The Ofsted paradox: Why everyone now expects the Spanish Inquisition

18th July 2014 at 13:58

Do what you like – as long as I like it

Today saw the publication of a report by Civitas's Robert Peal: Playing the Game: the enduring influence of the preferred Ofsted teaching style. It's an uncomfortable read, especially if you want – as I do – an education inspectorate that commands respect from the profession. In it, Peal makes the allegation that Ofsted has, and still has, a prescriptive fondness for certain forms of teaching (group work, independent learning, for example) and a prohibition for others (teacher-led activities, direct instruction, etc).


This has been a familiar charge for some time, and one that you'd have to be fairly monocular to deny. As Peal doggedly details, report after report prior to 2013 consistently applauded an inter-related lattice of teaching methodologies that might be described as child-centred (although I have reservations about that term – all teaching is to some extent child-centred, either in aim, intent or task). The damnable problem is that there isn't substantial evidence to suggest that these methods are intrinsically superior to more "teacher-centred" ones, and certainly no demonstrable link between the former and consistently higher attainment. And, at this stage, I don't even have to try to prove that teacher-centred ones are better either, merely point out that child-centred methods do not come with any kind of quality assurance.


So: if you're a guide from the side, congratulations, you just made the grade. Your teaching is approved, and graded with the righteous. But if you're the sage on the stage (or the **** at the front, as one poet once described it to me) then VADE RETRO SATANUS, THE POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU. This was a horrible state of affairs. I'm one of the stage sages. And if I can toot my little tin trumpet for a second, my kids do very well and tell me they enjoy the lessons. Which isn't scalable science, but at least falsifies any claim of the universal efficacy of the child-centred method. I tell stories that go on for days. I caper and scowl, and direct and prescribe and nobody's academic career melts, apart from maybe mine. I haven't had an inspector challenge me on teacher talk, and they better hope they never do. I'll snap their bloody fingers off.


A new hope


Enter Sir Michael Wilshaw, our hero. I've got this guy on a pedestal so high I get nosebleeds every time I dust his bust. One of the best headteachers in the UK in charge of the inspectorate, what could go wrong? Early signs were excellent. I sat and listened to him as he banished any notion of a preferred style. He promised that such bias and unsubstantiated preference would have no place in the new, groovier HMI. And for a while we held our breath, counted to ten backwards and wished for a miracle.


Then, the resistance (and not a good one like the Rebel Alliance). The empire struck back. Obsessive, heroic pedants like Old Andrew and David Didau started tracking allegations that, rather than changing its spots, the leopard had simply thrown on a stripy coat. Many inspectors still had the same old prejudices and biases, but now they hid them behind a beard-and-funny-glasses combination of affected neutrality.


In David Green's foreword to the report he makes this clear. "Initial examination showed that indicators of a preference for child-led methods fell significantly. However, closer analysis revealed that the change was frequently cosmetic, giving the appearance of change when the underlying realities often remained as before. For example, since May 2014, lead inspectors have been provided with a list of ‘banned phrases’, such as ‘teacher talk dominates too many lessons’ and ‘children do not have enough opportunities to be engaged in independent learning’, along with suggested alternatives such as ‘the teacher does give pupils enough time to practise new skills [sic]’. To ensure that inspectors did not accidentally give the game away their reports were submitted to Ofsted headquarters where any lingering banned phrases were removed."


Why has this persisted? Because it simply isn't realistic to dismantle the inspection apparatus in the way that is required. The inspectorate is composed of a vast number of men and women – some undoubtedly excellent, beyond reproach, but some not. And that's the problem. The inconsistency means that teachers and schools now don't know what is expected of them. In my fantasy world, I tell schools that they shouldn't design themselves around the whims of Ofsted; that they should focus on what they believe to be great teaching. But as long as Ofsted can come in and pillory you for not teaching in the preferred way, I simply cannot blame schools for nervously over-anticipating the expectations of the one who wields the cosh.


And one way that this culture self-replicates is the damnable practice of the Oftsed consultant. It's like the Head of the FSA coaching Gary Barlow how to avoid tax.


I was handed a consultant's feedback one-sheet from a school in the Midlands a few days ago. They're facing an inspection any week now, so they forked out a great deal of money for the services of an adviser. I've paraphrased for the sake of anonymity, but here are some of the written comments and the verbal feedback they were given:


  • Too much teacher-talk....
  • Worksheets failed to inspire
  • Not enough student dialogue encouraged from students
  • Teacher did all the work and thinking
  • Too much teacher explanation
  • Evidence of learning needs to be obvious in 20 mins
  • Good behaviour is more than just eagerly offering answers for questions
  • A teacher-led lesson that resulted in a complete lack of engagement would be inadequate
  • There should be a lesson plan
  • The teacher should work 30 per cent, the pupils 70 per cent
  • Teachers should show passion and fizz
  • Teachers should underline the title on the board.


I didn't make any of that up. These were the expensively obtained thoughts of a consultant who, incidentally, is also a current Ofsted inspector. Most of that she couldn't get away with in an official report. But in a commercial faux inspection? Well, you can have the bullšhit for free.


You can't change Ofsted by issuing directives. The people are the same. They hold the same opinions. They'll make the judgements they want to make anyway, and varnish it with a patina of professionalism. Peal is right: Ofsted should do away with the teaching grade entirely, on the grounds that it can't be professionally discerned within the restrictions of the inspection process. Let schools manage their teaching. Let Ofsted manage schools for achievement, leadership and behaviour, and let us get on with our damn jobs. Our proof lies in the pudding. If kids do well and learn wonderfully, I don't care if a teacher has them in discovery pods or a panopticon. As long as they're safe, and they learn, everyone can get the hell out of my teaching.