Civitas bites back at Chief HMI

Janet Downs's picture
“In reality (naively, it now seems) we were carrying out our study in the belief that Sir Michael had a philosophically similar view and that he was struggling to change Ofsted’s direction because so many of its inspectors were committed to the now-discredited child-led methods of the 1960s and hostile to more-modern teacher-led approaches.”

Dr David G. Green, Director of Civitas

This appears, then, to be the impetus behind Civitas’s inquiry into Ofsted: its disappointment that Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, has not denounced the allegedly “now-discredited child-led methods of the 1960s”.

Presumably Dr Green means Plowden which, as Professor Robin Alexander explains here, has been misrepresented by both over-enthusiastic advocates (those who “jumped on the bandwagon but cannot play the instruments”) and those who claim Plowden promoted unstructured permissiveness.

But Sir Michael has not condemned such methods. Instead, he’s issued a letter saying inspectors must not comment on teaching styles. Unfortunately, it appears the message hasn’t got through to some inspectors: some recent Ofsted reports were removed from Ofsted’s website and edited to eradicate such comments.

Sir Michael’s prohibition on judgements of teaching styles is apparently insufficient to satisfy Civitas. Perhaps they hoped Sir Michael would go further and denounce the teaching methods that it and Education Secretary Michael Gove dislike.

But he didn’t. In fact, he went further and said rather combatively, ‘I am not having government or anyone else tell inspectors what they should assess as good teaching.’

According to Dr Green, this is a sign of the “insolence of the bureaucratic monopolist.” Others might argue Sir Michael was merely asserting his independence.

So, what else is bothering Civitas? Dr Green asserts “at least a third of children in successive year groups have been under-performing in recent years.”

But is Dr Green correct?

Primary performance tables (2013) show 75% of all Key Stage 2 pupils reached Level 4 in Reading, Writing and Maths (RWM). That’s not “at least a third” of all children. However, it’s true that only 63% of disadvantaged children achieved Level 4 in RWM while 80% of advantaged children did so.

But is failure to reach Level 4 necessarily a sign of underperformance? Expected progress is a better measure. According to the 2013 Key Stage 2 tables for pupils in state-funded schools:

Reading: 90% of advantaged pupils and 85% of disadvantaged pupils made expected progress.
Writing: 93% of advantaged pupils and 89% of disadvantaged ones made expected progress.
Maths: 90% of advantaged pupils and 84% of disadvantaged ones make expected progress.

Even the worst of these figures, the 16% of disadvantaged children who didn’t make expected progress in maths, is lower than the “at least a third” cited by Dr Green.

Dr Green says the best teaching is “teacher-led” and I’d agree with that if “teacher-led” meant teachers being able to use their professional judgement to decide which teaching methods to use depending on their pupils, the situation and their preferred teaching style. I’d agree if “teacher-led” meant a structured teaching programme devised by teachers themselves (as opposed to centrally-dictated curricula imposed either by national government or academy chains).

But Dr Green doesn’t mean that. He says “teacher-led” means not being “under bureaucratic control of local government”.

Oh dear. Teachers and schools haven’t been under local government control for decades*.

Despite the inaccurate data, the repetition of the local authority control myth and the misrepresentation of 1960’s pedagogy, it would be unfair to say the only motive for the attack on Ofsted by Civitas was annoyance that Sir Michael didn’t condemn the teaching methods abhorred by Civitas and Gove. Civitas had other concerns which I’ll deal with in a separate post.

*See faq above Do local authorities control their schools?
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 27/01/2014 - 18:16

However some of what DR Green states makes sense/is true. For example.

"Ofsted’s imposition of standards is erratic and often varies with the personal tastes of individual inspectors. The style of inspection should be more about senior teachers giving professional advice to colleagues than grading schools. It’s true that it can be useful to have an agency that says when a school is so inadequate that it ought to be subject to special measures, but Ofsted’s ‘outstanding’, ‘good’ and ‘requires improvement’ categories are too subjective to be of real value."


"In truth, Ofsted was silent during the years when education achievements were falling while the exam results appeared to show rising standards. Ofsted said nothing when exams were being watered down and when the results were being ‘gamed’ in the fifteen years up to 2010. Its silence allowed the public to go on being deceived and many of the officials from that era are still there."

Andy V's picture
Mon, 27/01/2014 - 19:23

Roger, I fear that you are according too much influence to Ofsted:

1. It has never had a say in the content of qualifications or grade boundaries (norm referenced or otherwise)
2. It seems to me that Ofsted has always be focused on the standards of education within schools and not the quality (or otherwise) of qualifications peddled by the examination boards and/or overseen by Ofqual
3. Ofsted and its ISPs subject reports to QA and as such inconsistencies ought to be bowled out at that stage
4. I am at a loss as to the source of your evidence to support the implied criticism that that insufficient numbers of inspectors have 'senior teachers' experience (whatever senior teacher means?)
5. Historically the track record of LEAs can best be characterised as being a patchwork quilt straddling outstanding through wholly inept (with the latter populated by a combination of the old boy network and moving less than competent school based colleagues off the front line into a LEA desk job)

If, as they are supposed to be, the "subjective" grades are premised on school performance and impact on pupil performance and achievement - which is in the public domain - then how can this have no "real value".

What concerns me is that the year on year exam results appear to lack the weight they should have in arriving at judgements.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 27/01/2014 - 21:00

Andy - I have seen glowing Ofsted reports for schools that were drafting most or all of their pupils into BTEC science. Other schools were not allowing pupils to take GCSEs at all unless likely to obtain a C grade. I have never seen an Ofsted report that comments on sometimes outrageously obvious gaming. Such schools have had their curriculum praised in Ofsted reports.

The point about senior teachers is a criticism of the four grade system. In fact there are just two 'pass' grades and two 'fail grades'. All schools are much richer and more complex than that. The system feeds and amplifies baseless league table hysteria.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 27/01/2014 - 22:51

Roger, I have reason to doubt your word but equally there is no timeline in terms of being able to plot the impact of changes to inspection handbook and wider educational changes (e.g. SoS reducing the number and type of qualifications counted in the wretched league tables).

There is an issue as to just how independent Ofsted is but neither HMCI nor the Ofsted the organisation determine the tables and what does and doesn't count.

We are indeed on the same page re tables and their impact. We are closer than you may think about Ofsted issues but hammering Ofsted rather than the SoS is to go for the wrong target.

Yes, MW's strategy regarding some of his pronouncements leave a lot to be but I suspect we both know that there is more than a kernel of truth in what he has said.

My take on the grades is that there are 2 clear passes as you put it and 2 clear fails (remember grade 4 comes in two forms: serious weakness and special measures), and there is what I call limbo of requires improvement, which in truth is neither a pass nor a fail - rather it is a school being given up to 2 years to demonstrate improvement.

I notice that even if Labour sweep to victory they have no stated intention to either stop pressuring teachers (e.g. the re-licencing issue) or scrap/remodel league tables. Neither of these can be dodged by the wannabe SoS

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 08:35

Roger - I did say I would return to Dr Green's remarks later in a separate post. This was to avoid the thread being far too long. The purpose of this thread was to explore:

1 Civitas's objection to what it calls the "now-discredited child-led" orthodoxies of the sixties. Professor Alexander's comments were a springboard for this.
2 Whether it was fair for Civitas to attack Sir Michael because he wouldn't denounce these methods but instead instructed his inspectors not to comment on any teaching styles.
3 The sweeping (and incorrect) assertion about "at least a third" of pupils underperforming (whatever "underperforming" actually means).
4 The repetition of the local authority "control" myth.

In other words, how independent can an inquiry be that is not unbiased and is based on inaccurate statements?

agov's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 10:56

Roger -

Talking of personal tastes, news reached me recently of a course attended by teachers and one (or more) Ofsted inspector(s) during which an inspector declared that if inspecting a school where children were found to be reading books by an author (of whom I have never heard; my failing I'm sure) there was no need to do anything else as it was obviously an outstanding school. Staff were deeply impressed, as you can imagine.

agov's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 11:01

Janet, I recall that Chris Woodhead did say that most educational research only reflected the prejudices of the author.

The interesting question is the one you raised elsewhere - what is the real reason for attacking Wilshaw? Just a thought - grammar schools; UKIP policy; Tory voters; May 2014; May 2015: my speculation.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 11:07

Andy - I agree with most of that. However, I consider the prime function of a school inspection system to be the judgement of the quality of education provided and the equality of access to it. I agree that judgements about aggregated pupil progress are important but I don't accept that currently these have enough statistical and educational validly to be fit for the purpose for which they are used.

I realise that this may seem idealistic, but I expect teachers, heads and school inspectors to be bound by some sort of educational equivalent of the 'Hippocratic Oath'. I come back to the example of BTEC science. I have never been involved in the teaching of this 4 x C grade GCSE 'equivalent', but I do know science teachers that have, and they are all scornful as to its merit as the basis for a quality KS4 science education. However they have families to keep. I fail to understand how an inspector could be using KS4 progress data, in which forcing most or all pupils to follow such a course as their sole science education provides a dramatic boost, while failing to comment on the quality of science education in the school. A further example is multiple GCSE entries in GCSE maths. I deal with the catastrophic educational consequences of this in my post.

To his credit, MG has condemned this, but have the Ofsted reports of any of the schools that have been doing it contained any mention of the practice let alone condemnation?

On the question of teaching methods the key issue is pupil engagement. There is no problem of a teacher lecturing a class for an hour if the pupils are hanging on every word and don't want her to stop when the bell goes. I agree with MW that inspectors should not prejudge effectiveness on the basis of teaching style and lesson structure.

The learning issue is the extent to which knowledge made available on the social plane through any teaching strategy (didactic exposition or class/group based activity/enquiry) is internalised by each pupil. This is not difficult to judge from observation and informal questioning of the pupils. An inspector would be right to remark on general lack of pupil engagement in a lesson (although 20 minutes would not be enough to form such a judgement) and to suggest that an inappropriate lesson structure was the reason. Such a conclusion should not be mitigated by general positive school performance data that has been influenced through the role of 'equivalents' and other forms of gaming that Ofsted is apparently institutionally blind to.

You appear to be asking me to take sides with regard to MW, MG and David Green. I am saying that there is some merit in some of the things that all of them are saying, but not enough to be worth putting their respective arguments into an order of merit.

Marketisation is producing a corrupt education system riddled with the outcomes of perverse incentives, gross internal inconsistences and the ignoring of decades of sound research into how children learn.

Most depressingly, you are absolutely right in your last paragraph. Labour appears to be absolutely clueless and rudderless in responding to what is happening.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 11:20

Andy - I am sure are right about the variable quality of LEAs in the past. However if we have examples of superb practice, then it shows what is possible. I am proposing an enhanced version with a key role for HMI. The example of The Learning Trust (LT) in Hackney has brought much praise including from Henry Stewart, who should know. The political right believes this is because LT was a private company but that is a red herring. Unlike commercial outsourcing, Capita, Serco etc, LT was fully integrated into the LA and was (is?) a not for profit organisation.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/01/2014 - 11:59

agov - Woodhead's remark's been used to dismiss any educational research however scrupulously undertaken. And it's usually said by people who don't agree with the conclusions. So it's OK for Gove to use dodgy surveys to "prove" teenagers are ignorant about history but respectable research or meta analyses done by, say, OECD, can be dismissed if they don't chime with the reader's foregone conclusion.

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