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Who do you think you are?

comment | Published in TES magazine on 22 February, 2013 | By: Geoff Barton

Is it just me or are those people at Ofsted cheeky buggers? A few weeks ago they announced a crackdown on boring lessons in independents. Yet another inspection framework was unleashed, this time to tighten the net on teachers deemed uninspiring.

To be clear, I'm no great supporter of independent schools. I am certain that the time will come when every community will have a fine local school and, like our counterparts in Norway and Finland, every child and parent will be able to hold their head up high and proclaim, "Look at me: I'm at my local state comprehensive. I'm here for free and I'm proud of it."

We're not quite there yet, though. In the meantime, if parents choose to spend their money on private education, that is their decision.

I would be astonished, however, if parents chose a school because they thought the teaching was sparkling and never dull. I suspect that many think real learning ought to be boring sometimes - a preparation for life.

So who exactly do inspectors think they are to pontificate on what good teaching is and whether it's interesting enough or not?

Ofsted director Susan Gregory told one newspaper: "One of our main findings last year was that the quality of teaching in non-association independent schools tended to be competent but seldom inspiring."

To which I say: how dare she? Most inspectors fled the classroom years ago and now have the audacity to tell us from the sidelines whether our lessons tick the "interesting" box.

In many schools this is leading to a warped approach in which pedagogy is reduced to some crowd-pleasing gimmicks. Colleagues report of inspectors pronouncing that a lesson "can never be outstanding if the teacher talks for more than 10 minutes". Hang on. I'm a teacher, damn it. There are many topics that - with a degree in English - I know more about than my pupils, and it might be that the best way of teaching them is by telling them stuff.

Picking up the macho talk of "dawn raids" on local authorities and a prevailing tone that belittles teachers and heads, some inspectors conclude that a trace of graffiti on an exercise book means a lesson can't be better than satisfactory because the attitude to learning is wrong. Or that a passive class of pupils can't demonstrate outstanding teaching because "behaviour for learning" must show visible signs of independent working.

It's a rent-a-kit inspection mentality built on a superficial notion of pupil progress by people who last taught when a box of chalk was de rigueur.

And so we play the game. Sensing an inspector shuffling in, we pause, point at the brightly displayed learning objective and ask an open-ended question that requires pupils to demonstrate what they have learned in the past three minutes. A box is ticked. But let us not fool ourselves that this is real teaching or real learning. It's the Meccano version. By numbers.

It's no good someone from Ofsted writing a huffy letter to next week's TES to point out that more heads now form part of inspection teams. No offence to my esteemed colleagues but heads are rarely experts in what top-notch teaching looks like.

No, the real experts are our colleagues. Ofsted's role is to help us make our schools better rather than laying down tripwires for teachers whom inspectors deem boring.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School in Suffolk.

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Comment (6)

  • I said something similar about boring lessons on Twitter. Let's just say my view was not appreciated. I stand by what I said. A few boring lessons are not the end of the world and not everything can be reduced to an entertain-all talk amongst yourselves scenario. I would rather listen to an expert than have my friend giving me their 'interpretation' of the facts.

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    22 February, 2013


  • Spot on Geoff. From a 59 year old classroom teacher (still). I must lack ambition or something.

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    22 February, 2013


  • Poor piece in many ways; tone and points are miscued and have echoes of the worst kind of staff room hack who has no interest in improving teaching and learning but spends all their energy on finding the easiest way out of every possible responsibility. A teacher talking for ten minutes because they are entitled to as they have a degree and know lots of stuff is shallow and preposterous and is symptomatic of many unplanned, thoughtless lessons I've observed over the years. Far too many teachers love the sound of their own voice and think that playing "guess what's in my head" is an effective means of furthering learning. I have seen first hand the benefits of the new ofsted inspection framework once it is applied rationally and effectively. Anyone think to ask the children if they enjoy the teacher talking at them or prefer to take part in market place or other independent learning styled "gimmicks". And of course king Edwards grammar school is the perfect place to reflect the learning styles and struggles of the average, modern student. Would get greater insight from the local barfly. Notice to improve TES.

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    22 February, 2013


  • A voice of sense in a sea of craziness. I agree with everything Geoff says. There seems to be a big emphasis on having 'entertaining' lessons. It seems as if I am supposed to be a Blue Peter presenter and not a teacher. Here's one I prepared earlier. Outstanding teachers don't always need a card sorting activity. They don't need a song that they have specially written. They don't need a pile of twigs and some glue. They just need to impart knowledge. We need a balance. There is nothing wrong with every so often talking to the students. I don't think Geoff is suggesting that we stop the independent tasks, but I feel that he is suggesting a balance, and a healthy balance. If we want students to be more academic, we need to train them. Are they going to go to university and have a drama activity showing a complex chemical reaction? The answer is a resounding no. They will have to listen to an academic and listen to them for an hour or so.

    Sometimes students will work independently. Other times they will listen to the teacher, or each other. We have a generation of students with short attention spans in education and that is partly as a result of technology, but we haven't helped things with our insistence of a 5 part lesson and constant miniplenaries. Real learning takes time, effort and planning. Let's have more 'deep learning' and less 'superficial (snazzy) learning'. Or, have a bit of both.

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    22 February, 2013


  • My Chemistry students have in the past requested to have me as their preferred teacher for GCSE and A Levels, their reasons being; "we always learn something, we do experiments, we have fun and we get good grades. We hardly ever have to sit through powerpoints or do those "stupid things" that other teachers make us do, especially if they are being observed".
    Funnily enough, I have used those "stupid things" with some of my KS3 classes when I have deemed it appropriate.

    My lessons are NEVER unplanned or thoughtless and more often than not I talk for more than 10 mins and not because I like the sound of my own voice.

    Your comments, Mr Callaghan, are symptomatic of a teacher who is shallow minded and holds that preposterous thought of "one size fits all". And just so you know, I teach in a state comprehensive that reflects the learning styles of the average modern student.

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    22 February, 2013


  • I try and vary my lessons, with a mixture of activity, talk, etc - as I'm sure most teachers do. I find however that very often, with older and brighter students, they will look at me in despair when I present them with some sort of "activity" and say "Can't you just tell us, we like it much better!" And they do - and they learn just as well.
    I think we often underestimate the business of a child's day, as they go from one lesson to another, doing a "starter" activity each time, then other tasks and activities. Far from being bored by sitting listening, (providing, of course, that the talk is interesting and relevant etc) I honestly think a lot of pupils actually enjoy it.

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    25 February, 2013


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