The Social Construction of OFSTED reports – Part one: The Conceptual Fallacy

On a previous blog posting, Has OFSTED Opened Pandora’s Box, I asked the question of how OFSTED are going to write up reports in the light of their recent advice (see: Scenes From The Battleground particularly : A Christmas Miracle – OFSTED Get It Right For Once).

In essence OFSTED have advised against its own Inspector’s using a number of pedagogic concepts to justify their judgements and have asked Inspectors to provide “unequivocal evidence of “learning”. In my previous blog I argued that this has left OFSTED with a problem because providing “unequivocal evidence” points to data.

In this blog I want to look further at the problem of OFSTED reporting. I intend to argue that OFSTED reports are little more than random concepts strung together and that is why OFSTED has had to advise against using so many of them.

My contention is that OFSTED reports are, essentially, socially constructed.They conform to an objective body of knowledge constructed largely by the government of the day, and then subjectively interpreted by inspection teams. That does not mean that the grades awarded  have no meaning but what it does mean is that often the reports are quite meaningless in their justification of a schools weakness or otherwise.

In this blog I highlight a number of points made in OFSTED reports that essentially use language, which is meaningless. I describe this as a conceptual fallacy; in other words, a concept that has become meaningful as a “thing in itself” that is then used out of context. OFSTED reports are often conceptually incoherent and it matters.

So here goes:

Chipping Sodbury school (5-6 December 2013)

Apparently at Chipping Sodbury school:

Lessons are well planned. In an outstanding English lesson, students worked in pairs and used a poetry ‘toolkit’ to explore the themes of a range of new poems. They made excellent progress and were able to use examination criteria to judge their success. However, this practice is not shared more widely across the school so that all staff have equal levels of pace, challenge and questioning.

Is there a single person in education who thinks that all staff should have “equal levels of pace, challenge and questioning”? Do the initial sentences bear any relation to the last one? Is it a good thing that examination criteria is used to judge success?

Richard Rose Morton Academy (26 – 27 November 2013)

Meanwhile Richard Rise academy got a grade 4 based upon 34 part lessons taught by 33 different teachers over two days. Interestingly from those 34 lessons the inspectors felt able to make this comment:

As a result of too much teaching that fails to inspire and ignite their enthusiasm, students’ behaviour is poor. Too many lessons are disrupted by a minority of students whose needs are not being met and, as a consequence, their progress and that of others is weak. Yet there are examples of these same students behaving well and enjoying their learning when the teaching is at least good.

I think most thoughtful educationalists would shy away from a comment linking behaviour to a “failure to inspire”.

I think most of us would admit that more often than not we “fail to inspire”. Poor behaviour is not caused by a “failure to inspire” and a lack of “ignited enthusiasm”. If it was we would all be in trouble.

The Bushey Academy (11–12 December 2013)

Meanwhile at the Bushey academy:

Teaching in the sixth form is good because teachers use a variety of resources, including multi-media clips, to build upon and extend students’ learning. Students are encouraged to develop their evaluative skills by offering their own individual responses to their studies.

Again these are essentially meaningless sentences. Using “multimedia” clips is not “in itself” a good thing nor is using a variety of resources. It looks as though, the use of multimedia clips, has been attached to a pedagogic virtue “extending students learning” to give the former some purpose.

Multimedia clips are a method of delivering content. They only extend students learning when they are incorporated into a purposeful task. The suspicion is that we have two concepts put together simply to make the point that teaching was good in the sixth form.

Does anyone really accept the point that teaching is good because sixth from teachers use a variety of resources such as multimedia clips?

Gladesmore community school  (4−5 December 2013)

 Lest I get too cynical, well done Gladesmore community school, awarded “Outstanding” after a December observation. The only reservation being that learners should:

“…refine the quality of teaching even more by ensuring that students are given time to reflect on their answers and develop their understanding through routinely being enabled to respond to their teachers’ comments”.

No doubt this is a fantastic school but being able to routinely respond to a teacher would surely be the minimum required in a civilised society, never mind the only improvement required of an outstanding school

Apparently at the school:

“…….teachers offer high-quality marking and feedback both verbally and in the written comments they give. In the best practice, students are shown what they need to do to improve their work and often encouraged to reflect and respond to comments, but this was not typical.

 Hmmm so the best practice is not typical even in a grade 1 school. If  at Gladesmore community school the:

best practice, (is where) students are shown what they need to do to improve their work and often encouraged to reflect and respond etc”

…..at Kelmscott School, inspected on the same day, 5 December 2013:

whilst at Kelmscoft School (4−5 December 2013)

“the best practice includes self- and peer-assessment so that students are fully involved in their own assessment and appreciate exactly what they have to do to improve”.

Confused? You will be.

If this apparent contradiction seems a bit, well, contradictory International School (4−5 December 2013) inspected on the 3rd and 4th of December 2013, inspectors found:

“….some good marking, and teachers generally help students to understand the levels at which they are working. Feedback is not always specific enough about what needs to improve, and there are few examples of students responding to marking and verbal advice.”

Sounds pretty bad to me, students not responding to any kind of feedback.  Not to worry because in the next paragraph:

“The school has encouraged questioning that involves all pupils, and this was seen in many lessons. There was also a considerable amount of enthusiasm seen for learning; teachers make it clear that they are ambitious for all students to succeed.”

There is a considerable amount of enthusiasm for learning but not for listening or paying any attention to teachers?

Robert Blake Science College (5 December 2013)

Still by the time we get to  Robert Blake Science College, the inspector is ending sentences with prepositions:

“the quality of teaching has not been consistently high enough to enable all pupils to reach the standards they are capable of”.

Presumably, somewhere out there is a device that knows what pupils are “capable of”.

At this point I lost the will to live. The point is, and I hope I’ve demonstrated it here, is that often OFSTED reports are meaningless, particularly when you consider the limited amount of time and number of observations used to make those judgements.

Quite simply teaching and learning doesn’t exist external to the social situation in which it occurs. That includes;  school ethos, behaviour policy, management and the attitudes prevalent in the community of the school intake. Schools don’t have endemic bad behaviour because teachers aren’t allowing learners to respond adequately. It’s because  the culture of the school has become dysfunctional, which then impacts upon teaching and learning and then of course,  behaviour.

It’s quite possible that the school has such a poor reputation that it cannot recruit and retain good staff. Is there much point in trotting out meaningless fallacies such as “there was no independent thinking” or “not enough group work” when a school is struggling to recruit staff.

We all know this and yet we still read a report that is little more than conceptual fallacies strung together as though it makes sense. It doesn’t. We all know that a sixth form cannot be judged to have good teaching simply because the teachers use multimedia clips observed in what cannot have been more than one or two sessions. Of course,  that is not to say that in some way OFSTED judgements don’t reflect some kind of reality, rather the reports themselves are, well quite frankly  inadequate. So OFSTED is correct to proscribe certain phrases that are meaningless, the problem is that OFSTED reports comprise of little else.


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