The social construction of OFSTED reports part two: pedagogic illiteracy

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 has advised against using a number of pedagogic concepts used by Inspectors to justify their judgements. In my previous blog: The social construction of OFSTED reports – part one: the conceptual fallacy I argued that OFSTED reports are essentially socially constructed, that is, they conform to a body of knowledge constructed largely by the government and policymakers of the day, and then subjectively interpreted by inspection teams.

In this blog, I would like to develop the concept that policymakers essentially construct conceptual fallacies and suggest that as a consequence the pedagogic knowledge available to the profession is conceptually incoherent, a form of pedagogic illiteracy. In other words, by creating a subculture based upon a narrowly defined framework of knowledge, and allowing the subjective interpretation of it, OFSTED has created a discourse far removed from established norms of intelligent discourse.

In order to illustrate, I would like to use one OFSTED report, St Paul’s Catholic School in Milton Keynes. This is a fascinating report or it could be if it was anything like coherent.

I would like to make it clear that I haven’t gone searching for the reports I have used in these blogs. They are all from recently completed inspections. There were relatively few reports published but still, there is plenty to give teachers who are concerned for their profession much to worry about.

St Paul’s is a long standing Grade one outstanding school described in an OFSTED report in 2008 as:  a very special place where students are encouraged, in the school’s own words, ‘to do the best that is possible’. It provides them with an outstanding education, both academically and personally. 

However, since then results have (arguably) flatlined (see Fig one):

Percentage achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including English and maths GCSEs















England – All Schools





Fig 1: Department of Education 2014

The OFSTED report is somewhat complicated by the fact that the school’s leader, is a National Leader in education and is currently working with other schools. In other words, this is a high stakes school with a renowned leader and a history of outstanding inspections. If there was one report that was likely to be scrutinised, surely you would think it would be this one.

It’s also important to note that there are a couple of points of contention. In a letter to parents from the school’s leader (available on the school’s website) two areas of improvement advocated by OFSTED are challenged.

This bullet point from the OFSTED report:

There are not enough opportunities in lessons for students to talk about their work and to work independently. Teachers do not consistently use questioning to challenge thinking and move learning on.

Responded to by this comment from the headteacher:

There is an action mentioned in the report regarding questioning in the classroom. However it was mentioned in the feedback from inspectors as an area for improvement in 2 out of 40 lessons but commented on positively in 10 out of 40 lessons.

Also from the OFSTED report:

The sixth form requires improvement as students do not achieve well enough on all courses.

Responded to by this comment from the headteacher:

The progress of A-level students in 2010 – 2012 placed St Paul’s in the top 15% of schools nationally according to external measures yet this is given as an area of improvement.

Regardless of the above, I’m going to focus on the comments about teaching and learning titled: The quality of teaching – requires improvement. It consists of six bullet-pointed passages. The basic object of the exercise is to see whether it is possible to fathom what has happened to the teaching and learning at the school since its outstanding inspection of 2008.

In the first passage(see below) we see the legitimated constructs that now proliferate in OFSTED reports such as opportunities in lessons for students to talk, work independently and actively engaged in the learning process.

My guess is that if you have a conceptual framework that consists of a small number of legitimated concepts (such as these)  any problems , whether data or otherwise will be interpreted through the prism of those constructs.

Anyway here goes:

Bullet point one: There is not enough consistently good teaching at all key stages and across subjects for students to make consistently good progress. Teachers do not have high enough expectations and do not plan lessons which are challenging enough for all students, particularly the most able. There are very few opportunities in lessons for students to talk about what they are doing and to work independently so they are more actively engaged in the learning process.

Some of the thoughts that go through my mind as I read this text are: does anyone really believe that an outstanding school with a supposedly “outstanding” leader has failed to progress between 2008 and 2013 because the teachers at the school either never knew or have completely forgotten that learners should work independently or that they should be allowed to talk. Why do teachers not have high enough expectations? What has happened to the culture of the school?

And then I think some more: what exactly is the school doing to learners gagging them at the gate and talking at them incessantly for 6 hours. Would any serious teaching professional faced with the circumstances of this school really attempt to analyse issues with teaching and learning from the premises outlined above?

And then I think some more: why are teachers not planning lessons properly; they were given a grade 1 in 2008, have all the good teachers left? Or have they all forgotten it was such a long time ago? Is there a culture in the school that encourages very prescriptive delivery?

So many questions; so few answers……..!

In the next bullet point, we have fairly random sentences glued together into an incoherent whole. The first point is about questioning techniques (disputed by the school leader), and the straight onto working “neatly” in Math. Is there a correlation between the two?

Bullet point two: Teachers do not use a range of questioning skills to help students understand work and to develop students’ learning. In the mathematics department, staff have high expectations of work in books and students present their work neatly. Work is regularly marked by teachers with next steps for students, and this is starting to improve progress in the department. However, across the rest of the school, students do not routinely receive high-quality feedback that helps them understand how to improve their work and move it up to the next level. Consequently, students do not take responsibility for improving their own progress.

This paragraph, at least, does point to a way forward for the school. And it’s this, if teachers tell students how to get to the “next level”, they will get to the “next level”. You do wonder what has happened to this formerly outstanding school that they now fail to see the wisdom in such sage advice.

A failure of teachers to tell students how to get to the “next level” has meant that students have not been able to get to the “next level” and hence…….(legitimated concept coming your way)……. (they) do not take responsibility for improving their own progress.

The more pedantic amongst us may wonder what the difference between “progress” and “improving their own progress” is? One sounds superficially more impressive than the other. Maybe it’s my obtuse mind but I can’t quite see how telling someone what to do is facilitating them take (ing) responsibility for improving their own progress”.

So far so good we have learned this much about teaching and learning at this school, that is, since 2008 when the school was a “special place” to be”, just about the whole schools has started giving really rubbish feedback and learners can’t progress as a consequence.

Having managed two bullet points largely about what needs improving we are onto school strengths. Amazingly despite the fact that learners aren’t allowed to talk, or think independently or even perhaps because of, we find out that there are good learning relationships:

Bullet point three: Strengths of teaching across the school are the subject knowledge of staff and positive relationships between staff and students. In the teaching of vocational qualifications, where students achieve particularly well, one-to-one support for individuals is a strength, helping them to make faster progress.

Of course a cynic might suggest that vocational qualifications lend themselves (quite rightly) to the kind of teaching called for here often having no exams or indeed (these days) external verification. You do wonder if underlying these comments are pointers to the real issue as to why the school has flat lined since 2008. Not that I’m against vocational qualifications, quite the opposite.

The next bullet point is completely incoherent:

Bullet point four: In the better teaching, particular strengths are the carefully targeted activities which support all students making good progress, and opportunities to work in pairs, groups or independently. For example, in a Year 8 geography lesson linking different themes, students used a variety of activities and had opportunities to work independently and in pairs, which helped them to make good progress.

This is just a list of concepts used without context and with no real evidence that there use would …………….legitimated construct coming your way…………make good progress.

I think what this inspector is essentially saying is the street equivalent of “init yo bruv, down in the ghetto, we az street fights init bruv, doing the deals and walking tall”, or something similar, which clearly means something if you have some kind of usable representation of the concepts employed in that statement but are otherwise fairly meaningless. Quite possibly meaningless to the people who are using them.

Moving swiftly on:

Bullet point five: Teaching is also mixed in the sixth form and there is not enough that is good across all subject areas for students to make good progress. There were examples of stronger teaching, particularly in Year 13, for example, in a media lesson where students were examining coursework questions. They worked in groups to discuss students’ answers using questions to get them to think about different aspects of the writing and the exam mark scheme to assess the work. They were encouraged to discuss and share their ideas. The teacher questioned students expertly both in the group sessions and as a class, supporting students in learning from each other and to think more deeply. As a result, they made good progress.

I think this is really talking about directed peer assessment. I’ve used techniques like this myself prior to an exam or just before work is to be submitted. It is really a form of gaming the assessment. Of course in an ideal world assessment would be so refined it did just that, assessed, but we all know that assessment can be as important as learning if the assessment is clumsy enough to force teachers to have to teach to it.

I mean it’s not as though you can argue with it, teaching to the assessment, you can’t. I suspect what this statement is really saying is that “teachers were on the ball” and as a consequence a learner, …..wait for it………….makes good progress. Is there much point in giving one example to give credence to the view that the sixth form is crap? Does every meaningless concept really exist just to legitimise the construct “learners make progress”, however unrelated?

Of course, I would suspect that the inference is that good progress was made I doubt whether there is any correlation between delivery and progress. Except longer term data (which is where we started from at the top of the blog).  As David Didau demonstrated in The Learning Spy ……… progress and learning are difficult concepts to quantify in the “here and now”!

Anyway finally……!

Bullet point six: “Students in the units receive support from highly skilled teaching assistants. They support students in lessons and in additional time outside lessons so students learn well. In a particularly strong session as part of a Year 10 English lesson, a student was encouraged effectively by the teaching assistant to understand the text and worked with them in a debriefing session after the lesson to make sure all aspects of the lessons were covered. This ensured excellent progress. “

Students were assisted to understand the text (somehow) and ……(can I be bothered)….. excellent progress was made.

And there it is. I don’t feel that I truly understand why an outstanding school with a (supposed) outstanding leader flatlined and earned itself a 3 in teaching and learning. I think it’s possible, even likely, that the school warranted a 3. No doubt there are occasions when teachers talk too much or do not give enough space to learners to engage in a learning conversation, on the other hand, I also suspect that teachers also talk too little or give too much time to undirected study.

In essence, OFSTED Inspectors are saying little more than “blah blah blah learner makes progress” or don’t as the case may be. It is a ghettoising of pedagogy. A language constructed external to intelligent debate to enforce power structures and to give credence to the thoughts of politicians and policymakers who don’t know much about education but do need to appear to know what they are talking about.

That is why OFSTED have prescribed so many concepts and that is why blogging OFSTED Inspectors (I won’t name them) wonder about the impact OFSTED has on the institutions they inspect. Quite simply OFSTED has created an environment where lots of education professionals talk complete gibberish about teaching and learning. Teachers are infected with a kind of pedagogic illiteracy, they fail to engage with their own body of pedagogic knowledge and refuse to buy into evidence-based practice because they no longer fundamentally believe in the objective knowledge that is available to them.

It is a tragedy for the profession.


I hit publish rather than preview. If there are typos and “whatnots” I abstain from all responsibility.


3 thoughts on “The social construction of OFSTED reports part two: pedagogic illiteracy

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