Ofsted: Is the new orthodoxy really that there is no orthodoxy?

January 31, 2014 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

There is so much to say about Ofsted right now that this blog may just be my starter. I am increasingly convinced that my idea for our education system to take a gap year from inspection, academisation, and new policies is worth considering for 2015. Before that happens (as if?), time to deal with the changing current realities of school inspections.

 Bruised by various mutterings from think tanks (to which the best response might be the old playground comeback ‘don’t give it unless you can take it’), Sir Michael Wilshaw last  week wrote to all inspectors to reinforce the fact that ‘Ofsted is not prescriptive about the way that teaching is delivered and does not recommend a suite of preferred teaching styles.’

The letter is a helpful guide to what inspectors should no longer look for and comment on. However, it also gives examples of “what could be said about teaching without infringing the professional judgement of teachers to decide the most appropriate style of teaching to get the best out of their students.”

Teacher bloggers Andrew Old and @cazzypot have both analysed all these examples in detail. Most seem uncontroversial, if a little vague (I’ve listed these at the bottom of this blog).  But here are my thoughts from beyond the chalkface of those worthy of further analysis.

  • Are low expectations resulting in worksheets being used rather than textbooks?

This assumes that worksheets lower expectations, and textbooks raise them. I could find plenty of textbooks to counter this view. Is there evidence to justify this opinion?

  • Are children expected to take books home to do their homework and return them the following day?

Leaving aside the mixed evidence on the impact of homework, why is Ofsted stipulating that homework needs to be returned ‘the following day’?

  • Do lessons start promptly?

 What does ‘start’ mean? When I was teaching in primary schools, I abandoned the time-wasting tradition of morning registration, and simply expected pupils to come in and finish uncompleted work for 10 minutes. It is of course crucial that no time is wasted dealing with behaviour issues at the start of a lesson, and that one hour’s lesson is one hour’s learning. But there are many routes to this goal.   Will Ofsted now take against the idea of more fluid ways to start lessons, or will “start” mean something more traditional?

  • Is the structure of the lesson promoting good learning and are children given sufficient time to practise and reinforce what is being taught?

This seems to be at odds with Ofsted’s new guidance to inspectors published in December, that “inspectors should not focus on lesson structure at the expense of its content or the wide range of other evidence about how well children are learning in the school.” Practice and reinforcement clearly needs to happen during any unit of work, but why does every single lesson need to give children sufficient time to do this?

  • Does the school have a robust professional development programme which is improving the quality of teaching by disseminating good practice across the school or college?

The hypothesis here is that robust professional development programmes are built upon ‘disseminating good practice across the school’. The evidence, brilliantly synthesised by the Teacher Development Trust,  consistently counters this traditional ‘cascade model.  Shouldn’t Ofsted judge the quality of a school’s CPD approach in terms of outcomes, rather than methods?

As the SSAT’s Bill Watkin argued in his blog, Ofsted’s position is that “the new orthodoxy at Ofsted is that there is no orthodoxy.” Reading this letter, it feels like one orthodoxy might just be replacing another. But let’s keep optimistic, and, regardless of our differing views about pedagogy, hold Ofsted to account on Sir Michael’s final plea:

 “Please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.”

Joe Hallgarten  Director of Education  @joehallg

Other examples in the letter:

  • Are children focused and attentive because the teaching is stimulating?
  • Is the pace of the lesson good because the teacher is proactive and dynamic in the classroom?
  • Is homework regularly given?
  • Is literacy a key component of lessons across the curriculum?
  • Do teachers use display and technology to support teaching?
  • Are the most able children provided with work which stretches them and allows them to fulfil their true potential?
  • Does marking give a clear indication of what the children have to do to improve and are clear targets being set?
  • Do teachers have sufficient expertise to be able to impart to students the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed?
  • Are teaching assistants supporting teaching effectively or are they simply ‘floating about’?