The Social construction of OFSTED reports – Part Four: Imprisoned by Language

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.

I argue that this has led to OFSTED developing conceptual fallacies (The Social Construction of OFSTED reports – Part one: The Conceptual Fallacy), 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 my last blog I explored whether OFSTED reports reflect any kind of reality or alternatively simply exist to justify longer term data variation (see: The Social Construction of OFSTED reports – Part three: Data and Practice).

In this blog I am going to make the argument that OFSTED’s problem lies not with teaching style, or with the objectivity of OFSTED observations, but with the relationship between cognition and social hierarchies.

On his blog, Scenes from the Battleground, Old Andrew is pursuing OFSTED with the ruthless prowess of a lioness hunting a petrified Gazelle. The terrified prey has few options other than to run at full tilt in an empty headed panic towards it’s own demise.

This quote is from an OFSTED report, also referred to in Old Andrew’s latest blog OFSTED Quotations About Independence:

Students and staff are clear that good behaviour in lessons has contributed to the good progress that students are now making. It is also clear in the pride students have in the appearance of their uniform, the neat presentation over time of work in their books and how well prepared they are for their lessons. Behaviour is not outstanding because students across the school have yet to demonstrate through their progress exceptional independence and consistently strong attitudes to their learning.

Now I admit I didn’t believe Old Andrew. My faith was shaken.  So I checked and there it is in black and white.  Surely no one could be that stupid in the current climate. I mean, I work in education where “Stupid” is mentioned as “Desirable” in HR Person Specifications. Even I was shocked. Is there a correlation between independent learning and behaviour in a school, which sounds implausibly well behaved? Does this make any sense whatsoever?

However, I don’t regard this as primarily an issue of teaching style. Nor of objectivity; rather I see it as a fundamental problem of social hierarchies. Vygotsky writing in his book “Thought and Language” described (but did not use the phrase) “psychological tools”.  That is to say, cognitive tools that are used as conceptual representations of some aspect knowledge or other.

So here we see:

  • Behaviour
  • Outstanding
  • Progress
  • Independence
  • Learning

These are all legitimised concepts that works in the context where they work (echoes of Wittgenstein here I admit) but not in the context that they are used here (i.e.) in this OFSTED report. In a previous blog I describe this as conceptual incoherence. Inspectors are imprisoned in a hierarchical structure that has decided that its own legitimised cognitive constructs are not in fact true.

Inspectors, like petrified Gazelles are left with few options other than to run full tilt with what they know. The alternatives are to write something so empty of content that it would be somewhat embarrassing; or to write something completely different and face the wrath of the hierarchy because they had contravened some other social norm or other.

What we are in effect seeing is a social group imprisoned by language. You could describe it as OFSTEDish, a language that  has meaning in its own context but none to the casual or even moderately intelligent reader. It’s not that OFSTED inspectors have a progressive approach to teaching and learning. I doubt whether they have any fixed ideas about anything, but rather that in the absence of an alternative they are stuck with OFSTEDish.

Someone somewhere is going to have to re-write new frameworks and legitimised constructs. Someone somewhere is going to have to re-invent OFSTEDish. What we are in effect seeing is a battle to own the pedgaogic knowledge of OFSTED. Mr Wilshaw maybe “spitting blood” but he is now in a political and not a pedagogic war. Good luck to him, he is going to need it.


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