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:
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.
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.