Yesterday I attended a conference on reading organised by the London Association for the Teaching of English (LATE)
at which, Philip Jarrett Ofsted's lead English inspector gave a fascinating talk about the future of inspections. He said many things but what stuck out above all else was the fact that what has been considered an "outstanding" lesson will almost certainly be graded as sub-standard in future inspections. Jarrett was very careful with his words and wouldn't let me tape-record his talk but he definitely hinted -- with non-verbal gestures -- that it was quite possible that inspectors had graded as "outstanding" what was not, in his view, "outstanding" teaching at all. The chief thrust of his talk was that the "all-singing, all-dancing" lesson where English teachers took pupils along a rollercoaster of activities, moving quickly from one activity to another, often after 5 or 10 minutes, will NOT be judged as "outstanding" in the future. The problem that Ofsted now has with such lessons is that they don't allow pupils to read, write or discuss a topic or text in sufficient depth. The audience, most of whom were secondary English teachers like me, were quite pleased to hear this because it's what they have been thinking for years but dare not say. Many teachers in the audience complained that the Senior Leadership Teams (SLT) in their schools, other Ofsted inspectors and sundry advisors had all insisted that the "all-singing, all-dancing" lesson was the one that would get them a great grade in a lesson observation. Jarrett conceded that this may be true, but that if an inspector felt that children didn't have time to write anything in a sustained fashion, or to read in depth, then the lesson, no matter how wonderful in its activities, would be not be given the top category. He cited a lesson plan which is in his report, Moving English Forward
(p.12). It's worth quoting this in full to give you an idea of what he was talking about. Here's the plan:
"The lesson involved a Year 9 class working on techniques of persuasive writing. The lesson was planned in detail.
The first phase involved an explanation of the learning objectives and a starter activity where students worked in groups to complete a card-sort activity. In the next phase of the lesson, students used a grid to identify persuasive devices on mini whiteboards. The teacher then took them quickly through the criteria for assessment at Levels 5–7 and gave students examples of extracts from two essays on capital punishment.
Students were asked to choose the more effective piece, linking it to the assessment criteria. They were then asked to produce at least one paragraph of writing on the topic of capital punishment.
In the final part of the lesson, students were asked to peer-mark two other students’ work, then to look at and review their own work and check the comments. One further activity was introduced before students were asked to say what they had learnt in the lesson. The lesson closed with a final activity where students revised persuasive techniques on the board."
As can be seen, it's a frenetic lesson, which scarcely gives the teacher or pupils time to breathe -- let alone reflect upon any persuasive techniques. But it is also the kind of lesson plan that used to be handed out to English teachers as a "model" or paradigm of how a lesson should be. It's still the kind of lesson that SLT expect to see when doing a lesson observation I think; it proves that the teacher is really doing something. However, one wonders how much learning is going on here. This is exactly Jarrett's point; I had to agree with him. It's never been my preferred way of teaching. I've always thought that pupils need to draw key points out of a text for themselves and have the time and room to make their own mistakes, and to write in a sustained fashion. This was how I was trained over twenty years ago to teach English. It's a way of teaching that has fallen out of fashion. Jarrett had particular concerns for what he called "PEEing"; this is when English teachers teach pupils to make a "Point", provide "Evidence", then "Explain" how the "Evidence" backs up their "Point". It is the staple of how to train pupils to pass GCSE and A Level English. Many teachers are now teaching this way at Key Stage 3, asking their pupils to "PEE" in Year 7. Again, I've always been quite against this, particularly in the lower years when the enjoyment of reading and writing should be emphasized. Once again Jarrett agreed with me! Ofsted are now going to be examining schools to see whether they instil a love of reading in their pupils. Hurrah!
Let's hope that Jarrett's recommendations in Moving English Forward are taken seriously by the profession. I firmly believe that they are right; this is the way to improve the quality of teaching. What he's saying is what many English teachers have been doing secretly for years. Now they can be public about it.