Are Ofsted fit for purpose?

This week Dylan Wiliam threw a wet leather gauntlet in the face of monsieur d’Ofsted, saying, “Ofsted do not know good teaching when they see it”.

If this is true (and how would we know because obviously no one ever bovvers to check up on Ofsted, do they?) it casts HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that teachers’ pay progression should depend on them teaching ‘good’ lessons into serious doubt. Wilshaw says “The thing that irritates good teachers, people who work hard and go the extra mile is seeing people that don’t do that being rewarded.” No. The thing that irritates good teachers is nonsense being spewed by the head of an inspectorate that is possibly not fit for purpose. Ofsted’s predictable response is that its criteria for assessing teaching quality are apparently “carefully formulated from international research that identifies those features of teaching that have the greatest impact on pupils’ learning.” Oh, well, that’s all right then. As long as it’s ‘carefully formulated’ there’s no need to scrutinise it is there? The spokescreature added, “Inspectors now spend even more time in classrooms. As experienced teachers and headteachers themselves, inspectors know how to recognise lessons that fire the imaginations of pupils and give them the confidence they need to make good progress.” What a relief!

Sadly though there is plenty of evidence which casts doubt on Ofsted’s much vaunted belief in its own ability to recognise anything underpinned by actual, honest to goodness understanding of what students need to do to actually make progress. Some of this evidence is anecdotal; I tweeted a comment on Twitter which seemed to resonate with many teachers: “Asked an inspector if they’d ever taught a lesson, they hadn’t but had ‘observed over 100 lessons’. I’ve seen all of ER, am I a Dr?” This sort of thing is easy to dismiss, but a more serious tale is told by a deputy head teacher of my acquaintance about a consultant who is training to be an Ofsted inspector because he doesn’t think he can get a job in a school and his contract is due to run out. This is a man who has consistently delivered lessons to poor feedback from the staff and students he’s worked with. Is this the calibre of inspector we want making decisions on teachers’ pay? Address the plank in your own eye Sir Michael and I’ll happily submit myself to your expertise.

Other evidence is maybe more compelling. Daisy Christodoulou wrote on her blog about some of the alarming ‘evidence’ of excellent English teaching in their 2011 publication Excellence in English. It’s full of suggestions which make me shudder. Not because they’re bad things to do per se, but because they’re not about students learning things which will improve their ability to read, write or speak better.

Most worryingly, after waxing lyrical about (I kid you not) a scheme of learning about Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men, the report says, “students download (4)then review and extend their knowledge of grammar focusing on the use of adjectives, onomatopoeia and alliteration.” Now, as any grammarian will happily tell you, onomatopoeia and alliteration have nothing to do with knowledge of grammar and if the Ofsted inspector failed to understand this, what hope for the students? My beef, as I pointed out here last year is that thinking teachers know how to teach if we want students to learn stuff. And it doesn’t require potatoes to be hidden under desks for students to learn about Seamus Heaney poems or for any of the other spurious ‘independent learning’ activities which inspectors love so much. Getting Ofsted to rate your lesson as ‘outstanding’ requires you to do a Monkey Dance (TM) which showcases children using SEAL or PLTS or whatever else is fashionable. What’s even more worrying is that inspectors will now ask students, “Is this a typical lesson?” No it bloody well isn’t. Not if I want students to actually make the progress which schools are judged against in league tables.

My solution to being asked to perform the monkeydance is to hold your professional nerve, teach the way you know to be best and staple the research findings supporting your views to you lesson plan: challenge that, if you dare!

The problem with a lot of what Ofsted glibly label as outstanding is that it expects students to bypass the multistructural phase and go straight into deep understanding without knowing enough. A neat trick if you could manage it, but you can’t: as Daniel Wallingham explains in Why Don’t Students Like School? our brains are just not wired that way.

Anyway, the point of all this is that like many teachers I don’t trust Ofsted to get it right. I’d like more humility and less sweeping pronouncements. Oh, and some sort of objective review along the lines that Wiliam suggests. After all, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Some other useful posts:

What Ofsted actually want
Who will watch the Ofsted watchmen?