Ofsted report highlights concerns about low-level disruption. So why aren’t inspectors picking this up? And inaccurate, pre-publication reporting distorts the findings.

Janet Downs's picture
Chief HMI Sir Michael Wilshaw is right that low-level poor behaviour – chatting, silly remarks, not having equipment etc – disrupts the education of all pupils. His latest report, Below the radar: low-level disruption in the country’s classrooms, reveals that such low-level disruption is problematic.

It’s odd, then, that Ofsted inspectors aren’t picking up this disruption: 85% of the 1,413 schools inspected between 1 April and 30 June 2014 (provisional figures*) were judged to be good or better for behaviour. Ofsted said 19,547 of 21,167 schools inspected had behaviour which was good or better at their most recent inspection*.

Ofsted’s survey found 69% of teachers identified ‘talking and chatting’ as one of the top three types of disruption. The two other main ways of disrupting a class were ‘disturbing other children’ (38%) and ‘calling out’ (35%). And it’s the cumulative effect of several types of disruption which affects learning. That said, the teachers surveyed differed in their estimation of how much time was lost through such disruption. Just over a fifth of secondary teachers said it lost very little time; a quarter said it wasted at least five minutes in every hour. One in twelve said ten minutes in every hour was frittered away dealing with low-level disturbance.

Sir Michael makes it clear that school leaders are ultimately responsible for setting standards and supporting staff at the chalk face:

‘Leaders in these schools [where low-level disruption is minimized] are uncompromising in their expectations and do not settle for low standards of behaviour.’

He identified the strategies employed by successful leaders:

1They are seen around the school;

2They can spot low-level disruption and make sure all staff deal with it consistently;

3They set high expectations and are themselves consistent in handling disruptive pupils;

4They are successful in explaining expectations and enforcement methods to staff, pupils and parents.

The report highlighted the importance of pupils, staff and parents knowing how the school expected pupils to behave and applying these expectations consistently. This doesn’t necessarily mean ‘zero-tolerance’ although some will interpret these strategies as such. Zero tolerance is mentioned only once in the report and that was in a quote from a parent. Sir Michael hasn’t explicitly recommended such an approach. In the United States research has found that ‘zero-tolerance’ strategies have ‘created more problems than they have resolved’ particularly concerning minority ethnic pupils.

Neither did Sir Michael recommend more military style discipline. Saying schools should be consistent and ensure everyone knows how pupils are expected to behave does not mean the Chief HMI is ‘Launching a nationwide crackdown to enforce military-style discipline across classrooms’. Yet this was what The Times suggested when commenting on the report four days before it was officially published.

The Times claimed Sir Michael thought this low-level disruption was ‘one of the key reasons why academic standards in English state schools are so far behind their international counterparts, particularly those in the Far East.’ But the published report made no such claim. The only time the PISA tests were mentioned was to highlight how the perception of low-level disruption by heads was lower than the opinion of pupils**.

This misrepresentation again highlights the problem of the media commenting on reports before they’ve been officially published. The media receives copies of such reports before publication but they are usually embargoed. It would appear that one way of getting round an embargo is to announce what a report ‘will say’ or ‘is expected to say’. By the time the report is in the public domain, interest will already have waned and any early comments, whether misrepresentations or not, will remain.

*Ofsted provisional data and outcomes of the most recent inspections downloadable here.

**7% of headteachers thought learning was hindered by disruption, but 15% of pupils said they could not work well in their mathematics lessons because of disruption.
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Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 12:41

Here we go again.

Ofsted and the media talk about poor discipline and disruption. The problem is with poor relationships - pupil/pupil, pupil/teacher, teacher/teacher. This goes alongside poor communications. This is too big a subject for a post here but many other LSN threads have addressed the issue. This is my latest.


Vygotsky is right that learning opportunities are encountered on the social plane (including but not limited to direct instruction). Understanding is assimilated by the learner from the social plane onto the conceptual framework of the learner, where it makes sense and deepens understanding - or not. The problems start when with the 'or not' - the reaction of pupils that 'do not get it'. Do not confuse this with 'have not learned it'.

For effective learning in a school the social plane has to be a high quality place where pupils can interact in a stress free manner observing the necessary voluntary conventions of effective deep level communication.

I have just seen on TV an appalling example of 'zero tolerance' discipline in an Academy where the social plane is now so degraded and unfit for purpose that the deep communication needed for deep learning will be impossible.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 12:52

I meant knowledge (not understanding) is assimilated etc.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 18:48

It is my understanding of the situation that there are a number of sources informing the final report e.g. a YouGov Poll of parents and teachers, Ofsted’s own inspection data. Additionally, NASUWT, ASCL and NAHT are citing their own survey and research data. Needless to say, there are conflicting positions that may be broadly summarised as:

1.It’s the school’s responsibility (parental view)
2.It’s the SLT’s and parental responsibility (large body of teachers)
3.It falls to parents, pupils, teachers, and SLTs
4.A key contributor is inconsistency in expectation and application of policies

I am wary of polls, self-interest by the parties involved and the NASUWT position based on a reported 12,000 survey returns. The latter begs the question as to what percentage of the membership 12,000 represents – I suspect relatively low figures – and therefore whether those that didn’t respond were either content/not moved to respond or apathetic toward the survey? I suspect that NASUWT membership is around 250,000 – 275,000, which would mean that 4.8 to 4.4% of NASUWT members felt strongly enough to response. This is hardly a ringing endorsement of teachers suffering high levels of poor pupil behaviours.

It is also noticeable that SMWs report references the 2012/13 annual report, which is rooted in inspection reports for the preceding 12 months i.e. draws on data arising from evidence collected and reported by HMIs and additional inspectors. However, a telling set of statistics at page 20, Fig 6 of the full report and gives clear indication that rather than inspection teams ignoring pupil behaviours they have been identifying and reporting on it.

In terms of a reality check, I strongly suspect that by far and away the vast majority of adults in the UK would acknowledge that low level disruption of the nature described in the report has always been a feature of school life and youngster growing up.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 20:41

The ignorance of the reality of school life - any school in any country - is shocking. Actually no it isn't. It is only to be expected. Effective learning is often profoundly counter-intuitive.

Back in the early 1980s on my Leicester University M.Ed course I undertook a project observing three pupils, one each of low, average and high ability, over a week, in every lesson in a 14-18 Leicestershire Upper school. I observed, classified and noted what they were doing at (I think) two minute intervals. The target pupils were unaware of my activity. Lesson quality varied as did the attentiveness of the pupils. I tried to classify the educational value of the various behaviours I observed.

There was very little disorder or low level disruption affecting any of the pupils any of the time. But did this mean that the lesson experience was 100 per cent effective? Far from it. For each pupil there were periods of inattentiveness and non-disruptive displacement activity of various sorts. A very small proportion of the lesson time even in the best lessons (in my judgement) was resulting in effective learning for each individual pupil (again in my judgement).

And this experiment did not even include any 'baby sitting' supply teacher lessons.

So when a report talks about an hour a day of learning time lost because of low level disruption I just have to laugh. Just because pupils are passive and not causing any grief to the teacher does not mean they are learning anything.

How could it be otherwise given the vast amount of time a pupil spends in school lessons between the ages of 4 and 16, compared to the outcomes? I am not being critical of schools here - just realistic about how difficult it is to teach kids stuff.

At other times in my teaching career I have witnessed intense, sustained, effective learning where time disappears and the end of the lesson comes as a surprise and disappointment for teachers and pupils alike. For example in Shayer and Adey CASE lessons.

Such deep learning requires all sorts of high quality communicative activities that 'zero tolerance' discipline policies prevent from taking place.

At least in those days it was just lay people that had no idea how children learn and how little can be reasonably expected from even a good zero disruption lesson. Now you have to include Executive Principals and Ofsted inspectors in that capacity.

If we want to increase the effectiveness of schools in bringing about deep learning then we have to address the real issues of effective pedagogy that now never see the light of day even in 'outstanding' schools, rather than these ignorant distractions that the media gets so excited about.

howard's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 20:50

The problem with this report is that it fails to make proper use of what is the most robust evidence available to Ofsted, namely the results of its own inspections. If behaviour were such a great problem in our schools, you would surely expect large numbers of schools to be rated "Requires improvement" or "Inadequate" for "Behaviour and Safety" and for the report to cite those figures in support of its arguments. But the report does no such thing, presumably because Ofsted's own inspection results actually show that, for the great majority of schools, behaviour has been assessed as "good" or higher. There could be two explanations for the absence of this information. Either Ofsted has deliberately ignored this evidence because it does not fit with the report's key message that behaviour in schools is a problem; or Ofsted has no confidence in its own inspection results on this aspect. Either explanation, it's a shocking indictment of the quality of Ofsted's work!
You also query the reliability of the NASUWT's survey as it is based only on 12,000 returns. Yet Ofsted's own survey was only of 1,024 parents and 1,048 teachers!

Tatiana's picture
Thu, 25/09/2014 - 21:03

This reminds me of another example of a "thoughtful" approach to educational standards:

"... the best performing schools tend to have…strict school uniform policies, with blazer, shirt and tie, and a zero tolerance of untidy dress and poor discipline".

("Raising the Bar, Closing the Gap" Conservatives policy paper 2007)

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 26/09/2014 - 06:33

howard - you're right to point out the mismatch between Ofsted's report on low-level disruption and its own inspection findings. Either behaviour is Good or better or it isn't. That's not to say the low-level disruption isn't a problem but, as Debra Kidd points out in her blog:

1 Parents who complain about low-level disruption never consider their own children could be culpable;
2 The child who swears at a teacher might be the one who found Dad hanging in the garage (ie discipline procedures need to be flexible as well as consistent);
3 Following a laid-down procedure (Step A, step B, step C...) might cause more problems than it resolves.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 26/09/2014 - 06:38

Tatiana - thanks for the quote from the Tory policy paper. It makes you wonder how those pupils in Finland manage to achieve so well considering they don't have to wear uniform.

Sometimes I wonder if politicians and much of the media aren't terrified of young people - thinking the country will be overrun by millions of out-of-control children unless they are subjected to a strict regime in school. It hints out a profound dislike and an unwillingness to see pupils as individuals rather than as a threatening mass.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 26/09/2014 - 08:47

Howard, Your suppositions draw a particularly negative overview. The evidence base of the report includes analysis of inspections from Sep - Dec 13 and Jan - Jul 14 (including emergency no notice visits):

"This report draws on evidence from Ofsted’s inspections of nearly 3,000 maintained
schools and academies between January and early July 2014. It includes evidence
from 28 unannounced inspections of schools where behaviour was previously judged
to require improvement."

NB: "3,000 ... between January and early July 2014" but doesn't indicate the number during autumn 2013.

Whenever, I have raised questions about pollster results I have always been advised that they are robust and reliable in their methodology. It is also relevant to note that NASUWT conducting a survey of its entire membership is a wholly different thing to a poll conducted by an accredited pollster i.e. YouGov. For me what was telling was that based on an estimated membership of 275,000 to 250,000 approximately 95% didn't respond.

agov's picture
Fri, 26/09/2014 - 09:17

Wilshaw was on R4 yesterday morning saying that what was good enough in the past now needs to be improved. So it's that old 'raising the bar' thing again.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 26/09/2014 - 12:00

I wonder what a 16 year-old student in Scotland would have thought last Thursday had she been subjected at school to being made to line up in silence in the hall three times per day then marched in silence to her classroom and then made to stand in silence behind her chair before being commanded to sit in silence.

After school this same student was then trusted to go to the polling station with her friends, chatting along the way about the future of Scotland within the UK, before casting her vote alongside other adults in the most important democratic act ever carried out in her country. (Don't assume that I am in favour of votes at 16.)

I wonder what a newly qualified science teacher would think about the Executive Principal strutting unannounced around her laboratory looking for breaches of discipline or uniform while she was conducting a CASE lesson in which groups of students were discussing odd and unexpected results of their experimental investigation into how the period of oscillation of pendulum is affected by the weight of the pendulum bob (it isn't). She might well have got used to working in an 'open classroom' culture in relation to her departmental colleagues giving support but was this support? Perhaps she should ask said Executive to help out the students at the end desk who were struggling to reconcile their observations with their expectations?

What happened to a purpose of KS4 being to help prepare young people for adult life?

Why is it that these concerns about pupil behaviour are so dominant in the marketised English system and so rare elsewhere, especially in the countries with the highest standards? Do these countries require their schools to be run like PoW camps?

I think not.

howard's picture
Sat, 27/09/2014 - 11:43

You are quite right that the report states that its evidence base includes the 3,000 inspections carried out since Jan 14 and the introduction of its tougher regime for behaviour. However, I would expect the report to make much greater use of this evidence than it does. What better evidence could there be than what its own inspectors found after actually visiting schools? However, the report makes much greater use of the results of its surveys of parents and teachers, a less robust evidence source, than of what its own inspectors were telling it. Twelve pages of the report are devoted to the survey findings, compared to only seven to its own inspections. Those seven pages are mainly devoted to case studies of good and fair practice (a good use of this evidence) and showing that, under its new regime, it's tougher to get a score of good and above for behaviour (Figure 6). What the report does not do, however, is tell us the gradings given for behaviour by its inspectors. If Janet's figures are correct, then, even under the tougher inspection regime for behaviour, Ofsted's own inspectors found behaviour to be good or better in 85% of schools inspected between April and June. This is not a "deeply worrying" level of performance, as claimed by Ofsted in the report's Executive Summary. More like "room for improvement", surely?

Andy V's picture
Sat, 27/09/2014 - 14:08

I suspect the desire to undertaken deep scrutiny and analysis of the report and therefore also of Ofsted activity, has all the potential to drift into a 'lets have a go at SMW/Ofsted'.

It would appear that the YouGov polls were designed specifically to obtained responses to pupil behaviour issues and in the process enabled teachers and parents to comment from an almost linear perspective. Whereas the very nature of section 5 inspections negates the possibility of the judgements to replicate the linear theme. This is further complicated by the fact that whilst teachers and parents can draw on their experience/interaction with pupil behaviour in a particular school over a period of several months through to years, the inspectors are only in for 2 days. To further complicate matters the criteria for behaviour and safety of pupils is rather more broad and far reaching that pupil behaviour.

The bigger issue for me is the old nugget 'consistency' rapidly followed by transparency of the behaviour (and hopefully rewards) policy and last but by means least cultivating parental support for the school.

Within the 'consistency' issue is the reality that across the thousands of state schools in England there are senior and middle leaders and colleagues who do not / cannot exercise consistent acceptable standards of classroom management.

howard's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 15:24

Could you explain what you mean about teachers and parents being able to comment from an almost linear perspective in a way that the inspectors cannot?

Andy V's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 15:54

Parents and teachers responding to the YouGov poll based their answers on their experience in a particular school covering a protracted length of time. For the more senior teachers their experience can be based on more than one school. The inspection team and their reports are at best a 2-day snapshot.

For me it is then entirely reasonable to take heed of parental/teacher input. To quote 12 pages for the poll results and 7 for inspections fails to consider that it could just be 6 for parents, 6 for teachers and 7 for inspections.

howard's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 17:49

I'm not disputing that it's entirely reasonable to take heed of parental/teacher input, but that there are caveats to be attached to such survey evidence. Without an analysis of the characteristics of the respondents, we do not know the number of parents/teachers were based on their experiences over a protracted period of time? For example, how many are new parents/teachers? The survey of parents tells us about their perceptions of behaviour - do parents really know what happens in their child's classes each and every day? Are their answers driven by concerns over just one class or a number of classes? It would also be interesting to see the survey questions asked to see how clear they were and that they were not open to misinterpretation.
At the end of the day, there is a contradiction between what the surveys and what Ofsted's own inspections are saying about behaviour.

howard's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 19:02

Sorry to bang on about this, but it's the weakness of the evidence base and the lack of quantification of survey responses which is really quite shocking. Ofsted, on a number of occasions, says "many/some parents/teachers..." but does not say what percentage, and simply cites a small number of quotes in support.
Here's a few with the relevant paragraph references:

9 “This variation can be seen in what inspectors observed in the classrooms in four schools where behaviour and safety were judged to be inadequate overall. Even in these schools, behaviour in different classes commonly varied from good to inadequate and, on occasions, was outstanding.” So that’s four schools out of how many hundreds/thousands inspected?

17 “However, teachers’ confidence sometimes appeared to be undermined by fear of discussing problems with senior staff” – the evidence cited in support of this is a quote from one teacher.

23 “Some teachers indicated that senior leaders were ineffective in engaging with parents and were too isolated from the realities of day-to-day life in the classroom.” Evidence in support of this, just three quotes

26 “Some parents thought that schools were not identifying weak teachers” Ofsted goes on to cite quotes from two parents in support of this. But what percentage of parents responding thought this? Was it just this two? How do parents know that schools are not identifying weak teachers when they have no knowledge of the school’s performance appraisal systems?

28 "Around three in 10 secondary teachers said that their headteacher supported them in managing poor behaviour and this was reflected in some teachers’ comments. Conversely, many teachers indicated that senior leaders were not visible or assertive enough in enforcing discipline, school rules or establishing the right ethos."
How many is many? Probably less than three in 10 as, otherwise, Ofsted would have said “Conversely, more teachers…”

29 “Some parents called for greater formality in schools:” – evidence in support of this – a quote from a single parent.

34 “Some parents also thought that more could be done to promote better partnerships for learning in areas such as homework:” supporting evidence – just a single quote

Andy V's picture
Mon, 29/09/2014 - 06:59

To assuage or validate your concerns I suspect you will need to lodge carefully worded FoI requests to YouGov and Ofsted.

Andy V's picture
Mon, 29/09/2014 - 07:00

PS Not forgetting an FoI to NASUWT for their independent survey

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