Why Ofsted's focus on exercise books could be harmful

The risk of Ofsted looking at exercise books is teachers will feel pressure to fill them with evidence, says Mark Enser

Mark Enser

School inspection: Ofsted's intention to focus on pupils' exercise books could create problems for teachers, warns Mark Enser

Yesterday Ofsted published a report on the reliability of using workbook scrutinies as part of its judgement on the quality of education in schools. It may not be surprising that Ofsted’s report, looking at something it wants to do, found that overall there was “moderate” reliability in making these judgements based on work seen in exercise books; but even it had to concede this was far weaker in secondary schools than primary schools where specialist subject knowledge comes to the fore. 

As a teacher, I am less concerned with the reliability of these judgements than I am with the distorting effect that this scrutiny will have on our practice. The age-old problem of “doing things for Ofsted” is raising its head again. 

The things that Ofsted seem to be looking for are all sound components of an excellent lesson and curriculum, namely that: 

  • Pupils are building on previous lessons; 

  • They have a breadth of knowledge;

  • They are making progress; 

  • They have opportunities to practice what they have learned.

The problem is that evidence for these things doesn’t necessarily occur in our pupils’ exercise books. My Year 8 class today were studying why the impact of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake was so devastating. To do this they were using ideas they had learned over the previous two years, but you wouldn’t know this by flicking through their book. Instead, you would see that the last lesson looked at the impact of USA rice subsidies and before that, they were studying the causes of deforestation going back to the slave revolt on the island. The links may be clear to me; they are clear to my pupils. But they will not be clear to someone working through a pile of books.

Ofsted pressure

I worry that, if inspectors are going to make judgments about these things from the work they see in exercise books, we will soon see pressure to ensure that our books contain this evidence for them. We will have school policies designed, once again, to collect evidence of learning rather than to create the conditions for learning in the first place. 

Form follows function. If the exercise book’s function becomes a record of evidence for outside observers then it will be used in this way. If I were a nervous member of a school leadership team working in a struggling school, or a consultant looking to make a quick buck from the people’s fears, I might suggest the following:

  • Go back to insisting that learning objectives are written in books for each lesson but ensure they make reference to previous lessons (i.e., “Apply our lesson on tectonic hazards from term one to our case study on Haiti”).

  • Return to insisting that, despite being an inefficient and ineffective way of giving feedback, written comments appear in books in a nice bright colour and make mention of the progress made (i.e., “This work on Haiti really shows you have made progress in your understanding of the various impacts of tectonic events on low-income countries”).

  • Previous books be stored in the classroom so that inspectors can see all this evidence of previous work. In fact, it would be best to ensure that pupils never take books home to study from in case all this valuable evidence is lost.

  • Make sure that there is X amount of written work in every lesson and that this is kept in their exercise book. Pupils might make progress in many ways and use many mediums but if it isn’t stored in a book as evidence, it may as well not have happened.

All of this will add to pressure on teachers, at a time when teacher retention is in an appalling state, and take time and energy away from doing the things that will really make a difference to what our pupils learn. 

I have no doubt that this is not what anyone in Ofsted actually wants to see happen. I believe them when they talk about trying to avoid the unintended consequences of people doing things for them and worrying about collecting evidence of education rather than education itself. The problem is that they then go and do those exact things that cause this problem.

Ofsted needs to accept the limitations of using exercise books as a way of seeing the implementation of the curriculum or its impact. The curriculum isn’t enacted in an exercise book but in the interactions between teacher and pupil. It can’t be pinned to the page. 

Mark Enser is head of geography and research lead at Heathfield Community College in East Sussex. His next book, Teach Like Nobody’s Watching, is out soon. He tweets @EnserMark

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