This post is a version of my article for the TES, from this Friday, and their ‘OFSTED Watch’ column. Just after publication OFSTED made an important update that clarified for schools issues like giving written feedback – find it here. I have updated the article to include the specific guidance on feedback.
Feedback works, right? Dylan Wiliam, John Hattie, the Education Endowment Foundation and other distinguished education research voices, can all provide ample evidence of its positive impact on learning. And we, as teachers, can recognise the gains made by our students from a strategic comment in their books, or an incisive word in the ear. It is, justifiably, one of the few strategies in school that we can target as a way to leverage better learning for our students.
Yet we are in danger of perpetuating bad feedback in many schools. Why? Because there has been a damaging interpretation of Ofsted’s focus on feedback (or more accurately marking) that is creating a cottage industry of bad feedback practices.
The problem has arisen as a result of a change in assessment by the inspectorate. If you take a look at the actual Ofsted guidance, from the school inspection framework, you can see quite clearly that, under pressure from a concerted campaign regarding their effectiveness and accuracy, twenty minute lesson observations have proven a poor proxy for teaching and learning judgments. To compensate, Ofsted have sought to better capture ‘progress over time’. This is done by a flick through books to check on feedback. It is another rather shaky proxy for good teaching and learning, but it is probably better than bite-size observations with reductive grades.
As a result of this shift, work scrutiny has suddenly taken on a new-found importance; particularly in schools where an OFSTED visit is the perennial sword of Damocles hanging over the head of teachers. OFSTED have responded to the madness attending marking of pupils’ work with a ‘clarification for schools’ document, stating:
– Ofsted does not expect to see a particular frequency or quantity of work in pupils’ books or folders. Ofsted recognises that the amount of work in books will often depend on the age and ability of the pupils.
– Ofsted does not expect to see unnecessary or extensive written dialogue between teachers and pupils in exercise books and folders. Ofsted recognises the importance of different forms of feedback and inspectors will look at how these are used to promote learning.
The damage is done by fearful schools misinterpreting OFSTED requirements. Perhaps it is an unintended consequence on OFSTED’s part, but in many schools teachers are now under pressure to ensure that feedback is daubed on pretty much anything. Here, feedback no longer becomes purposeful for the learning of students, but instead becomes a visible indicator for inspection teams. Fear-filled school leaders looking to seek out ‘consistency’ of written feedback – with all the complexity that such a euphemistic term can imply – drive teachers into the mire of workload overload.
Genuine consistency matters – but damaging compliance regardless of the needs of students, and sometimes very different subject requirements, is a wholly different matter.
The most recent stories I have heard recently have included teachers being made to photocopy evidence of weekly feedback so that senior leaders can create a heaving folder for OFSTED evidence purposes – on top of actually completing the feedback in the books of students. There are common stories of teachers being made to undertake weekly marking, regardless of the stage of learning or the usefulness of feedback, to tick the supposed OFSTED requirement.
Why is this bad feedback so damaging?
It leads to professional burnout and can provide a crushing great whack to personal confidence and energy levels at the same time. In many cases, it is a wasted effort, as teachers are constantly playing catch up to keep giving written feedback. Paradoxically, it makes the feedback even less useful.
With all of the focus being on written feedback, there is a danger that oral feedback becomes relegated as some inferior cousin in the teaching stakes. As teachers will tell you, it is the immediate oral feedback that can be the most useful mode of feedback, whereas the time-lag on written feedback can too often render it redundant. Teachers are driven to write reams of written feedback and are in danger of having little time or energy to concentrate upon the good feedback that really matters for improving learning.
There is no getting around the fact that feedback is necessary and often it can prove very time-consuming (I speak as an English teacher who has marked countless thousands of essays). Given the effort, it must be for the purpose of improving students’ learning.
It isn’t the first time that unintended consequences have distorted good quality feedback. The principles of AfL became bastardised when AfL became inextricably linked with the accountability measures that were National Curriculum levels.
It is another example of Campbell’s law. Once an indicator is used to make important decisions, it ceases to have value as an indicator. Written feedback, in a huge number of schools, is facing this damaging fate.
It is such a negative because good quality formative feedback is at the very heart of great teaching and learning.
What is the solution to this quandary?
OFSTED needs to continue to communicate that marking everything that moves isn’t their demand, nor is it considered good practice. Clarification needs to become action. Teachers can communicate to one another, sharing best practice on good feedback, while exposing bad feedback policies. Collectively, we all need to share the message that feedback for accountability, and not for our students, is damaging for us all.