Who inspects the inspectors?

Are Ofsted fit for purpose?

This week Dylan Wiliam threw a wet leather gauntlet in the face of monsieur d’Ofsted, saying, “Ofsted do not know good teaching when they see it”.

If this is true (and how would we know because obviously no one ever bovvers to check up on Ofsted, do they?) it casts HMCI Sir Michael Wilshaw’s assertion that teachers’ pay progression should depend on them teaching ‘good’ lessons into serious doubt. Wilshaw says “The thing that irritates good teachers, people who work hard and go the extra mile is seeing people that don’t do that being rewarded.” No. The thing that irritates good teachers is nonsense being spewed by the head of an inspectorate that is possibly not fit for purpose. Ofsted’s predictable response is that its criteria for assessing teaching quality are apparently “carefully formulated from international research that identifies those features of teaching that have the greatest impact on pupils’ learning.” Oh, well, that’s all right then. As long as it’s ‘carefully formulated’ there’s no need to scrutinise it is there? The spokescreature added, “Inspectors now spend even more time in classrooms. As experienced teachers and headteachers themselves, inspectors know how to recognise lessons that fire the imaginations of pupils and give them the confidence they need to make good progress.” What a relief!

Sadly though there is plenty of evidence which casts doubt on Ofsted’s much vaunted belief in its own ability to recognise anything underpinned by actual, honest to goodness understanding of what students need to do to actually make progress. Some of this evidence is anecdotal; I tweeted a comment on Twitter which seemed to resonate with many teachers: “Asked an inspector if they’d ever taught a lesson, they hadn’t but had ‘observed over 100 lessons’. I’ve seen all of ER, am I a Dr?” This sort of thing is easy to dismiss, but a more serious tale is told by a deputy head teacher of my acquaintance about a consultant who is training to be an Ofsted inspector because he doesn’t think he can get a job in a school and his contract is due to run out. This is a man who has consistently delivered lessons to poor feedback from the staff and students he’s worked with. Is this the calibre of inspector we want making decisions on teachers’ pay? Address the plank in your own eye Sir Michael and I’ll happily submit myself to your expertise.

Other evidence is maybe more compelling. Daisy Christodoulou wrote on her blog about some of the alarming ‘evidence’ of excellent English teaching in their 2011 publication Excellence in English. It’s full of suggestions which make me shudder. Not because they’re bad things to do per se, but because they’re not about students learning things which will improve their ability to read, write or speak better.

Most worryingly, after waxing lyrical about (I kid you not) a scheme of learning about Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men, the report says, “students download (4)then review and extend their knowledge of grammar focusing on the use of adjectives, onomatopoeia and alliteration.” Now, as any grammarian will happily tell you, onomatopoeia and alliteration have nothing to do with knowledge of grammar and if the Ofsted inspector failed to understand this, what hope for the students? My beef, as I pointed out here last year is that thinking teachers know how to teach if we want students to learn stuff. And it doesn’t require potatoes to be hidden under desks for students to learn about Seamus Heaney poems or for any of the other spurious ‘independent learning’ activities which inspectors love so much. Getting Ofsted to rate your lesson as ‘outstanding’ requires you to do a Monkey Dance (TM) which showcases children using SEAL or PLTS or whatever else is fashionable. What’s even more worrying is that inspectors will now ask students, “Is this a typical lesson?” No it bloody well isn’t. Not if I want students to actually make the progress which schools are judged against in league tables.

My solution to being asked to perform the monkeydance is to hold your professional nerve, teach the way you know to be best and staple the research findings supporting your views to you lesson plan: challenge that, if you dare!

The problem with a lot of what Ofsted glibly label as outstanding is that it expects students to bypass the multistructural phase and go straight into deep understanding without knowing enough. A neat trick if you could manage it, but you can’t: as Daniel Wallingham explains in Why Don’t Students Like School? our brains are just not wired that way.

Anyway, the point of all this is that like many teachers I don’t trust Ofsted to get it right. I’d like more humility and less sweeping pronouncements. Oh, and some sort of objective review along the lines that Wiliam suggests. After all, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Some other useful posts:

What Ofsted actually want
Who will watch the Ofsted watchmen?

11 Responses to Who inspects the inspectors?

  1. JoeN says:

    The problem with Ofsted is that it was always a sledgehammer… wielded by people with a lousy aim.

    Having said that, the entire business of evaluating what happens in a classroom is far more subtle, complex and difficult than is generally understood. Comparisons with doctors etc don’t hack it I’m afraid. I’ve seen hundreds of lessons now, here and abroad, and I know I can instantly tell when a teacher has failed to notice something, or missed an opportunity, or in my own subject, not demonstrated sufficient learning. (Meaningful noun: not trite participle.)

    One of the biggest dangers is the notion that teacher skills in secondary schooling are largely transferable. I don’t think many are.

    My experience working in outstanding schools taught me very quickly that it is a teacher’s subject focus and passion, which lies at the heart of so much that pupils would describe as excellent teaching.

    Somehow, we seem to have lost sight of this core value and in its place we are fed an image of the excellent teacher as a model of kindness, generosity and mumsy self-sacrifice. One look at the videos used to promote the Teaching Awards is enough to demonstrate the truth of this. That is what I’d like to see Ofsted deal with.

    • learningspy says:

      Thanks Joe. I agree with all you say. I think. What’s wrong with the doctor analogy though? You’re only able to make judgements because of your expertise. Wouldn’t you agree that someone who had only ever watched teaching but never taught themselves is poorly placed to say what constitutes a good lesson?

  2. JoeN says:

    The doctor analogy is a favourite of the techno-zealots, who have possibly been the major (and most insidious) influence on educational policy and change for the last decade and more. They love to suggest that teaching is a reactionary and intransigent profession that hasn’t changed, whereas medicine has changed beyond belief, driven by technology.

    If you think about how an imaginary “inspector” or mentor might “observe” a doctor in their consulting room, it’s wholly different to complexity of a classroom with 30 plus people in it simultaneously. And I’m not at all sure that the way most doctors today seem glued to their PC screen, before they dole out the pills, is much of an advance.

    • learningspy says:

      All true Joe. Which is why the doctor analogy is so compelling. You or I could watch the surface actions of a doc in their consulting room and come to some very superficial and erroneous conclusions about their performance. We might be able to offer some constructive advice on bed side manner but we’d have zero insight into their medical knowledge or fitness to make prescriptions.

      Isn’t this similar to someone without the background knowledge of having been a teacher making pronouncements on something they don’t really understand?

      I think the point of the ER comment is deliberately sarcastic: of course watching a TV show cannot prepare you for a career in medicine. Equally, just having observed lessons shouldn’t qualify you to make judgements on teachers’ abilities.

      Thanks, David

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  4. Ben Horbury says:

    Great post! Ofsted has a valid place but it needs to be a tool used to improve not a stick to beat someone with! Surely the better lessons are the ones taking risks. However with ofsted taking a 25 minute snap shot & making a judgement everyone will play safe! Which only blocks progress of learning!

  5. Tim Taylor says:

    I’ve been inspected many times since I first started teaching in the early 90s. The experience has always been incredibly stressful and almost always completely unhelpful. I’m not arguing we shouldn’t be held accountable or schools shouldn’t open their doors to others with a background in education. But Ofsted has gradually morphed over the years into an instrument of political pressure, confining and restricting schools to narrow interpretation of pedagogy and causing a climate of fear and loathing, where teachers fear taking risks, experimenting with new methods and (as in the example above) denying their professional expertise to ‘please the inspector.’

    I agree what’s needed is an independent review of Ofsteds effectiveness as a organisation for developing teaching and learning, which is not the same as raising standards. Wilshaw himself recently graded Ofsted’s performance as only 7/10. My worry is this is the usual ploy of a new manager critising the old regime and doesn’t constitute a genuine objective assessment.

    For me, the whole premise that someone can walk into a lesson and make informed judgements about the progress of all the students in the short time they in the room is a complete nonsense. They claim for themselves superhuman powers beyond the reach of normal teachers. I can’t tell how much progress all my students are making in 30 minute intervals even if I’ve worked with them all year. Learning is a complex cognative process, developed over time, to pretend otherwise is a con.

    Inspectors should not only have been teachers, they should also be practicing teachers. I would insist all inspectors and HMIs complete a six months sabbatical in the classroom every three years, preferably in a struggling school in an area of severe social deprivation. Within that time they should have a minimum of three lesson observations, none of which should be graded less than Good. I live in hope.

  6. Rona says:

    I’m training to be an inspector. I’m a deputy head. You have to be a head or deputy in a good or outsanding school. If your school drops to RI you are off the training. It is rigorous, over eighteen months, includes exams and masters level work. It cost me over £3k and if I fail the final assessment I have to start again, including full costs. So please don’t tar us all with the same sweeping brush?

  7. learningspy says:

    Rona – so you finish training; you qualify as an inspector; what then? Are you subject to regular inspections or are you deemed qualified for life?

    Also, if what you say is true, how can we account for those inspectors who’ve never taught?

    The point is not to tar inspectors with the same sweeping brush, it’s to raise the point that there are enough concerns about Ofsted’s fitness to make judgements to warrant a system whereby the inspectorate in general and individual inspectors in particular are held regularly and rigorously accountable.

    Or is the fact you happen to be a deputy in a good or outstanding school sufficient? I’m genuinely interested.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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