Does Ofsted have a problem with language policing?

For almost 200 years, inspections have tried to stamp out any language other than standard English, new research claims. Dan Worth talks to the study authors to find out more
31st March 2022, 10:46am
The almost 200-year-old problem at the heart of Ofsted inspections


Does Ofsted have a problem with language policing?

How do you pronounce bath? Or what about scone

The way you say them will be based on all manner of influences - family, geography, culture, heritage and more. Indeed, with some 40-plus accents in England alone, it’s clear that expecting any word to be pronounced in the same way is unrealistic.

What’s more, every part of the country also has its own lexicon of words, phrases and idioms unique to that region and used in everyday speech. These are used without a second thought, but they might baffle someone from another region.

The idea, then, that we would call anyone speaking with an accent or using local phrases or vernacular “wrong” immediately sounds unsettling. After all, why should one group get to decide on the correct way of speaking and in doing so cast another group’s spoken language as in need of “correction”?

Yet academics Dr Ian Cushing, a senior lecturer in English and education at Edge Hill University, and Dr Julia Snell, associate professor of English language at the University of Leeds, say this is what has been happening in school inspections for almost 200 years in a new research paper with the provocative title The (white) ears of Ofsted: a raciolinguistic perspective on the listening practices of the schools inspectorate.

‘Is this actually happening?’

The research, published in the journal Language in Society, is based on a major data trawl by Cushing and Snell from 1839 right up until 2021.

Specifically, they looked through 350 inspections carried out by the former Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI) and some 3,000 reports by Ofsted to look at how spoken language in classrooms is monitored, praised, critiqued and criticised.

They did this by looking for terms such as “non/standard English”, “speak[ing] clearly”, “appropriate speech” and “accurate speech” within reports and the context within which this was mentioned.

What they found shocked them. “We kept rubbing our eyes looking at the data and thinking, ‘Is this is actually happening?’” Cushing tells Tes.

The surprise did not come from the early reports so much, where the findings are perhaps what would you would expect from that era.

For example, an 1867 HMI report stated that “many of the children are illiterate in regard to patterns of speech”, while an 1899 report said that “much needs to be done to cultivate the pronunciation of boys and to highlight deficiencies in speech”.

Cushing notes that such comments are “characteristic of the early 1800s” and “social attitudes” of that time.

However, the research authors were shocked that these views persisted into the 20th century - such as a 1949 report outlining that “the speech of many children is of insufficient worth”, and another in 1950 that said: “Much remains to be done in the cultivation of pleasing intonation and clear speech.”

Changing times, same attitudes

Even more surprising again, though, was that this sort of view continued well into modern times.

For example, a 2005 inspection report said: “Pupils’ speech is poorly constructed and very ungrammatical… They mimic the speech pattern they hear and employ slang and colloquialisms as if this is the only way to speak.”

Another from 2004 said: “The spoken English of the majority of pupils does not conform to standard English with words like ‘of’ and ‘have’; ‘was’ and ‘were’; ‘is’ and ‘are’ being inter-used…This, together with pupils’ limited use of descriptive English, is hindering their creative efforts.”

Then as recently as 2021 the authors cited a report that said “misconceptions” arise “when pupils use non-standard forms of grammar in their speaking and writing in lessons”.

The almost 200-year-old problem at the heart of Ofsted inspections

For Cushing, this all shows that the “the ideologies of and the attitudes about language that Ofsted have” are “tethered to those to that foundational work that they did [as the HMI]” and so this is now embedded into how they inspect schools.

He adds: “Our research shows that even as recently as 2021, the inspectorate continues to make negative judgments around the speech patterns of marginalised communities - a practice that is entirely consistent with their approach since their formation in 1839.”

One of the impacts of this that Snell and Cushing also highlight in their research is that schools often take it on themselves to “police” spoken language in schools - and are often praised for doing so.

For instance, in a 2013 report, Ofsted wrote: “In the best lessons, teachers reference the need for standard English and students are provided with a list of ‘banned’ words, to remind them.”

Meanwhile, a 2015 report was cited for praising the practice of teachers when they would “paraphrase speaking in standard English when pupils lapse into the local dialect”.

Snell says these examples from the data set make it clear to teachers that they should “feel under pressure to police these very specific features of pupils’ language” and push them to speak in “standard English” in order to meet the apparent approval of any Ofsted inspector who may turn up.

Race and class

As the title of the paper alludes, the researchers also believe there is a clear “intersection between race and class discrimination” in these reports because an inspector turning up at a school will almost certainly be a white, middle- or upper-class individual drawn from a selective pool of headteachers or ex-heads.

Indeed, the research paper notes that the most recent Ofsted demographic data shows that 92 per cent of Ofsted inspectors are white British - which is actually the lowest it has ever been.

Given all this, Cushing and Snell say it is inevitable the “ears” that hear and then judge the speech and language of pupils are heavily biased towards one particular type of English.

“Our argument in our research is that the inspectorate’s judgements about the ‘quality’ of speech are made through its predominantly white, middle-class ears and ways of listening,” they write in the paper.

The impact of this is one that Cushing says led to some of the most “disturbing” findings with regards to how often certain types of pupils were picked up on speech and language issues.

“A lot of schools that are in economically deprived areas, serving students from majority racialised backgrounds, students on free school meals or students who spoke English with an additional language,” he says. “There is quite a strong link between some of the more negative comments about language for those schools in particular.”

He adds: “It’s about attempts to police people’s identity in terms of their social class and in terms of their race as well.”

For example, they cite a 2000 report of a school in one of the most economically deprived areas of Manchester that serves a majority-racialised community of students - and how the language there was reported on by an inspector.

The inspection report says: “By the age of 11, many pupils have fallen behind, and are not achieving satisfactorily, particularly the boys. The more able pupils are mainly speaking standard English in school, with sound pronunciation and good sense.”

Another report from 2014 notes that “the proportion of students from minority ethnic backgrounds is much higher than the national average” and that, in the school, “students are challenged to write and speak accurately, without slang or colloquial language.”

Meanwhile, schools were often praised for attempts to promote standard English over other forms, such as an inspection in 2002 that referenced a lesson where pupils had to turn “a rap song into standard English”, and one from 2013 that required pupils to “translate a poem written in patois into standard English”.

Opening doors or enforcing social standards?

It could be argued that an insistence on a certain type of spoken English within the domain of school is exactly what the inspectorate should be promoting. After all, doesn’t having the ability to speak in a certain way open up new opportunities in students’ futures that would be closed off if they could not speak in the manner required to access certain jobs or institutions?

The almost 200-year-old problem at the heart of Ofsted inspections

For Snell, though, this view is part of the problem and exactly why the idea of a “standard English” has become so pervasive in inspection reports.

“I think one of the reasons [the idea of standard English] has endured is because it tends to be upheld with a suggestion that we’re empowering working-class kids or racialised minorities, because if we give them access to this language of privilege and power it can move them up the social ladder. So it has this social mobility narrative.”

She suspects this is the reason for so much of what is written in past HMI and Ofsted reports: “I don’t think for a second within Ofsted there’s a sense in which they want to deliberately enact class or racial bias, but there is actually the sense you’re going to help these children.”

However, she says that in doing this, it is actually only entrenching existing power dynamics even further: “Trying to force children to mirror white, middle-class ways of speaking is only upholding that power hierarchy and it’s going to benefit the existing elites much more than those children.”

What’s more, this belief that standard English is the correct form of speech and is needed to access the supposed best opportunities in life led to another surprising revelation. “We didn’t just find evidence that Ofsted was policing the speech of students - it was also policing the speech of teachers,” says Cushing.

For example, a report in 2019 said that “too many staff make errors in their standard spoken English when they teach” and leaders should “make sure that all staff, when they teach, use correct standard English”.

Another from 2018 said that “some teachers model incorrect grammar in their spoken English”, while a third in 2003 noted: “Teachers do not generally demonstrate a wide range of vocabulary and sometimes talk ungrammatically.”

This report gave an example of this when a teacher said, “I don’t want no more shouting out”, which the inspector said meant that, “as a result, the pupils make slow progress in their learning of speaking skills.”

Answer came there none...

For Cushing, this is an area of the research that he found particularly troubling. “It’s important to remember that the presence of non-standard English or accent or dialect has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of pedagogy that a teacher is [delivering],” he says.

“But reading through our data it would seem that Ofsted does believe that there is a relationship between good teaching and good speaking,” he adds.

Cushing acknowledges, though, that what is happening here is not unique to Ofsted or schools, with many wider social constructs in England being reinforced through language and speech. 

“Those ideologies are deeply embedded [in society] and Ofsted is simply reproducing and normalising those cultures in schools,” he says.

But he stresses that this needs to be totally rejected: “Our argument is that the burden should not be on the speaker to modify the way that they speak - the burden should be on Ofsted to modify the way that it perceives language.”

So what did Ofsted have to say to all this? Well, Cushing and Snell say they met with the inspectorate on two occasions to discuss their findings but say they found little real engagement in what they were saying.

“Ofsted increasingly, and especially in recent years, has made claims to be a research-informed institution, which is great, that’s what we want to see. But we also want to see them engaging with research that is perhaps critical of some of the work that they’ve done,” says Cushing.

Snell adds: “[Ofsted needs to be] open to changing its view so that it doesn’t just engage with research that confirms what it was already doing.”

Tes contacted Ofsted for its response to the research paper but it declined to comment.

Cushing said that he found this “refusal to comment disappointing” but not surprising, and reiterated what the research had shown: “Ofsted has an institutional inability to listen.”

However, both he and Snell say the hope is that by getting this research published, it will foster new conversations in education about how we view language in the classroom and question age-old ideas on “correct” ways of speaking.

“It’s [about] challenging people - when we’re thinking about language, what is really useful and valuable and what is just social convention - what have we been taught to believe is correct or appropriate?” says Snell.

“These ideas are very strong. They’re very deep-rooted in society and history as we’ve shown - but we need to challenge them.”

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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