‘Ofsted’s criteria for “outstanding teaching” are outstanding nonsense, and here’s why’

TES Opinion

Professor Colin Richards, a former HMI and a primary sector specialist adviser to Ofsted, writes:

The latest version of Inspecting schools: handbook for inspectors, published by Ofsted and dated January 2015, makes it abundantly clear that “teaching must be outstanding for overall effectiveness to be outstanding” (p.38). At first sight, that seems self-evidently appropriate. Certainly, many so-called “outstanding” schools have gloried in that linkage and in the accompanying accolade.

But what if the criteria for outstanding teaching are fatally flawed? This would throw into question not just that linkage or the standing of those schools, but the whole notion of “outstandingness” and, with it, the categorisation of schools.

Related story: Senior inspector admits Ofsted grades unreliable

There are two aspects to this issue. How far is it possible for the teaching (and therefore the teachers, however skilled and experienced) to meet the criteria for “outstanding”; and how far is it possible for inspectors, however skilled and experienced, to judge that these criteria are being met? I have severe doubts about both.

Ofsted lists seven criteria for “outstanding” teaching and seven for “good” teaching (p.61). Each one of the “outstanding” criteria is problematic – in different respects – but here I will concentrate on only the first three.

In sharp contrast to Ofsted’s first criterion for “good” teaching where it is characterised as “consistently good”, the first criterion for “outstanding” teaching begins “Much teaching over time in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good”. Taken literally (and how else should it be taken?) this is less rigorous, since it implies that despite the overall “outstanding” descriptor some teaching is not good. But, in all probability, Ofsted means that while “much” teaching is “outstanding”, all teaching is never less than consistently “good”.

But if this is so, then two issues arise. How is it possible for teaching (and the lessons that contribute to that teaching) to always be at least “good” with no lessons or teaching that requires improvement? And equally importantly, how could inspectors ever know that this is the case, given that they are in school for only one or two days? After all, as they can observe teaching only over that period, they cannot know that it is always consistently good at other times.

The criterion continues: “As a result, almost all pupils… are making sustained progress that leads to outstanding achievement”. But is it realistic for almost all pupils to make continuous progress with neither a pause nor a relapse? Are they forever highly motivated? Do none have off-days? Equally importantly, how are inspectors ever to know if this progress is sustained? How can they possibly examine all, or almost all, pupils’ records in “most subjects” and how can they be sure that all the assessments made are valid and that almost all pupils’ achievement is “outstanding”? They cannot.

The first criterion for “outstanding” teaching cannot be met – either by the teachers and pupils themselves or by inspectors.

The second criterion is equally problematic and unrealisable: “All teachers have consistently high expectations of all pupils”. How realistic is it for every single teacher to always have high expectations for each and every one of their pupils, whatever the subject or subjects being taught and whenever they’re being taught? If taken literally (and if not, how is it to be taken?), it is an impossibility. It is equally impossible for an inspection team to be able to come up with that judgment. For that criterion to be met, every single teacher,  whether in a 20- or a 1,200-pupil school, would have to be observed a number of times in a variety of teaching situations, their expectations of each and every one of their pupils elicited and these then judged “high” or otherwise by an omniscient inspector. It’s an example of “outstanding” nonsense.

At first sight, the third criterion seems more reasonable to both demonstrate and inspect: “Teachers systematically and effectively check pupils’ understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where they may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning”. However, closer examination raises a number of issues.

Why the reference to both “systematically” and “effectively”? Wouldn’t the latter suffice? Why the reference to “throughout lessons” rather than “in lessons”? Does that checking have to operate all the time? If so, how? It’s equally impossible for inspectors to judge the impact of teacher interventions on “the quality of learning” if by “learning”, Ofsted means pupils’ understanding rather than their observable responses. How can such understanding be detected, let alone be judged “notable”? For that to be possible, inspectors would have to know the nature and extent of pupils’ understanding before and after the interventions and make a judgment as to how significant that difference was. Again, it cannot be done.   

Without going into detail, there are problems with the remaining four criteria for “outstanding” teaching. For example, what does it mean for “the teaching of reading, writing, communication and mathematics” to be “cohesively planned and implemented across the curriculum”? How could all subjects be inspected in sufficient depth for an inspection team to be able to judge whether the planning and implementation have these qualities across the whole of the curriculum? 

Again, how can teachers engage in “consistently high-quality marking and constructive feedback” to “ensure that pupils make significant and sustained gains in their learning”? Is it possible for teachers in any school to adhere invariably to such a high standard without any significant lapses? How could inspectors possibly know that they did, without close, very time-consuming examination of masses of written work? How could inspectors possibly know what constitutes “significant and sustained gains” in pupils’ learning without close knowledge of them over a period of time?

Taken literally, then, Ofsted’s criteria for “outstanding” teaching are equally impossible to meet and to inspect. The problem is not with the criteria per se; they do embody teaching excellence, but for a world which does not and cannot possibly exist. After all, everyone involved in education wants schools that have consistently high expectations for all, where teaching is never less than good, where teachers intervene with optimum effect on pupils’ understanding and whose marking ensures significant and sustained gains in pupils’ learning. And so on for the other “outstanding” criteria. However, the criteria as stated by Ofsted in its handbook cannot be applied in a literal sense in any inspection. And, even if they could, no teacher or school could ever meet the impossibly high standards expected consistently day in, day out. 

It follows that no school’s teaching can be “outstanding” as judged by the seven criteria, and if outstanding effectiveness “depends on outstanding teaching” (as the Ofsted Handbook states), no school can possibly achieve that accolade of “outstanding”.

This leaves the question of why Ofsted persists in asking the impossible both of teachers and of inspectors. The answer lies partly in the perceived necessity to distinguish between “good” schools and “outstanding” ones for the purposes of categorisation and reporting. A reasonable criterion for a “good” school (“Teachers have high expectations”) becomes an unreasonable one for an “outstanding” school (“All teachers have consistently high expectations of all pupils”). For each of the seven criteria, what is reasonable and possible for a “good” school is rendered unreasonable and impossible for an “outstanding” one – and not just impossible for the teachers, but for inspectors too.

This provides ammunition for those of us who argue that the current categorisation of schools should be abolished and replaced by one of only two overall judgments – whether a school is “good enough” or “not good enough” – backed up by reports offering detailed, wide-ranging evidence of a qualitative kind, supplemented, but not dominated, by judicious use of quantitative data. This would end the current obsession with obtaining an “outstanding” judgment made in respect of dubious criteria – an obsession that threatens to undermine what is reasonable and possible in the pursuit of an unattainable perfection that, in too many cases, demoralises rather than motivates. 

Related articles:

'What might a reformed Ofsted look like?'

'How to make Ofsted inspections fairer for schools in disadvantaged areas'


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