Deputy February 18, 2014 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    We have just received Ofsted as guests in my school. The inspectors were very fair, highly professional, knew their stuff, were generous, humorous and helpful and, importantly, got the inspection judgments just right in my view. I hope everyone has the same experience.

    I also know that a large number of local HT’s have requested ‘best practice’ guidance from Ofsted so, I for one, am pleased to see this offering.

    Those at the cutting edge of practice may be right to question the validity of these examples. To most hard working English teachers however some ‘exemplar’ material will be considered interesting and welcome. The important thing is to understand that material such as this is always context specific. These lessons are unlikely to be aimed at the top end and may have been delivered for a narrow band of, perhaps 25 children. Colleagues can take these examples away and discuss what might work and what can be rejected. I don’t think anyone is daft enough to consider these offerings to be a panacea. What we do know is that the approach is working and will be of some merit.

    Before criticising Ofsted too heavily it’s also worth considering that a number of schools in challenging circumstances will welcome this. The problem will be if it is then considered to be the chosen orthodoxy by those who are desperate. Then we will have a problem.

    • David Didau February 19, 2014 at 4:00 pm - Reply

      My concern is precisely because “a number of schools in challenging circumstances will welcome this”. They absolutely shouldn’t! There’s lots of good stuff in this good practice guide about the quality of marking and assessment – this is worth any school aspiring to.

      You may be correct in saying these examples are likely to have been aimed at a specific group of children, but we shouldn’t have guess about this. If context is important, we need to be told about it. I very much hope that any English teach worth they’re salt would be at least a little bit concerned about using Mr Men to teach Wilfred Owen. If any struggling schools adopt this approach, Ofsted should be ashamed.

      • Pastoral Deputy February 19, 2014 at 10:40 pm - Reply

        I think most people can exercise common sense and work out what will work for themselves. The slides clearly come from a lesson so by definition are aimed at a small number of students of similar ability.

        I’m not the arbiter of everything that works or doesn’t work in every context so I’ll leave that to the experts. I am sure however that a school like this with progress statistics which match the best in the country won’t be employing too many ‘poor quality’ English teachers and I’m doubly sure that they wouldn’t volunteer material that wasn’t working to Ofsted for public ridicule.

        As a result I’m happy to stand by what I’ve said! I do know that many teachers in aforementioned challenging circumstances have found exemplar material hard to come by of late so they will be pleased to consider this.

        I don’t have the mind-set that I know all the answers so am prepared to see where there might be merit in something, especially when the provenance is so strong (in theory).

        Please don’t read this in an ‘angry voice’ as I am not remotely peeved and nothing is said here in an accusatory or sarcastic tone. It’s Wednesday – I’m on holiday – half snuggling with the wife and enjoying Russell Kane on TV.

        Perfectly able to calmly multi task…..

        • David Didau February 20, 2014 at 7:42 am - Reply

          I’m not in the lest bit angry by of the the views you’ve expressed – I reserve my ire for people who express their opinions offensively – but I am saddened. Genuinely,there are few things more damaging to our profession than teachers saying, “I’ll leave that to the experts” Ofsted are definitely not the experts. How could they be? We are the experts. We know our class in our room teaching our subject better than anyone else. If someone want to learn from what we do and ask questions about our choices then that’s fine. But the assumption that a visitor who observe 20 minute nuggets and has a brief chat with various individuals can be any of expert is so harmful.

          Like you, I have high hopes of common sense – hopes that are regularly dashed. For school leaders up against the wall, it’s very hard to remain rational. They pour over the entrails of Ofsted reports trying to work out what will best please an inspector. Good practice guides are particularly open to abuse. It’s interesting that your reading of this report brings you to the conclusion that “The slides clearly come from a lesson so by definition are aimed at a small number of students of similar ability.” I had assumed that the we were being told that a strength of this dept was that they all did the same thing – more or less.

          No one is the arbiter of what works. What works is what works. If this stuff works for this school then great – who am I to criticise them? As you say, their stats look good. (Although have a look at Phil Bagstock’s comment above for an alternative reading!) But the astonishing suggestion that poor quality powerpoints (and they are) might work for anyone else is wrongheaded at best.

          • Pastoral Deputy February 20, 2014 at 9:44 am

            When I referred to ‘experts’ I certainly wasn’t referring to Ofsted! I was thinking more of those who lead professional development through interesting blogs/articles and other professional associations who offer guidance.

            Many colleagues in adverse circumstances or in teams with inexperienced leadership like guidance and it seems rather thin on the ground at the moment in terms of ‘the new framework’.

            I have experienced 7 Ofsted inspections as a member of SLT. Every team I have dealt with has been very professional (with the occasional individual exception) and it has been incredibly useful for the school. The most recent inspection (very recent) was led by a complete professional who was also a generous and decent human being in addition to being very expert in his understanding of schools. The process was exhausting and stressful and I would love their to be a different way but – in the meantime – the process has definitely been helpful to us by and large.

            Anyway David can you please answer me a phonics question?

            How do you pronounce your surname correctly?


          • David Didau February 20, 2014 at 11:17 am

            Of course there are some wonderful inspectors. Maybe even the majority. Your experience is bourn out my SMW’s assertion that 9/10 heads say they’re satisfied with the process of their inspections. I think this may be an example of Stockholm Syndrome, but if it’s supportive & useful: great.

            It rhymes with CRY & COW

  8. Carol February 18, 2014 at 7:56 pm - Reply

    Completely missing the main thrust of your argument, I have to say that I have read quite a few of Eoin Colfer’s books and enjoyed them a great deal. Whilst I’m not sure that the Artemis Fowl novels would warrant dissection in an English class, I think that Airman does have themes which would.

    Also agree with your points about Ofsted and their choice of good practice examples.

  9. solocontrotutti February 18, 2014 at 8:02 pm - Reply

    Compared to much of the discourse on the blogs you find on the echo chamber this is pretty low level stuff.

    As I said on your last blog it seems unlikely that teaching and learning going to progress with OFSTED around.

    Wilshaw like many other is finding that Education si being suffocated by a lot of people that just know very little about it and are prepared to regurgitate fashion accessorised gibberish over and over again.

    I mean I don’t disagree that embedding learning into common cultural references is good but a lot of this sounds like edutainment and not education.

    There is not context to make it meaningful. Power Points can be good or bad, they are not good as “things in themselves”

  10. Tilly Bud February 18, 2014 at 9:55 pm - Reply

    I wonder if a certain HMI and ex headteacher of this school had any influence over it being deemed to be worthy of an OFSTED article???????

  11. Tilly Bud February 18, 2014 at 10:08 pm - Reply

    Check their last OFSTED Report and all will be revealed………..

  12. Tilly Bud February 18, 2014 at 10:12 pm - Reply

    I do wonder what Mr Gove will have to say about OFSTED recommending, to quote Phil Stock
    ‘reducing poetry about the suffering of WW1 to Mr Men cartoons.’

    Has anyone told him? Will this lead to another tiff between the two Michaels?

  13. […] of the latest comment if you haven’t already read David’s blog you’ll need to go here first https://www.learningspy.co.uk/featured/inspirational-english-teaching-looks-like-according-ofsted/ and then read my comment below. There were two that said similar things of which this was the […]

  14. charde52Colin February 19, 2014 at 7:23 am - Reply

    There is no magical ‘correct’ way to teach English. Its success is dependent upon accurate assessment of need and suitability of approach. To take a lesson off the shelf and apply it without thought is tantamount to misunderstanding the whole concept of teaching and learning. Still rote learning and dead white male authors seem to be the order of the day!

  15. Issac A Greaves  (@IssacGreaves) February 20, 2014 at 8:55 am - Reply

    Apologies in advance for my somewhat unhelpful comment, it just seems ironic that by writing such a clear and concise report on the issue, you have likely brought it to the attention of more teachers what OFSTED are looking for. (^_-)

    • David Didau February 20, 2014 at 11:14 am - Reply

      Ha ha! Well, hopefully no one is going to read it without my commentary 😉

  16. Dr Smith February 21, 2014 at 12:28 pm - Reply

    “Teaching is mostly planned to have a strong practical or active element to learning. However, on occasions the focus is too much on completing activities such as worksheets, which pupils find dull, and as a result their learning slows and is not as rapid as it could be.”
    Ravenswood School, Bristol (inspected Jan 2014, published Feb 2014)

    “Teaching over time is typically outstanding and as a result pupils make outstanding progress. Excellent use is made of practical activities and resources which capture the attention of pupils.”
    The Pines Special School, Bristol (inspected Jan 2014, published Feb 2014)

    “literacy or numeracy activities do not help students to relate to real-life situations and so they lose interest.”
    Prince Bishop School, Middlesbrough (inspected December 2013, published Jan 2014)

    We could debate whether all worksheets are inherently dull, but these quotes seem to be evidence that Ofsted inspectors still have a preferred teaching style.

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  19. […] when compared to Ofsted’s own good practice guides, I think it bears up rather […]

  20. […] One of the elements of the report that I feel most pleased with (and proud of) is the recommendation tucked away on Page 60: “Ofsted should be exercise more caution in publications which seem to endorse certain teaching methods.” Damn right! If you missed it, here’s my critique of Ofsted’s latest advice for English departments. […]

  21. […] some peculiar views about what constitutes good teaching. The ‘best practice’ described here seems to consist of using Mr Men to explain Wilfred Own’s poetry, ‘Boggle Boxes’ […]

  22. […] So, as we know, Sir Michael Wilshaw is determined to make clear that Ofsted has no preferred teaching style. Right? Wrong.  […]

  23. […] What inspirational teaching looks like according to OFSTED […]

  24. […] purpose? 16th March 2014 The mystery of Oldfield School’s missing Ofsted report 17th March 2014 What inspirational teaching looks like according to Ofsted 18th February 2014 What I learned from my visit to Ofsted 19th February 2014 Are we any clearer? […]

  25. […] of fatuous half-truths pedalled by the EEF and  the arrant nonsense Ofsted purports to be ‘best practice‘. But, if it this repository were to genuinely hold evidence on how best to teach etc. it […]

  26. The Journey of the Blogi | reversals January 21, 2016 at 10:10 pm - Reply

    […]     And Mocksted consultants flaky, and charging high prices.     Then @LearningSpy chidingly grumbling     About the latest good practice guide for English,     With its expectation of “fun”, […]

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