The head of Ofsted has defended the use of a teaching method that has come under heavy fire from ministers.
Group-work in lessons was condemned last week by education secretary, Michael Gove, who claimed it amounted to “children chatting to each other”.
But in a TES interview Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector, said the method could be effective and that the watchdog would judge schools and teachers on the quality and depth of learning, rather than stipulating which methods they used.
“It is not for Ofsted to say ‘that is the right way of teaching and that is the wrong way of teaching’,” he said. “It is up to the head to say.”
That approach appears to put him at odds with Mr Gove who used his speech on teaching to say that in the past “Ofsted’s guidance provided too little clarity about what constituted good teaching”.
Sir Michael’s critics have accused him of being too close to the government. But the interview also revealed that he is continuing to press for the power to inspect academy chains, despite a minister saying this summer that there was no need for the change.
On teaching methods, Mr Gove said last week that the watchdog had, in the past, “allowed inspectors’ personal prejudices and preferences to be interpreted as ‘the Ofsted way’”, leading to inspectors giving “too much emphasis” to “practices like group work and discovery learning”.
“The good news,” he continued, “is that Ofsted - under its inspirational new leadership - is moving to address all these weaknesses”.
But Sir Michael did not sound convinced that the supposed bias towards group work had existed in the first place.
“If that was the case that was wrong,” he said. “All my experience has taught me that you get fantastic results with different types of teaching.
“We don’t have a preferred style of teaching. I want inspectors to make a judgment on the quality of learning.”
The chief inspector has previously said that schools should be free to decide whether to group children by ability, but also pointedly noted that mixed ability teaching was harder to do well.
However, he declined to make a similar distinction between teaching methods, and rejected the suggestion that group work could also be tougher for teachers to succeed with.
“I have seen heads that used group work really effectively,” he said. Sir Michael stressed that if teachers were getting students to learn well through didactic teaching that was also “fine” and said that he believed in a “mixed economy” of teaching methods.
Academy chains to be scrutinised
Ofsted is to release data on the performance of academy chains this autumn, the chief inspector revealed. He said the government was still considering whether the watchdog should be given the power to fully inspect the organisations. But he believed that change was “inevitable”.
“This is an issue of equity if we are inspecting local authorities,” he said. “As more and more schools gain autonomy and more federations and chains are created it just makes sense. It is important.”
Sir Michael said proper monitoring of the chains was “essential” and revealed that each of Ofsted’s eight new regional directors had been allocated an academy chain to oversee.
Asked if any problems had been uncovered, he said “we are looking at the data as we speak” and revealed that Ofsted would publish details this term.
His comments came immediately after a speech to heads in Manchester when he repeated his warning that some local authorities – failing to challenge schools and bring them together in partnerships - were in the “last-chance saloon”.
“The worst local authorities haven’t yet woken up and adapted to the new educational landscape,” he said. “They have failed to appreciate that increasingly autonomous head teachers, working in local partnerships, are driving improvement.
“Ofsted will be relentless in pursuing these weak local authorities, who are failing to utilise both their existing powers and those dynamic leaders who are committed to national improvement.”
The watchdog has already conducted eight blitzes in areas where it has particular concerns about the performance of a local authority.
Alongside standard school inspections, the targeted visits involve asking heads and governors about the quality of support they receive from their local authorities.
But so far only one of them has resulted in a full local authority inspection, where Ofsted concluded that Norfolk County Council’s school improvement services were “ineffective”.
Sir Michael said more full inspections could follow, but he conceded there were areas where the blitzes had shown a better than expected picture.
“Coventry was the grand example,” he said. “When we did target our inspections we found huge improvements.”
The chief inspector had good news for teachers weary of constant revolution to the accountability system. “I don’t anticipate changing the [school inspection] framework for some time,” he said. “I am going to leave it alone.”
Record school improvements
The biggest rate improvement in Ofsted’s 21 year history – 78 per cent of all inspected schools rated either good or outstanding, up 9 percentage points from last year – was proof that the current framework was working, he added.
“Just removing the word ‘satisfactory’,” and replacing it with ‘requires improvement’ had ‘galvanised the system’, Sir Michael said. He used the improvements to help shrug off an academic’s claim that there was no evidence that Ofsted’s inspections led to better learning.
The end of “satisfactory” is not the only new challenge facing schools hoping to pass an Ofsted inspection. The watchdog uses GCSE results to judge schools. But the recent “comparable outcomes” clampdown on grade inflation by exams regulator Ofqual means annual overall rises in grades are now appear to be thing of the past.
However Sir Michael said Ofsted would not alter its judgements on schools to reflect that harsher climate, because he did not want to “put a ceiling on improvement”.
“I am a great believer that where you have great leadership and teaching that results improve,” he said.
Asked why GCSE results were not improving when school inspection grades were rising and Michael Gove, education secretary, was hailing “the best generation of teachers ever” , the chief inspector said “that is an issue for Ofqual”.
He added that he had no plans “at the moment” to start judging schools on the proportion of pupils meeting the English Baccalaureate GCSE performance measure.
Multiple exam entries
The growing pressure on schools to meet targets in an era of grade deflation has coincided with an explosion in the number early GCSE entries and multiple entries in the same subject.
In August the Department for Education said it wanted to discourage the practice and that schools that did do so were “in danger of being found out” because Ofsted would challenge them on it.
But Sir Michael told TES that schools would only be censured where their pattern of exam entry could be seen as stopping students from achieving the grades they were capable of.
As a head he had entered some pupils early for GCSE results in core subjects to give them an extra year to prepare for A levels.
The chief inspector is now 19 months into a five contract, which earlier this summer he warned he might be unable to see out.
The 67-year-old’s comments then appeared to confirm expectations of a short spell in office first reported by TES before he began the job.
But this week Sir Michael sounded more upbeat and said he expected to last the five years and might even go beyond, if his health allowed. He noting that Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson had not retired until the age of 71.
But the last few months had been “tough”, he admitted, particularly as the new inspection framework was introduced.
Many schools are expecting are similarly tough time in the near future with simultaneous introduction of new GCSEs, A levels and a new national curriculum.
But Sir Michael thinks they will be able to cope. “There was never an era when there wasn’t massive change,” he said. “If you want a really effective education system then change is the order of the day.”