Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.
John Ruskin

On the face of it, this seems both self-evident and obvious: if Ofsted aren’t judging quality of teaching in a school, what are they doing? Now, I’m not one of those who feel Ofsted is a cancer needing to be cut out of the education corpse, but I do feel that along with the good they might have done in holding failing schools to account, they’ve done a lot of harm along the way.

A new report from Civitas, Playing the Game The enduring influence of the preferred Ofsted teaching style, recommends that “the ‘Quality of teaching’ grade be removed from Section 5 Ofsted inspections, so that schools are judged according to the three remaining criteria: ‘Achievement of pupils’; ‘Behaviour and safety of pupils’ and ‘Leadership and management’.” Its author, Robert Peal argues that, “As the chief arbiter of what constitutes ‘good practice’ in the classroom, Ofsted has been able to alter the whole culture of the teaching profession.” And not for the better. 

The fact that Ofsted have had a ‘preferred teaching style’ in the past is not in doubt, but this report sets out to demonstrate that despite the best efforts of CHMI, Sir Michael Wilshaw, efforts to change this have been largely cosmetic. Peal defines the ‘Ofsted style’ as consisting of the following:

  • A preference* for independent learning.
  • A preference for pupils taking responsibility for their own learning.
  • A preference for pupils working in groups.
  • An aversion towards classes in which pupils were passive.
  • An aversion towards teachers directing lessons.
  • An aversion towards teachers talking too much. 

Wilshaw has on several occasions intervened to try to stamp out these preferences. In December 2013 Ofsted published guidance to inspectors which stated:

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style… For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons… 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.

Peal’s analysis of a sample of 260 inspection reports from September to October 2013, and then subsequent to the publication of this guidance shows that although the language used in reports may have changed, there continues to be a preference for a particular style of teaching.

In the 2013 sample, 76% contained one or more of the ‘indicators’.

  • 52%  favourably mentioned ‘pupil independence’,  ‘independent learners’, ‘independent learning skills’ or ‘independent work’ 
  • 42% contained praise for ‘group work’, ‘collaboration’ or ‘cooperation’ 
  • 26% showed a preference for lessons in which pupils took responsibility for their own learning
  • 18%  criticised lessons in which pupils were passive
  • 18% criticised lessons in which teachers talked too much
  • 15%t criticised teachers directing lessons.

The 2014 sample showed “a significant drop in every one of the six indicators except for group work”

  • The proportion of inspection reports advocating pupil independence dropped from 52% to 8%
  • Pupils taking responsibility for their own learning dropped from 26% to 5%
  • Criticism of passivity dropped from 18% to 2%
  • Criticism of teacher talk dropped from 18% to 0%

Screen Shot 2014-07-17 at 20.49.46But despite this apparent good news, the wording of reports may have been altered to make the sentiments expressed more palatable, but the same old preferences exist. Serco, one of the three subcontractors currently used by Ofsted issued the following guidance in May 2014 which offered alternative for some of the well-worn cliches used by rogue elements in the inspectorate, and reports began to emerge with a new, but depressingly familiar set of statements:

  • Students are regularly set work which challenges them to think for themselves.’ 
  • ‘Students often take an active part in lessons.’
  •  Make teaching consistently good or better by ensuring that all teachershelp pupils to extend their skills and understanding through activities to develop their problem-solving and research skills.’ 
  • Teachers do not provide activities which allow pupils to develop a range of skills by being creative or working things out for themselves.’ 
  • In some lessons, carefully planned group challenges made sure that students enjoyed working together without direct adult input, and came up with original and creative ideas.’ 

In addition, Peal cites anecdotal evidence that verbal feedback given to teachers has not changed at all. There’s no doubt that schools and teachers feel under enormous pressure to do ‘what Ofsted want’. As long as inspectors are in a position to enforce their preferences, teachers will continue to be deprofessionalised and at the mercy of any passing fad or whimsy. Peal argues that removing quality of teaching judgements from Ofsted reports would have the following advantages. It would:

  • be the surest way of ensuring that, in Wilshaw’s words, inspectors only comment on the ‘outcomes of teaching rather than its style’.
  • dispel lingering impressions in schools that Ofsted favours a particular style of teaching.
  • encourage schools to use their new-found freedoms to innovate in their teaching methods and curriculum, without fear of being penalised for not conforming to the Ofsted style of teaching.
  • encourage schools to develop more productive forms of performance management such as pupil surveys and examination results, rather than aping the current Ofsted process with intermittent graded lesson observations.
  • allow school CPD to focus on ensuring that their pupils learn and achieve, and not on pleasing Ofsted. As was often expressed in the call for evidence, these aims are too often at variance with each other.
  • allow internal lesson observations to return to a more evaluative practice, focused upon professional development, rather than their current summative, graded form. 

Understandably perhaps, Ofsted are not keen for this to happen. The counter-argument is that relying just on data will remove the human element from the inspection process. Inspectors need to make judgements about what goes on in lessons as surely as parents deserve to know what’s going on in classrooms, don’t they? I’d argue that It would be helpful for inspectors to restrict themselves to ‘looking at’ rather than ‘looking for’.

Describing what goes on in the ‘blackbox’ of the classroom is probably beneficial, but, as the MET Project has shown, judging the quality of what’s observed is an impossibly imprecise science. If inspections judge how well a school’s leadership team is managing teaching and learning, then why do they need to make a separate judgement on the quality of teaching? Surely a favourable judgement of the quality of leadership and management must suggest that school leaders know the quality of teaching in their school? And if it doesn’t, why the hell not?

As long as an organisation with the power to make or break careers, also has the power to determine and define ‘outstanding’ teaching, teachers will remain at their mercy. In my view, this is simply too much power for a single organisation to wield. I want an inspectorate that can curb the worst of excesses and ensure that children are not consigned to an acceptance of poor behaviour and low expectations, but I want schools and teachers themselves to decide what great teaching looks like. It is the next best thing to certain that lesson gradings will be a thing of the past from September, but inspectors will continue to have the power to enforce their preferences on schools for the foreseeable future.

If Ofsted as an organisation is serious about distancing themselves from the idea of a preferred style of teaching then they could worse than to publicly clarify that in any inspection it should be reasonable if not desirable for inspectors to see a range of teacher talk, group work and individual practice. If any of these components are missing then it surely suggests some deceit or sleight of hand on the part of a school. We all know that there are as many way to teach as there are teachers and classes; the last thing anyone needs is a walking clipboard pontificating on what they like best. Any form of prescription is a guarantee of a teaching by numbers.

Staring into my crystal ball, I predict some interesting and welcome changes for the coming academic year and I confidently expect further refinements of the Inspection Handbook for September.

Related posts

Watching the watchmen: is Ofsted fit for purpose?
Ofsted: the end of the (lesson grading) affair
Should Ofsted judge quality of teaching?