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'Inspections may have changed - but everyone plays the game, just like they always have before'

In the early days of Ofsted, inspectors were steered away from guitar-playing hippy teachers. Today, if the guitar-player gets results, then all must have guitars. It’s the children who suffer, says this history teacher

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In the early days of Ofsted, inspectors were steered away from guitar-playing hippy teachers. Today, if the guitar-player gets results, then all must have guitars. It’s the children who suffer, says this history teacher

Last week, it was announced that Ofsted would no longer grade lessons and would focus solely on the student outcomes achieved, with an acute focus on “progress”.

This followed the publication by Ofsted of a set of myths, including the belief that Ofsted was looking for particular teaching and learning styles on inspection.

It’s true that, in recent years, the school’s inspectorate has become, at least on the surface, much more liberal and laissez-faire about what they are looking for in the classroom. Whether you are a hippy, offering students hot chocolate and seating them on beanbags, or, at the other end of the spectrum, dictating from War and Peace while tapping a cane on your desk, it really doesn't matter…as long as you get the results.

New suits and boot camps

In 1992, when the first inspection teams descended on schools, it was a make-or-break experience. A usual inspection would last up to seven days and consist of hundreds of lesson observations. The aggregate judgements made on all the lessons seen would lead to an overall judgment. It would all rise or fall on the perceived quality of what was seen by a bunch of inspectors with debatable credentials.

Not only this, but there was advance notice – usually a couple of weeks. Teachers bought new suits, added borders to lesson plans, produced teaching resources to marvel at and went sober. Leading up to the inspection, staff would ask each other, “What are you going to do for that lesson?” and wonder whether it was worth bribing students with sweets or perhaps money to behave.

The inspectors came and their judgment was anyone’s guess. Much of it came down to the personalities and perceptions of those men and women who carried clipboards around the corridors. By the final day, the judgment could still be up in the air. It could go one way or the other, so the head would point the inspectors in the direction of “outstanding teachers” to tilt their mood. Just like a football match where someone scores in the last minute, it’s the last kick of the ball that lives in the memory.

The tricks of the trade during these inspection cycles have become stuff of legend. Kids packed off to external boot camps in advance of inspection teams arriving. Inspectors being “looked after” by crafty senior leaders intent on their avoiding Mrs Muggins and her didactic teaching or Mr Jones with his drinking habit.

The judgment would be revealed at the end of the week, and tears of triumph or despair would ripple through the classrooms and corridors. As soon as the inspectors’ cars pulled out of the staff car park, a DVD marathon would commence, Johnny would return from his temporary suspension and teachers would say it was their finest hour. Now back to normal teaching.

The times, they are a-changin’

Nowadays, Ofsted walks into schools having already worked out the judgments they will make, barring some scandalously criminal discovery. They study the schools’ results against national averages. They look at the performance of disadvantaged students against the rest, boys against girls, tall against short, dogs against cats and so on. All this in advance of visitation.

The new catchphrase is “progress over time” – essentially meaning, do your results add up? The last week of August has become the all-or-nothing litmus test of the previous 12 months. Heads pray that, whatever the result is, it fits around their self-evaluation report and sits nicely into a positive “trend”.

Now, a savvy headteacher can conceivably work out when Ofsted will appear (based on the time between inspections) and calculate the judgment their school will receive, based on predicted grades and other such measures. Most pray that inspectors come at the right time: “If they come after our current Year 10 sit their exams, we will be fine. But if it’s after the current Year 9 go through, then we’re in trouble.”

It doesn't matter if Mrs Muggins is rote-learning with her top set or Mr Jones is playing the guitar for most of his maths lessons, as long as they get those brilliant results. Of course, when those excellent results come in, based in large part on the ability, effort and application of a particularly blessed cohort of children (and parents), Mrs Muggins and Mr Jones will be lauded as trendsetters. All teachers will be given guitars and ordered to play Bob Dylan at the start of every lesson for at least five minutes. Any critical questioning by children or staff will be met with: “Mr Jones’ outcomes are exceptional”. Or are they?

You see, as I previously alluded to, “results” and “progress” are hardly the holy grail of performance that the government and Ofsted would like the public to believe. Far from it. Firstly, the incessant changes to the format, structure and content of exams make them much more difficult to “teach to”, and therefore outcomes much more unpredictable. The fact that “progress” will be based on key stage 2 scores only opens up an even bigger can of worms. Even if the exam system were foolproof, exams can’t measure student’s emotional development, something Ofsted teams will pay lip-service to in reports.

So, in response to these shifting goalposts, many schools are changing their approach.

Hailed as heroes

Realising that there is now little outward reward for experimentation, innovation or creativity in teaching, learning and curriculum development, many schools are now becoming rigid exam factories. They do this while hidden behind a propaganda machine presenting them as modern-day churches. An intense drive to commit learning to memory has become commonplace, as coursework vanishes and high-stakes, one-off summative assessment trumps all else.

Some schools are starting their GCSE courses in Year 9; others are increasing curriculum time for GCSE students. Ofsted’s latest announcement will only increase the pressure on schools to hit their targets.

Teaching and learning the same thing over and over again until it sticks runs against much that was preached by educationalists in the 1990s and 2000s about what they wanted to see. School leaders are tempted to delay enquiry and exploration until age 18 and, until then, prescribe a diet of drills and repetition. Some will raise the “outstanding” flag at the gates each day and be hailed heroes by government ministers.

If you judge schools and teachers on exam performance, then schools and teachers will teach to those exams. If those exams only allow for narrow curriculum content, so be it. If you base teacher performance on a set of one-off lesson observations during a lengthy inspection, then teachers will get the jazz-hands out. Either way, everyone will play the game like they did before.

The biggest losers in all this are the children. Always the children. Under more pressure than ever before in Years 10 and 11, some simply succumb to it and wilt away, just like the teachers. A sad but now quintessentially British truth.

Tom Rogers runs and tweets at @RogersHistory

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