Tag Archives: Ofsted

When Things Go Mad: The Destructive Power of Ideas

Over a hundred years ago, the German poet Heine warned the French not to underestimate the power of ideas: philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor’s study could destroy a civilisation.  Isaiah Berlin
Yesterday I read a post by @teachertoolkit about a measure he employs in his school called ‘book look’. In his blog he wrote that the measure was to check on: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” As my main teaching subject is a practical one I thought I would ask the perfectly reasonable question:

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My thought being that in subjects where much of the feedback, teacher, self and peer assessment is done verbally that instead of demanding those subjects should do unnecessary written work to fit in with the book look system, that the system might bend in a way to recognise the richness of this type of assessment.

Strangely, before I was able to receive an answer, this happened:

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This was an odd diversion. Clearly Paul, who is an Ofsted inspector, had been into Teacher Toolkit’s school and had seen the ‘book look’ in practice, he implies here that he likes it. He also makes a leap from my tweet to imply that I meant practical subjects don’t mark. No matter, I had a right of reply:


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And I expected it to be left there, after all, I was asking a question to which I hadn’t received an answer. My ulterior motive is to avoid subjects with a large practical component having to write everything down – where currently they are more effective by not having to log everything.

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Now Paul has begun to question my understanding of ‘practical subjects’ – I have taught drama for twenty-five years, so this certainly ‘bristled’ with me. All I can think is that Paul is deliberately misunderstanding me because I’m asking about the practical component of practical subjects.

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I know they all do written work. I am waiting for an answer from Mr. Toolkit about how they approach practical subjects, in other words do they want ‘everything’ logged in written form?

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This is where things went mad and we went into meltdown. I had spent the day leading a course on the new exam specs for drama so Paul’s comment that I need to look at the exam specs was particularly hilarious.

The meltdown:

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From this point the whole discussion went even further down hill, it is on twitter for those you who wish to see a spat about ‘you said this’, ‘you said that’.

There is something far more important going on here, the original book look idea is a bureaucrat’s dream but it falls apart when faced with practical subjects. Either it means that subjects with a sizeable practical  component will be asked to do more, unnecessary, writing or the system that has been brought in will miss the feedback given verbally and understood physically in, say, drama and PE.  Will this result in teachers at the school putting too much emphasis on written feedback and ignoring the richness of other ways of teaching and assessing?

Paul Garvey clearly thought I had no idea what I was talking about and the best I can think of him is that he misunderstood the nuance of my question. He seems to have a huge vested interest in ‘book look’. As a consultant he had visited Teacher Toolkit’s school and, as mentioned above:

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has given ‘book look’ his blessing. As an Ofsted inspector his word carries power, I can see many schools jumping on the book look book check and adapting it for use in their schools. This would be a disaster for practical subjects and, I would venture, for all subjects. Read this excellent blog from Greg Ashman where he examines the thinking behind ‘book look’.

Since I pointed out the problem with practical subjects Teacher Toolkit has removed the bit of the blog where he wrote about checking: “…marking, workload and quality assurance of feedback and assessment” maybe because it doesn’t work for a large part of the feedback that is done in practical subjects. However, the tool doesn’t cover practical elements.

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The ‘yellow box’ areas don’t help for practical work – how could a ‘diagnosis’ of books pick up the improvement in a girl’s ball skills in football or a boy’s vocal quality in drama unless it is written down? The point is the writing down of these things interrupts the teaching of these things in the subject, slows them down,  and, in all likelihood, lowers the standards of teaching and learning in the practical element of practical subjects. By writing about your practical work, you cease to truly understand it. It would be like teaching a child to walk by insisting she wrote all the stages down, set targets etc. when, in real life, the understanding of how to do these things is quite mysterious to us. Each child is different, they respond, in practical work, to coaching in real time, not to stopping and starting and writing about it.

That this check seems to expect teachers to spend a lot of time giving written feedback, and what is assessed will be what is done, I think the above book checking tool will mean that staff will have to spend more and more effort and time with written work and feedback and reduce the time and the quality of verbal feedback. This excellent blog by Andy Day reflects on how these checks distort education. What a pity  to put all the effort into written feedback especially if verbal feedback is a far more effective method of raising standards.

Ideas nurtured in the stillness of a senior leader’s study could destroy the quality of education in a school. Unnecessary writing of targets etc. is the bane of practical work please stop it happening in schools just so that a leadership team needing something to do can check it and Ofsted inspectors needing to justify their consulting business sidelines can tweet about it. Hopefully the book look tool will ignore practical work and, maybe, ignore books.


To have done with the Judgement of Ofsted

In 1947 The mad French Surrealist Antonin Artaud produced a radio play called ‘To Have Done With the Judgement of God’. It involved some grunts, screams, cries and, literally, a ‘loud fart’. He died soon after…

In the piece Artaud wrote:

“It seems that, among the examinations or tests required of a child entering public school for the first time, there is the so-called seminal fluid or sperm test, which consists of asking this newly entering child for a small amount of his sperm so it can be placed in a jar…”

In England we do something similar: world weary old campaigners, old stalwarts and now new schools entering the public sphere for the first time, are all inspected by Ofsted and a small amount of spit and sinew is examined with the results placed not in a jar but on a website for all to scrutinise. The Ofsted ‘Experience’ is an experience which most of us in education have been exposed to and with differing results. I am not against the need to judge, I just wonder whether we need a more ‘polytheistic’ approach.

Harry Fletcher Wood has posted a very interesting blog about the Ofsted inspection at his school, Greenwich Free School in South East London. I live in Greenwich and am very interested in GFS and hope that both he and the school will do well. I am a veteran of 5 Ofsteds and I understand the trepidation beforehand and the feelings one goes through during and after the inspection. As the inspections have got shorter and cheaper over time they have become, paradoxically, more important. Parents take notice of them, as does the media, but also teachers looking for jobs look at the Ofsted report as a short cut to knowing what a school is like. Along with the headline figures for GCSEs A-C, Ofsted is essential. Yet, of course, the real world is more complex than either of these measures can really convey.

How to reflect this complexity? Well, perhaps we need more ways of celebrating our schools (or getting them to pull their socks up…) Why? Because every human system is flawed and the more power we give one system the more its distortions become apparent. This doesn’t mean replacing Ofsted with another quango or reforming Ofsted so that it still has the same influence but judges in a different way (though that is no reason not to look at it, this is not an argument for retaining apparent flaws if they can be addressed) It means having other credible measures also in place.

What other credible measures could be put in place? Well, a school could release data on staff CPD and improvement figures (e.g. ‘5’ staff achieved QTS, 3 an MA, 13 were judged outstanding through the school’s own appraisal procedures), and headline data of the school’s own self assessment and its areas of focus for improvement. L.A.s could inspect all the schools in their area especially if they are expected to have some sort of overseeing role, if not L.A.s then some other organisation and this data should be published in the same way as Ofsted publish their findings. The Good School’s Guide and other credible private providers could also have a role in similar processes, though I do think schools can get carried away by having a fetishistic collection of symbols on their letter headings. Some providers should be seen as more equal than others in a school’s assessment. These ‘headline’ figures could be viewed in the same way as nutritional information on food packaging. When I’m shopping I take notice of the traffic light ‘headlines’ of amounts linked to GDA’s though I am sure there are many flaws in this system they allow me to get an overview as well as take notice of the particular things I’m trying to get or avoid.

By having more ‘higher stake’ inspections and by publishing more data a school will deal with the stress of inspection far better, the more judgements there are, the less ‘shocking’ the experience. The more variety in the feedback helps the institution to become more ‘anti-fragile’. Currently far too much rests on Ofsted, a bad report can leave a school reeling.

On another matter I do think teachers need feedback on how they are doing; unfortunately there are few schools that get this right. Our schools are far too ‘time poor’ with people running about chasing paper and spending time with children in classrooms rather than investing in the adult human relationships that are so essential in healthy organisations. Often staff appraisal is put on the back burner whilst the school gets on with the day to day and this leads to a crisis of hurried formal ‘observations’ rather than the important informal conversations in and around each other’s classrooms. People who don’t work in schools have little idea of how few minutes are spent sharing ideas, giving feedback and support with one’s colleagues in a relaxed manner. Teachers spend too long at the ‘chalk face’ or are too busy planning, marking, trying to keep their family relationships from falling apart to develop properly professionally.

Which brings me to this point: if Government wants to improve schools and sustain improvement, instead of throwing money at, say, interactive whiteboards it would begin to invest more in giving teachers ‘space’ away from teaching. I think One and a Half school days minimum, per teacher, per week should just about do it. Oh, and no cover… and no endless, pointless meetings… and… ad infinitum…