Who will watch the OFSTED watchmen?

Big Brother

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who will watch the watchmen?

Decimus Junius Juvenal, Satires, 2nd century AD.


The rhetoric is that all OFSTED want is effective teaching and leadership;

The reality is that OFSTED still prize entertainment over effective instruction.

In 2000, the British reality TV show Big Brother jumpstarted Channel 4’s drive into the brave new millennium. Over a decade later, with thirty series so far and two annual celebrity programs, it has become increasingly detached from reality. No one actually remembers the original message of the writer who coined the phrase ‘Big Brother’. Ask almost any schoolkid in England whether they know what it was originally based on, and you’ll be met by blank stares. Big Brother and the entertainment culture it spawned have spun loose from their moorings in reality.

In 1949, George Orwell wrote his book 1984. In it, he envisioned mass surveillance by the authorities, and coined neologisms that have entered our lexicon: ‘BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU’; ‘thoughtcrime,’ ‘thoughtpolice’, ‘doublethink’, and ‘newspeak’ are all his. The propaganda slogan of the regime in 1984 is ‘IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH’. Then one man, Winston Smith, writes in his journal ‘DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER’. If by analogy, education exists in its own thoughtworld, the Winston Smith of the educational blogosphere is Andrew Old, who this week on Twitter wrote: ‘I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: OFSTED must be reformed beyond recognition or abolished.’


Now, whenever I hear Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, he talks sense. On BBC Newsnight last week (from 25 minutes), he said: ‘what’s made the difference in London is the culture of schools, and that is determined by leadership.’ Both Andrew Old and I were impressed by his speech at the London Festival of Education in October 2012, after which Andrew wrote up what Ofsted say they want. Sir Michael got asked this question:

“I’m a Headteacher of a London school that got rated outstanding by OFSTED in 2008, and we’ve been tying ourselves in knots trying to work out how to do it again in 2013. But on hearing you speak, I realise we’ve been overcomplicating things. It seems to me that all inspectors are looking for is three questions:

1. Are all pupils being challenged?

2. Are all pupils making progress?

3. Are all pupils at least engaged and at best inspired?

“Do I have your blessing, Sir Michael, to go back and tell my colleagues that?!”

And Sir Michael’s answer was yes. What sparked that question was this passage of his speech:

“Let me emphasize again, for anyone who hasn’t heard this from me, or anyone else from OFTSED, OFSTED does not have a preferred style of teaching – it does not have a preferred style of teaching. Inspectors will simply judge teaching simply on whether children are engaged, focused, learning and making progress. And in the best and most outstanding lessons, being inspired by the person in front of them. We don’t want to see lessons that are too crowded, too frenetic and with too many activities designed simply to impress the inspectors. And if that’s happened in the past it’s wrong”.

All this sounded very practical to me, and that was the general sense in the room; very practical indeed. It resonated with what I’d heard from Sir Michael in another speech at the RSA on what makes a good teacher, where he said:

“For me a good lesson is about what works. A good lesson is about what works. So this is a plea, this evening, for pragmatism not ideology in the way we judge the quality of teaching. What works is what’s good in terms of teaching. We, and in that word “we” I include OFSTED, should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching. We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense. Too much direction is as bad as too little…

“Let me also emphasise we do not want to see teaching simply designed to impress inspectors. We don’t want to see lessons which are more about classroom entertainment and promoting the personality of the teacher than embedding children’s learning in a meaningful way. So let that message be proclaimed from the rooftops. OFSTED will judge the quality of teaching in relation to the quality of learning and whether children and young people across the age and ability range are making the progress they should be from the starting points. There will be no OFSTED template which compels teachers to do things they wouldn’t normally do.”

OFSTED, then, under Wilshaw from January 2012, were neither promoting jazzy, whizzy, flashy entertainment, nor prescribing formulaic tick-boxes in lessons. The OFSTED handbook was changed in 2012 to reflect that: ‘Inspectors must not expect teaching staff to teach in any specific way or follow a prescribed methodology’ (111). So far, so sensible.

Unfortunately, the reality does not match the rhetoric. Andrew Old’s prolific research, collating 47 separate descriptions from OFSTED inspection reports across 29 schools between September 2012 and January 2013, shows what OFSTED actually want: teacher-led instruction is still out, and flashy entertainment is still in. As Andrew says, ‘OFSTED remains the steadfast enforcer of these orthodoxies, and it is OFSTED, not league tables or government policies, which most shapes our classroom practices’.

Equally prolific research from Daisy Christodoulou in her upcoming book, Seven Myths in Education, which I will shortly be blogging about, paints a similar picture. She collates 228 descriptions from lessons across the 9 most recent OFSTED subject reports in Maths, Science, Religious Education, Art, History, Geography and Modern Foreign Languages, as well as the two most recent reports in English. Three of these were written since March 2012, after when Wilshaw came into office, and the others are still on their website; all are deeply dismissive about direct instruction, despite all the evidence of its effectiveness. Here are some concrete examples, just from the 2012 Maths report, of how teacher-led instruction is disparaged in lessons judged to ‘require improvement’:

‘A common feature of teaching observed was the use of examples followed by practice with many similar questions. This allowed consolidation of a skill or technique but did not develop problem-solving skills or understanding of concepts’. (Mathematics: Made to Measure, May 2012, 24)

‘Pupils often spent a substantial part of such lessons listening to the teacher and, in secondary lessons, copying down worked examples’. (ibid, 24)

‘A feature of much of the [merely] satisfactory teaching was that teachers tended to talk for too long’. (ibid, 26)

‘This is an important improvement since the previous survey. It has become relatively rare to see secondary teachers rooted to the front of the class’. (ibid, 35)

Instead of teacher-led instruction, entertainment is recommended as ‘prime practice’ for outstanding lessons:

‘Effective teaching: Pupils first matched each of the diverse group of party guests (baby mice through to a giant) to various balloons’. (Mathematics: Made to Measure, May 2012, 33)

‘First, children explored the concept of traditional weddings in different cultures. This included: dressing up; acting out make-believe ceremonies; painting pictures of brides and grooms; making wedding paraphernalia; writing lists and table place names; and making cakes, wedding gifts and trinkets. Fizzy drinks were used to toast the bride and groom and mark the special occasion’. (Making a Mark: Art, Craft and Design Education, March 2012, 8)

‘Continuing with minimal teacher talk, the students returned to their chosen objects, reflecting on and explaining their significance. Listening carefully, the teacher again used minimal questioning to promote deeper analysis’. (ibid, 38)

‘The subject leader described her view of English as ‘getting out the plasticine and paint’. (Excellence in English: What We Can Learn from 12 outstanding schools, May 2011 18)

‘Some of the Key Stage 3 units of work are innovative and highly distinctive. For example, younger students especially enjoy the ‘Mr Men’ unit of work’. (ibid 27)

Secondary lessons lionized as outstanding involve plasticine, Mr Men, fizzy drinks, baby mice as party guests and most of all, minimal teacher-led instruction. When Wilshaw says ‘we don’t want to see lessons which are more about classroom entertainment than learning’, while reports published on his watch tell precisely the opposite story, can anyone doubt that OFSTED, like Big Brother, has spun loose from its moorings in reality?

Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Roman satirist Juvenal asked a question that has resonated with great thinkers down the ages, from George Orwell to E.D. Hirsch, whose book opens with the questions: who watches the watchmen? Who will reform the reformers? In English education in 2013, the question we should be asking is: who are OFSTED accountable to?

About Joe Kirby

School leader, education writer, Director of Education and co-founder, Athena Learning Trust, Deputy head and co-founder, Michaela Community School, English teacher
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25 Responses to Who will watch the OFSTED watchmen?

  1. Essentially the same that that I made last year albeit with perhaps a different agenda underpinning it: http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/02/05/who-inspects-ofsted/

    The point is that no one is happy with Ofsted’s lack of accountability, no matter what axe they’re grinding. The sooner some sort of independent review is set up the better.

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  5. Captain K says:

    If I had to guess, I’d say that a lot of the disconnect between what Wilshaw says in public and what happens on the ground is down to the way OFSTED is organised these days.

    As part of its commitment to customer service excellence, OFSTED has farmed out the vast majority of its inspection burden to private sector providers. These providers (RISPs) generally have a regional monopoly, and use a group of cheap and cheerful ‘additional inspectors’ to do most of the grunt work. In principle, OFSTED central monitors the quality of these providers. In practice, OFSTED’s ability and willingness to do so is laughably weak.

    A little while ago, I complained to OFSTED about an additional inspector who assessed teaching in my eldest kid’s class. Basically, this inspector – allegedly a ‘specialist’ – was manifestly unfit to judge the quality of the teaching my kid was getting. It took about six months to get OFSTED to back down and apologise. In the process, it became pretty clear that OFSTED central don’t do much in the way of quality control for these devolved inspections – there are procedures in place, but they don’t have the resources (or arguably the bureaucratic will) to do much more than a token effort in checking whether the additional inspectors are doing their jobs well. The fact that inspection evidence is routinely destroyed six months after inspections take place tells its own story – imagine OFSTED’s reaction if schools did the same thing with their own data….

    I can believe that Wilshaw is serious about letting a thousand flowers bloom – but unless he undertakes root-and-branch reform of inspection quality control, he will never succeed, and the private inspection providers will be resistant to any change that compels them to provide a more flexible and expensive approach.

  6. sonofrojblake says:

    Interesting. This article witheringly criticises “almost any schoolkid in England” for their ignorance of the text of 1984, and yet the author lists “thinkcrime” as one of Orwell’s inventions. No such word appears anywhere in the book.
    A person who engages in crimethink is guilty of the offence of thoughtcrime.

    But hey, those are just details, aren’t they?

    Ignorance is strength.

  7. DelilahJ says:

    Moving swifly past the nit-picking, my present “Superhead” was an Ofsted inspector and keeps in touch. When inspections are due, she observes staff teach and tells us how she wants it done for Ofsted, because she “knows what they’re looking for.”
    Never has she asked us to teach from the front, or have children work through exercises in books, or indeed write very much at all if they could be playing with toys more suited to KS1 instead. But she does tell us to warp our natural manner into just that very “engaging” entertainment style Ofsted insist they no longer wish to see.
    In fairness, she is prepared to provide, without prejudice, instructions on how to make progress seem apparent in the currently required chunk.

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