The Social Construction of OFSTED reports – Part three: data and practice

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 using a number of pedagogic concepts that are being 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 this has left OFSTED with a problem, my contention is that OFSTED reports are essentially socially constructed and and that as a consequence the objective knowledge available to the profession is conceptually incoherent. I have suggested that this has led to a form of pedagogic illiteracy (see: The Social Construction of OFSTED reports – Part two: Pedagogic Illiteracy)

In this blog I would like to explore whether OFSTED reports reflect some kind of reality or alternatively are socially constructed to offer a justification of  longer term data variation. In other words does OFSTED see teaching practice that explains data or just constructs a narrative to justify data.

It’s not easy, if an organisation is socially constructing reality, relating  data to practice, it’s difficult to prove, one way or another, without some kind of independent corroboration from other sources. Of course there isn’t any. I can only offer as evidence, inconsistencies or even unlikely consistencies in OFSTED reports themselves.

I would like to look at one OFSTED report, Marlwood School in Bristol. Marlwood School is a larger-than-average secondary school. Most students are of White British heritage and the number of students whose first language is not English is well below the national average. Students come from a wide range of backgrounds and circumstances, but overall, the socio-economic circumstances of students are above average.

As before, 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 inspections completed at the end of November  or early December 2013 and posted on the OFSTED web site in the second week of January. There were relatively few reports published in that week and none subsequently (see: Scenes from the Battleground), so far. This was the first report I looked at with this objective in mind.

Fig 1 shows the data related to 5+ A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including English and Maths for this school. There is considerable variation, 13 percentage points within 6 years. During that period there were  3 OFSTED inspections the school leader was the same (2004 – 2014) but  left shortly after the inspection. Throughout the period OFSTED claimed that teaching and learning at the school was either good or improving.

Now I know that this is just one set of figures and school results fluctuate but it is the headline data used by OFSTED and the media.

Percentage achieving 5+ A*-C GCSEs (or equivalent) including English and maths GCSEs 2006 2007 2008






59% 55% 54% 62% 67% 57% 55%


49.2% 56% 55.5% 56.4%

England – All Schools

49.8% 53.5% 59% 59.4%

The three reports are considered here:

Satisfactory – 2008 (55%)

Below are the comments related to teaching and learning from the OFSTED report of 2008. The headline data at that point was on a slight decline but slightly above the local and national averages. Teaching and learning is only satisfactory but (apparently) improving.

Essentially, sessions are well planned, there are good learning relationships and progress is checked with good questioning. Despite this there seems to be significant areas of poor teaching and low level disruption.

This seems to be because of a lack of challenge and pace, work not tailored to student needs and marking does not show learners how to improve their work.

           OFSTED REPORT – 2008

Teaching and learning are satisfactory and improving. Good relationships exist between students and teachers, especially in the sixth form. The majority of lessons, both in the main school and the sixth form, are well planned around clear learning outcomes.

They contain a wide range of challenging and interesting activities. Students enjoy their work in these lessons and work hard and enthusiastically to achieve their targets.Teachers’ questioning is effective in checking students’ progress and resources such as the interactive whiteboard are used well. However, there is significant variation in the quality of teaching across the school and too many lessons are only satisfactory.

In these lessons, students are not engaged sufficiently as there is a lack of challenge and pace is not quick enough. Students do not concentrate as much as they should, they sometimes become restless and occasionally low-level disruption occurs. Work set is also not always tailored to the full range of students’ needs.

Students are aware of their targets and the progress they are making towards meeting these. Most marking is helpful and informative.However, this is not consistently the case across the school and so students are not always clear about what they must do to improve the quality of their work.

Good – 2010 (62%)

By 2010 the school has improved to Good. Essentially sessions are well planned, there are good learning relationships and progress is checked good assessment. There is still low level disruption but this is now managed effectively.

Activities are still not tailored to student needs and there are still inconsistencies in marking. In addition there is a new problem identified and that is whole class teaching.

 In reality, bearing in mind that the reports are written by different teams, at different times, structured by different formats and with different outcomes they are very similar.

 OFSTED report 2010

Teachers convey clear expectations to students on how they expect them to learn and behave. They manage behaviour well and ensure that any incidents of poor behaviour do not interfere with learning.

Teachers deploy teaching assistants well to ensure all students can access the lesson.Lessons are well prepared and teachers make good use of an extensive range of information and communication technology to stimulate students.

Lessons have differentiated objectives which are routinely shared with the students but there is less consistency in the way in which teachers make use of activities which challenge all students and which provide support for lower-ability students.

This tends to be the case when students have insufficient opportunity to work other than as a whole class.

 A range of assessment opportunities are used in the majority of subjects and consistently effectively so in English.Marking is regular but there are some inconsistencies in the marking of students’ work and in the detail of the feedback.

Requires Improving – 2013  (55%)

By 2013 the tone has changed considerably. Teaching has not been consistently good over time to lead to good progress for all students. Obviously “over” time here must mean 3 years because it was good in the previous report on the back of significant rises in GCSE passes.

Although improving, too much teaching requires improvement. This is quite an assertion considering that in 2010 it was good. In effect it’s gone from good, to worse than “needs improving” and now just “needs improving”.

Pace and challenge is still a problem (as it was in 2008) and so is whole class teaching (as it was in 2010 albeit now called independent learning). Misbehaviour is back again (as it was in 2008) and the marking is a problem as it has been in both (2008 and 2010).


Although improving, teaching has not been consistently good enough over time to lead to good progress for all students. Too much teaching requires improvement, and some is inadequate.

Where teaching requires improvement, teachers do not always use assessment data to plan activities which meet the needs and abilities of students. In these lessons all students follow the same work regardless of their ability so there is a lack of pace and challenge to learning for some students. As a result, some students lose enthusiasm and focus

In the best lessons, teachers plan engaging and challenging activities from the beginning. Their positive relationships with students allow them to move the learning forward at a good pace. Regular use of appropriate praise encourages students to contribute, and skilful questioning deepens students’ learning. Opportunities for students to check their own and others’ learning open a dialogue about the ways in which learning is taking place. This allows students to make good progress.

For example, in an outstanding mathematics lesson, Year 12 students made excellent progress as a result of effective challenge and a brisk pace. The lesson was planned with the students’ prior knowledge in mind and questioning was targeted so that all students gained a deep understanding of the topic.

In the less effective lessons, students do not get enough opportunities to take responsibility for their own learning by working independently or in groups to research and explore new ideas and topics themselves.

Teachers do not give students enough opportunity to drive their own learning and students are too passive. As a result, they lose interest and sometimes resort to small misbehaviours.

Marking is too variable in quality across subjects. In the best marking, teachers give good feedback on what students are doing well and explain clearly what they need to do to improve their work to the next level. However, in too many cases, marking involves little more than a few ticks and some comments of praise without giving students any guidance on how to improve and move forward.

Following a review of teaching in the last academic year, supported by the local authority, the school now has an accurate school now has an accurate picture of its strengths and areas to improve and has set about making effective use of its best teachers to support and develop colleagues. The quality of teaching in the school is starting to improve.

OFSTED: fit for purpose?

I think there is a similarity between the criticisms in 2008 and 2013, even so, what we are expected to believe is that over a period of 5 years, teaching and learning, at the school needed improving, then improved to good and then fell back again displaying many of the problems in 2013 as it did in 2008, in line with longer term data variation.

Of course it’s possible.  And that’s the conundrum. Are we seeing a reality whereby teaching practice correlates to data or are we seeing a socially constructed narrative written to create a correlation between teaching practice and data? That is key to ascertaining whether OFSTED is fit for purpose or otherwise.

Your guess is as good as mine, but it seems that OFSTED’s admission that it cannot highlight a particular type of teaching without “unequivocal” evidence that it is “slowing learning”, is an admission of sorts that it doesn’t believe its own reports, it would be in good company.

Michael Wilshaw himself, described how effective didactic teaching has been in the schools he managed. A word that you will never see in an OFSTED report other than in a negative sense, “too much teacher talk”. Indeed if you look at the reports above, you do wonder whether is it likely that the use of “assessment data” as opposed to say, knowing your students would really make a difference over a period of time. Do colleagues really need data to monitor the pace of a session and make a judgement on whether they are losing learners as opposed to say, just looking at what is happening in front of them. Is independent learning always going to deliver better results? You have to be a little bit suspicious that these ideas are fanciful.

It is arguable that a Watchdog should be just that and do little other than to reflect the reality of the profession or industry it regulates. In OFSTED’s case though, it is already clear that it has a huge impact on the profession. For good or otherwise, is a matter of opinion. One of OFSTED’s main priorities should be to generate data, identifying the relationship  between practice and successful outcomes, so that it can contribute meaningful data to practice. At the moment few take it seriously because, and let’s be honest it produces precious little to take seriously.

The problem it seems to me is that having turned itself into a distributed quasi consultancy with a leader who has a fondness for generating headlines,  I wonder whether it really is fit for purpose. Either way OFSTED seems to be at a turning point.

“Infantilising the profession”? Pot and kettle, Mr Wilshaw. OFSTED seems to have opened Pandora’s box (see: Has OFSTED opened pandora’s box?) and now it needs to make the decision whether it is to be  recognised as a serious player that contributes to better practice, or as it is increasingly being known as, a  “cut and paste” consultancy that does as much ill, as it does good.


5 thoughts on “The Social Construction of OFSTED reports – Part three: data and practice

    1. Read and agree totally. OFSTED often cite their own statistics as evidence of their success as an institution.

      In fact often Wilshaw cites some aspect of schools that is terrible (such as behaviour) and then has his own statistics thrown back at him.”How can that be when 80 per cent of schools are good or better blah blah blah”.

      He Justifies this by saying that OFSTED’s criterion are on an upward scale. In other words whenever he has a bee in his bonnet the good that was, is now not good enough. It’s risible really.

      Anyway keep it coming it’s good stuff.

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