“Tessa, you simply can’t have children reading in silence when Ofsted come in; you can’t show progress that way.”
It was a bright, cold day in November and the clocks were striking 11. An urgent meeting was called at lunchtime; it could only mean one thing. Coded messages were passed between teachers in the corridors: “word is that the eagle will land soon”, “the bat phone has rung”, “prepare for battle” they whispered furtively, trying to hide their fear from the kids as they strolled by, blissfully unaware. On arrival at the meeting, our collective concerns were confirmed: an inspector was on his way here to ‘ask some questions’ about our recent dip in results, echoing the shiver-inducing final line of Priestley’s classic play and putting the fear of God into the deepest parts of my soul.
As an NQT at the time, the thought of having an Ofsted inspector in my classroom filled me with utter dread. I frantically sought guidance from my colleagues, who were scurrying about making card sorts and pinning PLTS posters to their walls. My fabulous mentor, who practically dragged me through my first year, pulled me into her room and calmed me down. She helped me plan my lessons for the inspection and gave me a few tips on how to ‘show progress’ when they enter the room. Thank God for her. I got through it relatively unscathed, kind of like going to the dentist. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, and the psychological torture leading up to the event made it worse than it needed to be, but it’s all over now…until next time, of course.
Anyway, the outcomes of our inspection instigated some changes in the way the school is run and the things that we do on a day-to-day basis. A few conversations on Twitter and a couple of blogs (especially this one) that I have read recently have prompted me to wonder about the rather strange gap that appears to exist between what Wilshaw is saying he wants, what they inspectors tell us to change, and what we actually do to improve our schools.
You can’t always get what you want, Sir Michael.
There were many areas for development in our report, but below I have outlined the five that I think have had the biggest impact on the way the school operates. The way we teach has been altered, the way we monitor progress has changed, and we have established a bunch of new boxes to tick.
1. Students need to be encouraged to participate fully in lessons and to take more responsibility for their learning.
As soon as I read this in the final report, a shudder came over me. I knew what this meant: group work. Within a week of Ofsted’s departure, SLT had released a new teaching and learning policy entitled ‘Growing Independent Learners’, which stated that all teachers must employ some element of group work in every single lesson they teach, unless they were doing a test. Group work definitely has its place: I cannot deny that. But every lesson? Really?
Is this what Ofsted meant when they made that statement? I think they probably meant that they would like to see more ‘independent learning’ (whatever that means), but I doubt very much they wanted every single lesson to involve group work. However, giving such advice to a weak, fearful leadership team is an extremely bad idea and can lead to such preposterous policies.
2. Questioning needs to be used more skillfully in lessons so that pupils are more engaged in their learning.
Another recommendation that was interpreted extremely badly was this one. Teachers are now expected to use open questions every single lesson, which leads to questions such as “how do you think we solve this simultaneous equation?” which are not particularly conducive to learning, purely because kids who have never been taught simultaneous equations before have no idea how to solve simultaneous equations. You might argue that this is not a ‘skillful’ use of questioning, and I would agree. But the policy that erupted following the inspection was simple: all teachers must use open questions every lesson. An outstanding teacher shared this example during a CPD session. I don’t know if this is what Ofsted want to see when they next visit, I suppose it will depend on the inspector, but I really don’t think this is the way we should be thinking about questioning.
3. Literacy and numeracy skills must be embedded across the curriculum.
SLT interpreted this one to mean that there needs to be an element of literacy and numeracy in every single lesson. As an English teacher, I would always actively encourage more teachers to be picking up on spelling mistakes or giving kids key words in lessons; I don’t think much bad can come from that. However, insisting that both literacy and numeracy are a part of every single lesson means that we end up shoehorning in activities that don’t really contribute to the main aim of the lesson, and are often superfluous.
4. The needs of the least able must be met by offering a range of courses and accreditations.
This was the one that got my back up the most. I have written about the damaging effects this advice has had here and here. SLT have made a huge mistake in trying to get more kids through more banal qualifications, such as BTECs and Level 2 courses that have very little impact on a child’s learning or progress. From speaking to several people in various settings, I KNOW this is not what Ofsted are looking for. I just can’t understand why SLT don’t see that. This is something that really needs to come from the top. Unless Ofsted specify that such ‘game-playing’ is not what they want to see, schools will continue to do it through whatever means necessary.
5. Regular, accurate and robust assessments need to be used to provide precise, effective interventions and raise standards.
I was fairly optimistic about this one. I love a good spreadsheet, and thought that the lack of progress tracking within the department, let alone the entire school, was a problem. Increased accountability is important, and using data and robust assessment is an extremely effective way of helping students to improve. However, as shown here, this ended up becoming a way to interrogate middle leaders, rather than addressing the real problems that lie at the heart of the school, such as behaviour, attendance and expectations. As Barry Smith (@barrynsmith79) would say, it has stopped us from ‘hacking at the roots’.
Who is to blame?
Is it Ofsted’s fault that schools are like this? As I tweeted earlier this morning, there are some fantastic Heads out there who manage to produce excellent results, doing what is right for their schools, their pupils and their teachers along the way. Funnily enough, all of the schools I have in mind are rated ‘outstanding’. So what does this mean? I think it comes down to this: Ofsted aren’t out to get us. I think that Ofsted as an organisation want us to do what is right for our pupils. I really do hope that is the case; that has got to be its intention, at least. Whether or not this is what actually happens when inspectors go in to schools is another matter. Some inspectors are going in with an agenda and are looking for particular teaching styles, but I hope that this will change in light of the new inspection handbook; I guess we shall have to wait and see.
The other problem is that some of the weaker Senior Leadership Teams out there (like mine, sadly) simply do not have the courage to do what is right and to interpret Ofsted recommendations in a way that will have the most positive impact on our pupils. Instead, they take the advice Ofsted give them far too literally, and end up implementing ridiculous policies like the ones outlined above, which don’t really do anything to improve the school.
But as my description of the Ofsted visit above demonstrates, there is an enormous amount of fear attached to inspections. Our school is failing, our pupil numbers are dropping, and we are making redundancies. If we don’t tick what we perceive to be Ofsted’s boxes by following their advice to the letter, SLT don’t think we will secure the ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ grading that we need in order to save our skin. This really is a matter of life or death for Galaxy High, and SLT simply are not willing to take the risk.
What can be done?
-Bad inspectors need to go.
Ofsted inspectors that insist on ‘fireworks’ lessons need to go: plain and simple. No school should be told that it needs to employ particular teaching and learning strategies in order to improve (especially if they are bad ones).
-Schools should be encouraged to do what is best for their pupils.
Perhaps this could be done with support from Ofsted, which might help to ease the fear surrounding inspections (although I expect this is so entrenched that it will take a very long time to go away). We are currently getting nuggets of wisdom that end up being misinterpreted by weak leaders. Strong leaders have the courage to do what is right; weak leaders need guidance to do the same.
-The message that Ofsted are not looking for any particular teaching style needs to be made clearer.
My Head hadn’t heard or read Wilshaw’s speech, and when I approached him about it he simply said that it didn’t matter: what mattered was impressing the inspector that came in on the day. This vitally important message must permeate the entire system, it must be made clear in inspection reports, in observations, and when advice is given that Ofsted are not looking for particular teaching styles. Several people I have spoken to are telling me that their SLTs are still asking for detailed lesson plans, are still insisting on specific pedagogy and are holding staff to account for things that Ofsted are saying they aren’t looking for. Whether this is a consequence of ignorance or fear, it has to change, and that change must be filtered down from the top, without becoming diluted along the way.
Courtesy of Tessa Matthews at Tabula Rasa