“We must play the game.”
For almost two years, my school was in ‘Special Measures’, Ofsted’s category for failing schools. A number of blogs I have read over the past few weeks really struck a chord with me (particularly this one), as they so accurately reflect my own experiences.
I want to argue that the power Ofsted has can be extremely dangerous for failing schools. Because SLTs nationwide fear the potential consequences of disobeying Ofsted, schools are becoming trapped in a box-ticking prison world, where tried and tested teaching methods are feared. Ofsted inspectors can effectively say whatever they like, and schools must do it. They are holding teachers to account for teaching in a particular way, rather than for getting results, despite Wilshaw’s statements to the contrary. If you don’t teach the way the inspector thinks is best, you won’t get the best observation grade. With performance management systems in my school becoming more and more related to lesson grades, what else can a teacher do but ‘play the game’?
Life PWS (Post Wilshaw’s Speech)
Every single one of the school’s inspection reports carried out during the first eighteen months of the ‘Special Measures’ period harps on about how lessons lacked student-led activities such as group work, which ‘prevented the most able from being motivated and challenged’ and didn’t enable students to ‘use their critical thinking skills’. As a consequence, SLT made up the rather strange rule that teachers must use group work in every single lesson. CPD became about helping students to discover what they were being taught and improving engagement in lessons. Mini-plenaries were used every five minutes to assess progress. It was utterly relentless. The constant monitoring (SLT learning walks, HoD learning walks, pupil voice, formal observations, book trawls, etc.) made it extremely difficult to refuse to tick these boxes, even if you were getting results without them. During my performance management meeting I was told to stop being ‘such a maverick’ and to just get on and ‘play the game’.
Then there came Wilshaw’s speech.
I presumed that life in the world PWS would be happier, that it would be a less ‘bells and whistles’ place. I thought I might be able to get on and teach something without feeling that I need to tick boxes all the time.
Luckily for SLT, I was wrong. Our latest Ofsted inspection was just as arbitrary as the previous ones. Inevitably, the best lessons were very ‘pupil-centred’ and full of ‘active learning strategies’ that ‘challenged pupils of all levels’. In the worst lessons, teachers ‘spent too much time talking’. Lesson observations usually only lasted between 5 and 10 minutes, and miraculously, some teachers were able to demonstrate ‘outstanding’ progress within that time.
That which is being labelled as ‘outstanding practice’ at my school is simply what two or three Ofsted inspectors liked best on the day. Without exception, the most favoured lessons adopted a pupil-centred approach.
Why is this dangerous?
Schools have no choice but to listen to and act upon Ofsted’s advice. Whatever teaching method is in fashion with Ofsted will inevitably become the cornerstone of any struggling school’s improvement strategy. The fact that many of these ‘fads du jour’ have been debunked by science has nothing to do with it.
Now that Ofsted have told us what makes an outstanding lesson, the school is trying to replicate it across the board, and the list of boxes to tick continues to get longer. The understanding is that this pupil-centred approach improves learning, because Ofsted say so. The school’s results have improved, and this is believed to be the main cause.
What SLT fail to acknowledge is the fact that 24 months ago, the school was out of control. There were no systems in place, behaviour was atrocious, teacher turnover was high and leadership was poor. Attendance was also significantly below national average, and the finances were in disarray. The introduction of a new Head and new middle leaders sorted a lot of this out. The school is by no means perfect; it still has a long way to go, but our corridors are now calm, pupils are in school, and fewer teachers are leaving throughout the year. Bizarrely, our Head and OFSTED still credit the school’s improvement to the teaching and learning strategies they prefer.
If Ofsted and senior leaders continue to ignore the obvious, and focus instead on the impact of specific teaching methods, they are missing the point. What if our leadership hadn’t changed and there was no impact on attendance and behaviour, but the same teaching and learning strategies had been implemented? Would the school still have improved? Not a chance.
Before we can start prescribing teaching methods (good or bad) we need to get the basics right. First you need to sort out behaviour, then you sort out the curriculum, then you sort out how to teach the curriculum.
If the only advice Ofsted gives failing schools is to improve teaching through the use of an extremely narrow ideology, they are disregarding the fundamentally necessary parts of school improvement. You cannot simply skip straight to fixing teaching methods if you do not have the behaviour in place. Moreover, this is further promoting a pupil-centred approach to teaching. Using schools such as mine as evidence for this approach is a lie. Schools and teachers are being misled by a misunderstanding of the relationship between correlation and causation, and Ofsted’s power is embedding these misconceptions deeper into our collective consciousness.
Courtesy of Tessa Matthews via Tabula Rasa