Teaching…….Ofsted style

The Chief Inspector of Schools in the UK, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has repeatedly claimed that Ofsted no longer prefers a certain style of teaching. He even told a recent education conference that any individual inspectors who disagreed with his stance had been “rooted out”. Yet concerns persist that Ofsted inspections are reinforcing prejudice against traditional teacher-led lessons in state schools.

In a new report from a UK Think Tank Civitas, Playing the Game  research fellow  Robert Peal investigates the extent to which inspectors’ preferences are continuing to creep into their judgements. His findings are worrying, pointing to considerable evidence that the bias towards unproven child-led teaching methods still persists.


Child-centred methods have often been characterised as allowing pupils to proceed at their own pace and make discoveries independent of the teacher. Ofsted inspectors have a clear preference for child-centred teaching methods, which is proving persistent despite repeated calls for it to change.

This finding is based on an analysis of 260 Ofsted inspections of secondary schools carried out between 2013 and 2014  and a ‘call for evidence’ amongst teachers of recently inspected schools.
In 2013, 52 % of secondary school inspection reports showed a preference for lessons in which pupils learned ‘independently’ from teacher instruction. In addition, 42 % of reports showed a preference for group work; 18 % criticised lessons where teachers talked too much; and 18 % criticised lessons in which pupils were ‘passive’. Within the entire sample of 130 reports from 2013, there was only one example of an inspector recommending a more teacher-led, and less child-centred approach.

Earlier this year, Ofsted answered the complaints that Ofsted inspectors harbour a preference for ‘progressive, child-centred learning’ by claiming that such concerns are ‘unwarranted and over the top’ (Griffiths, S., Schools watchdog at war with Gove,  Sunday Times, 26 January 2014). This research shows that such concerns were in fact justified.

Chief Inspector recognizes the problem

There are grounds for believing that the Chief Inspector Wilshaw recognises this is a problem. In January 2014, he wrote a letter to his inspectors stating, ‘please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.’ (Vaughan, R., Irritated’ Wilshaw writes to inspectors to tell them not to prescribe ‘teaching styles, Times Educational Supplement, 27 January 2014).
To measure the impact of Wilshaw’s intervention, the Civitas report has also analysed a second sample of 130 reports of secondary schools inspected since January 2014. Every indicator of a preference for child-centred teaching fell significantly, aside from group work for which there was still a preference in 38 % of reports.

Change is superficial

However, further research suggests that this change in the language of written reports is superficial. The report can reveal that since May, lead inspectors have been provided with a list of ‘banned phrases’, such as ‘teacher talk dominates too many lessons’ and ‘children do not have enough opportunities to be engaged in independent learning’, along with suggested alternatives such as ‘the teacher does give pupils enough time to practise new skills [sic]’.
On more than one occasion, inspection reports have been edited after publication to expunge examples of child- centred language. Such a shallow approach to combatting the preferred Ofsted style of teaching relies on changing the language of the reports, but allowing the fundamental judgement to remain the same.
Additionally, some respondents to the call for evidence wrote that inspectors are still showing a preference for child-centred teaching in their verbal feedback to teachers and senior leaders. All this evidence suggests that the decline in child-centred language in written reports since Wilshaw’s intervention in January 2014 betrays a change which is more cosmetic than real.

In addition, Watching the watchmen has shown that graded lesson observations are an imperfect science, as more often than not observation judgements do not correspond with the impact of teaching on long-term pupil achievement. This finding suggests that Ofsted inspectors are not capable of grading the quality of teaching within a school in a satisfactory fashion, as such a judgement is both subjective and unreliable.

Osted style

It is the recommendation of Civitas report that the ‘Quality of teaching’ grade be removed from Ofsted inspections, so that schools are judged according to the three remaining criteria: ‘Achievement of pupils’; ‘Behaviour and safety of pupils’ and ‘Leadership and management’. This would alleviate the professional culture created by Ofsted which is distinctly in favour of child-centred teaching methods, and prejudiced against more teacher-led alternatives. Teachers are accustomed to putting on ‘jazzy’ lessons, replete with group-work, role play and active learning in order to fulfil what has become widely acknowledged as the ‘Ofsted style’. So strong is the inspectorate’s reputation for favouring trendy teaching methods that the idea of putting on a ‘chalk and talk’ lesson or learning from a textbook with an Ofsted inspector in the room has become inconceivable within the teaching profession.

Ofsted has been able to alter the whole culture of the teaching profession. This can be dated to Wilshaw’s predecessor, Christine Gilbert, who was a vocal supporter of child- centred teaching methods and, as Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, made it her stated aim to change the way in which teachers teach. It was during this new incarnation under Gilbert that Ofsted gained its new reputation as the ‘child-centred inquisition’.

Teaching to inspection

Though Ofsted may only visit a school every few years, the inspectorate continually haunts the profession, accruing to the Civitas report. For teachers, this is mainly exercised through continuing professional development (CPD) and internal performance management – two processes which in recent years have been compelled to dance to the tune of Ofsted, gearing themselves towards the question ‘what does Ofsted want to see?’
A number of external training providers and popular teachers guides, such as The Perfect Ofsted Lesson and Pimp Your Lesson!, contribute to this culture, de-professionalising teachers and distracting them from considering how children can best learn.
Removing Ofsted’s power to grade the ‘Quality of teaching’ would provide a necessary first step in bringing such a culture to an end, and giving schools the professional autonomy to focus on what teaching methods work best, as opposed to what teaching method Ofsted inspectors wants to see.

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