Ofsted has a problem

Mary Bousted

Sometimes you just couldn't make it up. Last week, Ofsted produced a report on English teaching. The report contained lots of positives; English teaching was good or outstanding in 70 per cent of the lessons observed. But the inspectors identified a problem; standards in English were, they complained, constrained by some commonly held "myths".

Inspectors identified five myths that are bedevilling English teaching: English lessons are crammed with too many activities; dominated by over-detailed and bureaucratic lesson plans; driven by inflexible approaches to planning lessons; pupils are denied enough time to work independently; and pupils spend too much time describing what they are learning (describing progress) rather than getting on with the learning itself.

At this point I must urge all the teachers to stop tearing their hair out. To try to help, I will tell Ofsted a few home truths. Does Ofsted really believe that teachers wish to overload lessons with manic activity? Do inspectors really believe that teachers want to record every breath they take as they teach?

Teachers, you know why these "myths" are so prevalent in English teaching (and in every other subject come to that). The cause lies not in ourselves, but in Ofsted.

It is Ofsted that drives the production of lesson plans that record every detail of every single thing teachers and pupils do. It is Ofsted that has scored the own goal of teachers focusing on lesson activities rather than learning outcomes and it is Ofsted that has focused the attention of school leaders on teacher performance rather than pupil learning.

It is Ofsted, speaking with forked tongue, that has routinely protested that inspectors don't require lesson plans ... unless they have concerns about the quality of teaching ... in which case they will want those plans and quickly.

It is Ofsted's uncritical support of the literacy strategy that led to an over-emphasis on pace in English (and every other subject). And so, Ofsted now complains, there is insufficient time for extended reading and writing in English, and too little focus on speaking and listening in primary schools.

I remember Ofsted's first report on the literacy strategy. Inspectors reported then that, while the quality of English teaching had improved, there had been no parallel improvement in the quality of pupil learning. I was puzzled by this. Was there, I pondered, no relation now between teaching and learning? How could one (teaching) not affect the other (learning)?

And now it appears that my views are shared by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted's chief inspector. He has recently confessed that Ofsted is part of the problem. He said that Ofsted "must never be seen as inhibiting good practice and creative teaching". "We are in the process of reviewing the way we operate, whether demands we are making are inhibiting teachers from teaching," he added.

Well, you've asked the right question, Sir Michael, and we await your answer. But be warned, teachers will not be fooled by warm words. They want action.

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL education union.

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Mary Bousted

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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