The Education Deceptions

Ofsted – Part 1

The observation of the unobservable

Imagine that you’re attending a hospital outpatient department for a routine medical procedure and just before it starts (or maybe it’s started) someone enters the room and explains that he or she is an inspector who is there to observe how much your health improves during the course of the procedure and hence how well the practitioner has performed his or her task.

What would you think?  If it were me, I’d want to understand that a little better.

‘So…. you’re going to watch this procedure and then decide how much my health has improved?  Don’t you think that we need to wait to see how this heals and I’ve had the chance to give some feedback about how it’s feeling before anyone can make that judgment?  Surely we should wait to decide how much improvement there’s been?’

‘No, no,’ replies the inspector, ‘we’re able to tell exactly how much benefit there has been to your health just by watching you while you’re being treated.’

Fortunately, the body that regulates and inspects health and care services in England, the Care Quality Commission, doesn’t have an inspection system that works in this way. 

Inspectors don’t watch group therapy sessions and then tell the therapist that on the basis of what they’ve seen, and having chatted briefly to one or two participants, there didn’t seem to be much improvement in the participants’ health, so they judged the work of the therapist as ‘requiring improvement’.

But exactly that sort of approach to inspection – based on the observation of the unobservable – has been standard practice in the parallel world of education, where for many years inspectors from the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted) claimed to be able to ‘see’ the learning that children achieved during the course of a lesson, or just part of a lesson.  Further, they could make an immediate judgment about the quality of the learning (as well as the teaching) that they observed – and they did.

No teacher needs to be very far into their career to recognise that, contrary to Ofsted’s understanding, learning in the classroom is not an observable, one-time event – it is simply not something that one can ‘see’.  It is a continuous, cumulative process which may involve many visits and much practice and application, before someone can reach any conclusion about what, or whether, a child has learned.  It is the purpose of assessment – formal and informal – to help us arrive at accurate conclusions about children’s learning.  Any teacher with a modicum of experience will also be able to tell you that the more one knows about a child’s learning profile and their existing understanding, the more straightforward it is to identify when and what they have learned.  Conversely, the less one knows about the child, the more difficult it is to identify the same things.

So it has always seemed to me wholly fallacious for Ofsted to claim that it is possible to ‘observe learning’ in a formal way and quite nonsensical to claim to be able to do so on the basis of a 15-20-minute lesson observation of a group of learners whom the inspector has never met before.  But that is what Ofsted did.

Ofsted’s claim

This can be verified by looking at any of the Guidance / Frameworks for inspecting schools or School Inspection Handbooks issued between 2009 and 2018.  Each one contains entries that perpetuate the myth of ‘observable learning’.  Take this one, from the Guidance for inspecting schools in England, September 2009 [1]:

67. On the first day of inspection, inspectors should try to establish the quality of teaching and learning, mainly through classroom observation which focuses on the learning and progress of different groups of pupils.

Or this one, from the School Inspection Handbook From September 2012.[2]:

112. When inspectors observe teaching, they observe pupils’ learning.

It needs to be emphasised that the possessive apostrophe in ‘pupils’’ is as Ofsted intended: what they claim to be able to observe is not ‘pupils in the process of learning’, but ‘the learning that children achieve while a class is being observed’. 

To be scrupulously fair (but possibly generous), Ofsted highlights here that lesson observation is supplemented by other ‘first hand evidence’ in the form of scrutiny of pupils’ work and by talking to some of them.   On the first of these, I’m reminded of a sign that adorned my office wall for some years – ‘Paperwork is about accountability, not standards.’  What pupils have recorded at the end of each lesson is not – and should not be taken as – a representation of what they have understood or learned; only a complete educational novice would think otherwise.  By and large, what pupils record is what their teachers have wanted them to record, as part of the learning process.

On the second, establishing what children might have just learned when you’ve never met them before and know nothing about their learning profile or starting point is also laden with difficulty. 

Some years ago, I taught a young man whom we’ll call Chris, who had the ability to make almost any guidance that you provided him with seem brilliantly enlightening and informative, as if it immediately corrected a series of long-held misunderstandings on his part.  His face would convey a smile of pleasure at having been released, finally, from the shackles of his incomprehension.  Simultaneously, he would nod his head vigorously and say ‘aah’, in that tone which signals that everything has just fallen into place.

But actually, this was a strategy that Chris had refined over many years for keeping his teachers happy, allowing them to move on in the mistaken belief that he had grasped what they wanted him to grasp.  He even developed the knack, when the teacher sought to check his understanding, of being able to repeat back a chunk of what the teacher had explained, but time and experience showed that this ability was just another part of the illusion, rather than evidence of understanding. Chris would have been an absolute dream pupil for any teacher having their lesson observed by an Ofsted inspector.

Yet every School Inspection Handbook and Framework for School Inspection issued from 2009 up until 2019 is based on the characterisation of learning as an observable phenomenon.  Every Ofsted judgment of a school (and of a teacher’s performance) during this period has rested fundamentally on this ‘evidence’.

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