Ofsted watch - How learning is mired in a flood of feedback

31st October 2014 at 00:00
Misinterpretation of Ofsted guidance on marking is leading to poor practice. Let's refocus on the most important thing: the students

Feedback works, right? Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, the Education Endowment Foundation and other distinguished education research voices provide ample evidence of its positive impact. And we, as teachers, recognise the gains made by our students after a pertinent comment in their book or an incisive word in their ear. This is one of few strategies that we can use in a targeted way to improve learning.

Yet we are in danger of perpetuating bad feedback in many schools. Why? Because a damaging interpretation of Ofsted's focus on feedback (or, more accurately, marking) is leading to poor practices.

The problem has arisen as a result of a change in assessment by the inspectorate. If you take a look at the guidance in Ofsted's school inspection framework, you will see that the body has responded to scepticism regarding the effectiveness and accuracy of its 20-minute lesson observations, which have proven a poor method of making judgements on teaching and learning. To compensate, Ofsted has sought to better capture "progress over time" via flicking through books to check on feedback. This is another rather shaky method of assessment, but it is probably better than bite-sized observations with reductive grades.

Fed by fear

As a result of this shift, feedback has suddenly taken on a newfound importance, particularly in schools where an Ofsted visit is viewed as the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of teachers. The watchdog has responded to this marking madness with a "clarification for schools" document, stating:

  • "Ofsted does not expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils' books or folders. Ofsted recognises that the amount of work in books will often depend on the age and ability of the pupils."
  • "Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders. Ofsted recognises the importance of different forms of feedback and inspectors will look at how these are used to promote learning."
    • This guidance is needed because fearful schools often misinterpret what Ofsted is looking for. Many teachers are now under pressure to daub feedback on pretty much everything; once a means of improving learning, feedback has become a visible indicator for inspection teams. Anxious school leaders seeking to ensure "consistency" of written feedback - with all the complexity that such a euphemistic term implies - drive teachers into the mire of workload overload.

      Genuine consistency matters. But damaging compliance regardless of the needs of students, and sometimes very different subject requirements, is a wholly different matter.

      I have heard tales of teachers being made to photocopy evidence of weekly feedback so that senior leaders can create a heaving folder of evidence for Ofsted. There have been stories of teachers being forced to undertake weekly marking, regardless of the stage of learning or the usefulness of feedback, in order to meet the supposed Ofsted requirement.

      Skewed priorities

      But why is this kind of feedback so damaging? Well, it leads to professional burnout and can crush personal confidence and energy levels at the same time. In many cases it is a wasted effort, as teachers are constantly playing catch up, limiting the usefulness of their feedback for students.

      And with all the focus on written marking, there is a danger that oral feedback becomes relegated. Most teachers agree that an immediate oral response can be the most useful method of feedback, whereas the time-lag on written feedback can too often render it redundant.

      There is no getting around the fact that feedback is necessary and can frequently prove extremely time-consuming (I speak as an English teacher who has marked thousands of essays). So, given the considerable effort involved, feedback must be directed at improving students' learning, not meeting inspection criteria.

      This isn't the first time that the aim of delivering good-quality feedback has been distorted. The principles of Dylan Wiliam's Assessment for Learning were bastardised when it became inextricably linked with the national curriculum levels. This is a prime example of Campbell's law: once an indicator is used to make important decisions, it ceases to have value as an indicator. In a huge number of schools, written feedback is in danger of succumbing to this fate, and this is a real problem because good-quality formative feedback is at the very heart of great teaching and learning.

      So what is the solution to this quandary? Well, Ofsted must continue to emphasise that marking everything that moves isn't what is required, nor is it considered good practice. Teachers should communicate with one another, sharing best practice on good feedback while exposing bad feedback policies. We need to get the message out there that feedback for accountability - feedback that is not for the benefit of students - is damaging for us all.

      Alex Quigley is director of learning and research at Huntington School in York

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