Saturday, 1 October 2016

Why Ofsted inspectors shouldn’t give advice

Unfortunately I was unable to attend the recent Learning First conference in Wolverhampton, but I did manage to follow some of the tweets. This one in particular caught my attention:

As you can see by reading the thread below the tweet, it’s possible that Marylin Mottram didn’t actually say this was what Ofsted were looking for, but that’s certainly what was inferred by some members of the audience.

In response, I tweeted the following:

As regular readers will know, I’ve changed by position on Ofsted in recent years and consider Sean Harford, the National Director for Education, one of the good guys. However, I was disappointed by What appeared to Sean’s defence of this message. Although he suggested my criticism didn’t make much sense being an eminently reasonable man he’s offered, if I can articulate my opposition clearly, to reconsider. So here goes.

When Ofsted suggest a thing is desirable it’s interpreted as what inspectors want to see. This is unfortunate, but is probably unavoidable considering the high stakes nature of school inspections. Ofsted have made efforts to undo much of this in the last few years with thoughtful revisions of the Inspection Handbook and various ‘myth busting’ documents. But still, when a HMI speaks, school leaders listen. They panic and start mandating all sorts of nonsense in the hopes of impressing inspectors and often end up just increasing teachers’ workload with little positive impact on students.

This specific advice might seem innocuous enough. After all, what’s wrong with children who “love the challenge of learning, are interested learners, are resilient to failure, are curious… keen to learn, eager to know how to improve, able to learn from their mistakes” and “keen to seek out and use new information”? These are all admirable qualities, but how would you know they were present in children? What more important: children who visibly display these qualities or who quietly get on with the business of learning? I know from experience that there are children who display none of these qualities and yet still seem to do exceptionally well at school. It’s the qualities themselves that matter, not poor proxies. These may be things we want children to be, but it’s not a useful list of things we want to see.

However, I can well imagine inspectors visiting a school and deciding they haven’t seen sufficient curiosity or resilience. And if I can imagine it, so too can school leaders anxious about the outcome of their next inspection. Lamentable as it is, I can understand exactly why school leaders attempt to anticipate and demonstrate what they think Ofsted want instead of focussing on supporting teachers to teach to the best of their ability.

So, did Marilyn Mottram offer advice? Honestly, I’ve no idea. Sean says she didn’t and as I wasn’t there I really can’t comment. Sean says that “HMI have a lot to contribute and this can be done without ‘advice giving’.” I’m sure that’s true. Sean’s contributions to the education debate are always nuanced, thoughtful and made in the knowledge that anything he says can easily be misinterpreted. To my knowledge no one has ever tweeted a slide from one of Sean’s presentations which has ever been interpreted as a list of ‘what Ofsted want’. Maybe Marilyn Mottram really was engaging in a conversation about interesting student characteristics, maybe not. But when she’s speaking as a HMI with the Ofsted logo in the corner of her slides, she needs to be very careful about the inferences that might be drawn.

My advice would be that if a HMI ever shows a slide with any kind of bullet pointed list, it ought to be prefaced with the words THIS IS NOT WHAT OFSTED WANT OR EXPECT TO SEE. Just in case.

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