The ‘OFSTED Uncertainty Principle’ and Holding Steady


“I learnt this little performance trick in only twenty minutes!” “Outstanding!”

My school is awaiting the imminent visit of OFSTED. No matter how sensible everyone wants to be regarding the matter, and I would like to think our school is definitely not responding with the hysteria I have heard attending other schools, there is always a sense of palpable unease. This springs from many matters, but primarily from a culture of uncertainty created by OFSTED, with subsequent uncertain and ill-judged decisions made by schools in response to OFSTED, and with some educational consultants exploiting the confusion.

In the research of Shafir and Tapersky (1993) they showed that when faced with uncertainty people fail to make logical decisions and often defer decision making altogether. Whatever the reasons for the uncertainty created by OFSTED, misnomers and fears abound, leading to a pervasive skewing of good learning and an erosion of trust in schools that we must fight against.

We are left with the ‘OFSTED Uncertainty Principle’: which is that given the irrational fear of OFSTED, and the lack of clarity in their communication, schools make bad decisions and a climate of fear erodes the required conditions to actually improve teaching.

A major part of the problem is the mixed messages that emerge from OFSTED (as well as the ill-judged response from some schools). @oldandrewuk has presented the many contradictions that exist between what Sir Michael Wilshaw says about good teachers and teaching (much of which is highly laudable, despite his pantomime villain status) and then the evidence of what good practice videos OFSTED present – see his blogpost here:

With the uncertainty regarding ‘what OFSTED wants’, it only opens the door for fearful, rushed decisions that help no-one, least of all our students. Anyone in education over the last couple of years will have heard horror stories of excessive new marking policies devised to present a new focus upon learning over time, but really created to respond to OFSTED inspectors looking through student books. Or the new hoop jumping craze that is teaching in bitesize twenty minutes slots, reducing teaching and learning to a circus of ‘progress’ exhibitionism! The coloured lolly sticks and cups of branded AfL materials abound because they ‘exhibit progress’, therefore the circus of ‘progress products’ emerges and teachers are diverted away from the sound basics of great teaching, such as questioning, oral feedback and clear explanations. All less brandable, less saleable and packageable of course, despite the fact that they patently work and always have done!

I believe whole-heartedly in the impact of real AfL – I am less enamoured by the gimmick industry that surrounds it. Faced with uncertainty, like some addiction to self-help books, we try to buy in the solution, forgetting that the solution is already there – a shared knowledge between committed, knowledgeable professionals.

Clearly, the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’ leads to a detrimental ‘industry’ for the supposed OFSTED model, which is too often divorced from what schools actually need to improve teaching and learning in their unique context.

I’m sure there are many useful elements of this course, but the overt obsession with the ‘twenty minute’ teaching approach has become the latest ‘brand’ of teaching for the OFSTED industry that is wrong-headed and actually inhibits deep and truly ‘outstanding’ learning. I admit, this is not necessarily the fault of OFSTED, but they must communicate their aims across their organisation better, or school experiences shared between teachers by word of mouth threaten to waste any positives shared by Wilshaw himself.

‘2o Minute Magic’

When coupled with the OFSTED good practice videos, schools build a picture of good learning that appears more about performing than learning. I know teachers who can perform brilliantly, but many other teachers who don’t sing and dance in twenty minute spells but help their students learn better and deeper and become disheartened and dissuaded from holding steady to their style that works brilliantly and is sustained and valuable.

This short-termism of the ‘twenty minute make-over‘ (like the naff home improvement television show, it looks good, but when you scratch beneath the surface of the decoration nothing works properly!) is clearly insufficient for sustained, deep learning. It exhibits ‘engagement‘ but not learning. Teachers need to get the attention of their students, they need to engage them in the knowledge of their particular subject, but we must be wary that it does not necessarily translate into the deeper learning that produces actual knowledge and success for our students.

In contrast to the course outlined above, feeding off the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, OFSTED have released some excellent information about good teaching. As an English teacher, I refer to the excellent ‘Moving English Forward‘ document regularly. I started off the school year with it in my department as a timely reminder. It makes clear that ‘excessive pace’ and an ‘excessive number of activities’ is one of the attributes that actually inhibits great learning.

I expect the message of the report contradicts many messages currently being circulated around schools when presented with the message of twenty minute progress performances. @oldandrewuk, once again, shared this speech from Wilshaw that makes many salient points all teachers and school leaders would know to help them hold steady. If schools demand three page lesson plans then Wilshaw’s point that planning “shouldn’t be too detailed” and should be flexible is a stark assertion. If schools are advocating a common lesson structure formula, particularly one that includes twenty minute ‘progress points’, then Wilshaw’s statement that a “formulaic approach” that becomes a “stultifying mould” bears serious reflection.

My Head teacher, @johntomsett, chose to share that speech with the whole staff to quell misapprehensions, misnomers and fears. I think it created some sense of relief and eased fears. I was asked a question by a colleague, when I was delivering training on questioning and feedback, about whether every student had to answer a question to exhibit the required progress. Expected by OFSTED – in a class of thirty…in twenty minutes! This may seem an absurd and unrealistic requirement, but committed teachers are clearly uncertain if they are even asking that question. Sir Michael would do well to exploit his media machine and considerable influence to repeat his message over and over until it sticks with teachers and leaders…and inspectors… in every school.

The blame doesn’t lay solely with OFSTED, although they exhibit contradictions in their messages to schools and inconsistencies in their approach which are damaging. We, as teachers, must respond by rejecting the false idols of teaching and learning supposedly labelled the ‘OFSTED way‘, particularly any shallow notion of progress – especially in its latest twenty minute gimmickry guise.

We must retain trust in our colleagues and hold steady to our shared understanding of great teaching and learning. We must present compelling arguments for what great teaching is in our specific context: to OFSTED, to the DfE, to parents, to governors and to anybody else who is listening. Finally, we must collaborate and trust one another to eliminate the ‘OFSTED uncertainty principle’, resisting temporary, knee-jerk changes in favour of sustained and shared shifts in our practice that make a real difference.

1 thought on “The ‘OFSTED Uncertainty Principle’ and Holding Steady”

  1. Pingback: Bloggers lead the campaign to reform Ofsted | Pragmatic Education

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