The Continuing Cult Of Classroom Observation

Prisoner: What do you want?
Number Two: Information.
Prisoner: Whose side are you on?
Number Two: That would be telling. We want information . . . information . . . information!
Prisoner: You won’t get it!
Number Two: By hook or by crook, we will.
Prisoner: Who are you?
Number Two: The new Number Two.
Prisoner: Who is Number One?
Number Two: You are Number Six.
Prisoner: I am not a number; I AM A FREE MAN!!!
Number Two: [Laughter]

The Prisoner (1967) opening sequence

The looking glass world of Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 TV series The Prisoner has, I feel, many parallels with modern education. Our careers, our hopes and aspirations, even our very dreams, often depend on numbers . . . information, if you will. Or data as modern educational parlance would have it.

Some of the most important numbers in a teacher’s life are the (now happily defunct) single lesson Ofsted lesson gradings; although, not so happily, many schools still insist on using them for appraisal and performance management.

For the past few years I have mostly been Number Two. However, at times I have been Number Three (because one student copied an answer from another student and I didn’t notice — I kid you not!); and once a Number Four (because I asked the students to copy a model paragraph off the board — “We’ll have no copying in this school, sirrah!”)

“I AM NOT A NUMBER, I AM EXPERIENCED AND SKILLED INDIVIDUAL WHO DESERVES DUE MEASURE OF PROFESSIONAL AUTONOMY!!!” [Cue maniacal laughter from SLTs and the DfE as lightning flashes and thunder roars.]

Rob Coe ably summarises the problems with minimally-trained observers in this blog post. He writes:

…if your lesson is judged ‘Outstanding’, do whatever you can to avoid getting a second opinion: three times out of four you would be downgraded. If your lesson is judged ‘Inadequate’ there is a 90% chance that a second observer would give a different rating.

He mentions that observers tend to overestimate their own observational prowess. If you fall into this camp, and haven’t seen the clip before, do the selective attention test — go on, do it, I dare you!

As Richard Feynman said of the scientific method: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.” 

Too often, the high stakes observations we undergo end up enforcing educational fads rather than real good practice. As a colleague dryly observed to me the other day: “It shows that with one week’s notice and four hours preparation I can teach a lesson the way they want me to!”

Rob Coe makes some measured and sensible suggestions at the end of his blog post. However, for my part, I will finish with a further quote from The Prisoner and a bit of wishful thinking:

“I will not make any deals with you. I’ve resigned. I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. I resign.”
The Prisoner

Ofsted Is Irrelevant, Sadly

The Borg: Strength is irrelevant. Resistance is futile. We wish to improve ourselves. We will add your biological and technological distinctiveness to our own. Your culture will adapt to service ours.

Capt. Picard: Impossible. My culture is based on freedom and self-determination.

The Borg: Freedom is irrelevant. Self-determination is irrelevant. You must comply.

Capt. Picard: We would rather die.

The Borg: Death is irrelevant.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Best of Both Worlds Part 1 (1990)

There was a time when I would have danced a jig for joy at the thought of Ofsted being irrelevant.

However, that is no longer the case. Ofsted in recent times have taken a most unexpected lurch towards sweet reasonableness and common sense (at least in some aspects of their operations).

This has wrong footed a number of us, I can tell you. Some might argue that it is too little, too late — but late is better than never.

That it is a genuine sea change can be gauged from the fact that Ofsted has felt it necessary to publish an “Ofsted mythbusters” page. Amongst the highlights are: no individual lesson plans are required for inspections; no set amount of lesson observation evidence and no internal individual lesson gradings will be required; and, there is no — repeat, NO! — requirement for any particular type, frequency or volume of pupil book marking or feedback.

And yet, and what have a large number of schools and multi-academy chains chosen to do with this valuable document? That’s right, they have chosen to IGNORE this advice and continue with their previous systems and procedures: the La-la-la!-I’m-not-listening!-La-la-la! stratagem, if you will.

This isn’t a case of Zombie-Ofsted, as I erroneously suggested in previous post. This is a case of research-informed, actually quite sensible educational advice being wilfully and deliberately ignored by a range of educational institutions.

The New Blob* has come into its own and it’s watchwords are:
1. Double and triple marking (using pens of many colours!)
2. Graded lesson observations (#Cause the graders gonna grade, grade, grade, grade, grade!)
3. Outstanding (as in “Are you an outstanding teacher?” — see no.2 above)

Ofsted is truly irrelevant, sadly.

* perhaps Edu-Borg might be a better description

The Curse of Zombie-Ofsted

In his wonderful book, The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould writes of the fallacy

of ranking, or our propensity for ordering complex variation as a gradual ascending scale. Metaphors of progress and gradualism have been among the most pervasive in Western thought . . . ranking requires a criterion for assigning all individuals to their proper status in the single series. And what better criterion than an objective number? . . . one number for each individual . . . to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups — races, classes, or sexes — are innately inferior and deserve their status. In short, this book is about the Mismeasure of Man.

Humankind seems to have an inveterate propensity for sorting the sheep from the goats. There seems to be nothing we enjoy more than placing people, races, genders, things and classes in their allocated place on some putative “Great Chain of Being.”

The Great Chain of Being is a hierarchical worldview developed in mediaeval and Renaissance times but originating from Plato and the neoplatonists. In this view, everyone and everything has its place. An eagle is superior to the “worm eating” robin; the lion is superior to the domestic dog or cat; but those furry familiars have warrant to lord it over the wolf and rabbit because of their greater utility to Man.

In other words, according to this view, Man is the paragon of animals, but is himself subject to the authority of angels and Heaven. All shall be well if each being in the Great Chain knows its place and does its allotted duty.

I believe that the Great Chain of Being is an enduring but largely unconscious idea: we notice its presence like a fish notices the presence of water — that is to say, not at all. Our continuing propensity for ranking is a comfortable habit of thought that, regrettably, all of us slip into as easily as a favourite pair of slippers.

The other fallacy identified by Gould in The Mismeasure of Man is that of

reification, or our tendency to convert abstract concepts into entities (from the Latin res, or thing). We recognize the importance of mentality in our lives and wish to characterize it, in part so that we can make the divisions and distinctions among people that our cultural and political systems dictate.

And so it continues. For example, Regional Schools Commissioner Dominic Herrington recently wrote to a school to ask for evidence that at least 80 per cent of teaching at the school “is rated to be good or better”, including in English and maths ( 6/11/15) — to my mind, demonstrating the fallacies of both ranking and reification simultaneously.

For goodness sake, not even Ofsted does that anymore!

However, the practice is, I suspect, still common in a large number of schools as part of their appraisal systems i.e. if you don’t get a “1” or a “2” in any one of your lesson observations then you “fail”.

The depressing truth is that even when Ofsted change their collective mind about an issue in response to evidence and reasonable argument (Yay! Go edu-bloggers!), their previous ideas and systems continue onward with almost undiminished energy, seemingly with a life and mind (or non-mind) of their own: Zombie-Ofsted, if you will.

To be fair to Ofsted, they have attempted to lay these walkers to rest by publishing clear and unequivocal guidance about their expectations about such nonsense as “minimal teacher talk” or “every lesson must include group work” and so on, but even such a well meaning stake-through-the-heart has made seemingly little headway against the strong winds of the Great Chain of Being.

Zombie-Ofsted marches, or lurches, ever onward.

Zombie-Ofsted marches -- or lurches -- ever onward

Like so much else in the crazy world of education these days, it makes the mind boggle. Or curdle. Or both.

Weasel Words in Education Part 4: Robust

There are robust systems in place for the safe recruitment of staff, which assess their suitability to work with young people.

–OFSTED report (selected randomly), Oct 2013. p.6


In [a number of the] schools visited where science achievement had recently improved [there had been a] robust review by senior leaders, leading to a reduction in weaker teaching

OFSTED, Maintaining Curiosity in Science, November 2013. p.26 [emphasis added]

“Robust” is an increasingly common word in educational circles these days.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. As a physicist, I would argue that a nice graph is worth at least five thousand.


It certainly seems that the setting up of Ofsted has significantly increased the usage of the word “robust”. In fact, the phrase “to infinity and beyond!” springs to mind when we view the precipitous increase after 1984. Now, it might be argued that this is merely conincidental: after all, correlation is not proof of causation.

This is true. But just for the record, an advanced Google search for the word “robust” on just the Ofsted website alone gets 87300 hits. (A similar search of the Ofgem website returns just 5790 results). When Google release a more up-to-date dataset, it will be interesting to see if the usage of “robust” will have increased or decreased during Sir Michael Wilshaw’s tenure. I know what possibility I’ll be putting my money on.

Robust adj.
When used in an educational context:
1. [of systems or processes] able to withstand or overcome adverse conditions
2. [of SLT or other interventions] uncompromising and forceful

What it actually means in practice:

    Robust adj.

  1. A system or process that is explained at tedious length in the staff handbook and that has least one desultory paper trail so that we can pretend that this thing happens as a matter of course: (A custom more honoured in speech than in observance, you might say.)
  2. A meeting during which SLT got (a) shouty; or (b) offered “support” that turned out to be profoundly unsupportive; or (c) both


As a final thought, UK education seems to be in the hands of people who like to use the word “robust” a lot. H’mmm, I feel a song coming on . . .

# If there’s something weird
# and it don’t look good
# Who ya gonna call?
# ROBUSTers!!!


The Joy of Quotation Marks

A colleague of experimental psychologist Steven Pinker once joked that verbs were ‘his little friends’ as Pinker believed that the way they are used can give genuine insight into the hidden machinery of cognitive processes.

You know who my ‘little friends’ are? Punctuation marks. I think that they can often give the game away. Take this doozy:

The best secondary schools trusted the incoming ‘levels’ achieved by pupils in primary school as a starting point . . .
–OFSTED, Maintaining Curiosity in Science, November 2013, p.42

The writer asks schools to trust things called “‘levels'”, which the writer has deliberately placed in quotation marks. H’mmm, interesting. Now why would they choose to do that?

By my count, there are five reasons to use quotation marks:

1. Reported speech — this instance doesn’t seem to fit that usage.

2. When coining a new word or phrase — again, this usage is unlikely in this instance.

3. When referring to a word as a word — again, it doesn’t seem to be the intention here.

4. To indicate the title of a book or article — this is definitely not the case here.

By a process of elimination, this seems to leave only one plausible reason for the writer to choose to use quotation marks:

       5.   To imply that the quoted word or phrase is dubious.

So let’s be clear here: the writer is asking schools to trust things called “‘levels'” that he or she apparently considers dubious enough to wrap in ironic quotation marks.

In this paragraph, Ofsted are urging schools to trust what Ofsted themselves (going by their use of punctuation, at least) consider untrustworthy. What are they going to ask us to do next? Square the circle? Cut down the largest tree in the forest with a herring?

Now, where else have I seen ‘levels’ in quotation marks recently? Oh yes . . .

As part of our reforms to the national curriculum , the current system of ‘levels’ used to report children’s attainment and progress will be removed.  It will not be replaced.
–DfE, June 2013

Let me summarise: in June 2013, the DfE tells us that ‘levels’ are gone, but then in November 2013, Ofsted admonishes us for not taking ‘levels’ seriously enough.

Sigh. Education: does thy right hand know what thy left hand doeth? Ever?

As a teacher, my way forward is crystal clear: it’s time to get busy cutting down the largest tree in the forest. Now, where did I put that herring . . .

Meet The New Ofsted, Same As The Old Ofsted

During CPD training in school, the team was handed a bulging A4 booklet. So bulging, in fact, that the staples looked to be experiencing the same kind of tectonic stresses as the waistband of my work trousers during one of my ‘heavy’ phases.

I am sure that all teachers have a been handed such a booklet at some point. It was a collection of Powerpoint slides — printed on that setting that produces a set of lines next to a shrunken facsimile of each slide. The lines are generously provided for the lucky attendee of external CPD to write “Notes”. (Somewhere in that corner of a higher dimension known as Tree Heaven, one tree turns to another tree and says “Bastards! They cut us down for that?”)

Handing us a copy of the Powerpoint, of course, serves a double purpose: (a) the external-CPDer can tick the “info. shared with dept.” box on the yellow CPD Impact Assessment Form; and (b) it keeps the team occupied for twenty minutes as we digest the slides. The document itself was no worse than many I’ve seen, but, sadly, no better either: Ofsted…Ten things to remember…Ofsted..five strategies to…more Ofsted…six sodding hats…yet more Ofsted…bloody Bloom’s bloody taxonomy…[epithets mine].

But I digress. The potted biography of the trainer was included: she was headteacher there and there and is an experienced Ofsted inspector. Now I’m sure she is a nice lady who means well and gets on with her colleagues and family and doesn’t kick her cat and takes good care of the hamster, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that this sort of thing is beyond a cottage industry now. Now it’s an industry — the school improvement industry.

Down with this sort of thing

It’s like we went to bed in the green, bucolic splendour of the 18th Century and woke up amidst the hideous, belching smokestacks of the Industrial Revolution.

And, for the life of me, I could not shake the feeling that some paragraphs written by George Orwell in the 1940s were particularily relevant:

The corruption that happens in England is seldom of that [conscious] kind. Nearly always it is more in the nature of self-deception, of the right hand not knowing what the left hand doeth. And being unconscious, it is limited . . . I do not suppose there is one paper in England that can be straightforwardly bribed with hard cash. In the France of the Third Republic all but a very few of the newspapers could notoriously be bought over the counter like so many pounds of cheese. Public life in England has never been openly scandalous. It has not reached the pitch of disintegration at which humbug can be dropped.

— George Orwell, England, Your England

I am sure that there is not a single Ofsted inspector in the country who can be bought across the counter for cold, hard cash like so many pounds of cheese. I even accept that a recent Ofsted rule change means that serving inspectors cannot run “what Ofsted want”-style courses anymore. (And about time too.)

But is it enough? Will there simply be a time-delayed revolving door between a stint as an inspector and joining the school improvement gravy train? I suspect that the niceties will continue to be observed, and that the fine old traditional British value of humbug will stop the development of situations that are openly scandalous.

As a colleague observed cynically: “The people writing this kind of thing are the exactly same kind of people who will be judging us, and can make or break our careers. Don’t do as they do, do as they say.”

I am and I will continue to do so. But, openly scandalous or not, I still think it stinks.

Wilshaw’s “Block of Wood” Moment?

Old Andrew draws our attention to an apparent turnaround in the Ofsted framework which make them less judgemental of traditional, didactic teaching techniques.

Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.

— Ofsted [1]

I have mixed feelings about Sir Michael Wilshaw, the instigator of this change. On the one hand, I have been dismayed with comments like “if anyone says to you that ‘staff morale is at an all-time low’ you will know you are doing something right.” [2]. On the other, in some speeches it seemed that he was attempting to address the dead hand of trendy “group-work-good, teacher-talk-bad” Ofsted orthodoxy.

In a previous post, I likened Wilshaw to the captain of a supertanker, and asked whether he would be able to rein in the “talk-less-teaching” rottweilers on his staff. Large organisations can have a momentum as stubborn as supertanker and plough onwards in the same direction for mile after mile, whatever the frantic signals from the wheelhouse say.

In this latest iteration of the ever-changing whirligig that is the Ofsted inspection framework, Wilshaw appears to have nailed his colours to the mast. Rather than “T” for “Trendy” it seems that he is flying the “P” for “Pragmatic” flag — anything goes, as long as it works.

And it is a change for the better, as long as inspection teams adhere to the guidance. (How we can judge exactly what works is another can of worms that I don’t propose to dig into here.)

Could this be the defining moment for Wilshaw? Possibly, it could be his “block of wood” moment.

Knowing also that the severities of the past had earned him a certain amount of hatred, to purge the minds of the people and to win them over completely he determined to show that if cruelties had been inflicted they were not his doing but prompted by the harsh nature of his minister. …. [T]hen, one morning, [the minister’s] body was found cut in two pieces on the piazza at Cesena, with a block of wood and a bloody knife beside it. The brutality of this spectacle kept the people of the Romagna for a time appeased and stupefied.

— Niccolo Machiavelli, “New principalities acquired with the help of fortune”, The Prince


The reference is to a story about Cesare Borgia and how he calmed a turbulent province by appointing a “cruel and unscrupulous man” to rule as his minister. When the man’s severe methods had secured a measure of peace and calm to the territory, Cesare Borgia dispensed with his services in the very final and bloody way outlined above.

Just to be clear, I am likening Wilshaw to Borgia and saying that he has, essentially, dispensed with the services of the previous “cruel and unscrupulous” style of Ofsted framework in a very public way. OK, so it’s by way of pressing the delete key on a keyboard rather than a bloody knife, but I hope you get my drift.

Every headteacher I have ever worked with has been a consumate politician (which is not automatically a bad thing, by the way), and I cannot help but wonder if this is only a part of a “Great Game” being played out. (Unlikely, I know, but it’s fun to speculate: the more probable, pedestrian truth is that, as a character in All The President’s Men observed, “they’re just not that bright.”)

And so is the teaching profession “appeased and stupefied” by Wilshaw’s action? A little bit, perhaps. For my part, I will wait and see what effect this has on the next round of inspection reports and (perhaps more importantly) internal school observation criteria before I celebrate, but I am, I must confess, faintly encouraged.

And on that cheerful note: Happy New Year!



Coe, Wilshaw and Ofsted

[T]he community suffers nothing very terrible if its cobblers are bad and become degenerate and pretentious; but if the Guardians of the laws and state, who alone have the opportunity to bring it good government and prosperity, become a mere sham, then clearly it is completely ruined.

— Plato. The Republic 421a (Penguin Classics) (Kindle Locations 2815-2817). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

I am not sure if I agree with Plato about cobblers and the community. As Benjamin Franklin once pointed out: “For want of a shoe…the kingdom was lost.”

However, I think his statement about the Guardians of the state stands. Equally so with the state-appointed guardians of education: Ofsted.

I think Professor Coe ( has done the education world a huge service by pointing out that the Ofsted king has no clothes. However, perhaps in the manner of scrupulous academics everywhere, Professor Coe might prefer a more nuanced “the king probably doesn’t have any clothes”.

Coe pointed out that there is no — repeat, no — valid research supporting the “Ofsted model” of classroom observation being either: (a) a reliable tool for assessing teaching quality or effectiveness when cross-referenced with other measures such as student learning gains; or (b) the observation-feedback process leading to an improvement in teaching quality. (See for the section of his talk on classroom observations and for a link to his slides.)

I don’t know about anyone else but I am staggered by this. As a working teacher who is just about maintaining a precarious foothold on the treacherous scree of middle management, I always thought my seniors and betters had reams of evidence supporting the stuff they were asking us to do. And if they didn’t, well probably their seniors and betters did.

To hear a respected academic say that classroom observation might be “the next Brain Gym” was shocking.

And the Ofsted response? “Tosh and nonsense,” said Sir Michael Wilshaw.  “I don’t know of any headteacher who doesn’t believe that classroom observation isn’t anything other than a help. The fact that we are an inspectorate and we do make judgements has made a huge amount of difference.” According to the TES (13/9/13 p.8):

He said that new figures released this week, showing a 9 percentage point rise in the proportion of schools judged to be good or outstanding, proved that the watchdog’s tougher inspection regime had “galvanised the system”

This is, to my mind, a textbook example of the logical fallacy known as petito principii or “circular reasoning”. The form of this particular logical fallacy is as follows:

Logical Form:

     Claim X assumes X is true.

     Claim X is therefore, true.

Bennett, Bo (2012-02-21). Logically Fallacious: The Ultimate Collection of Over 300 Logical Fallacies (p. 82). Kindle Edition.

Let’s see what Wilshaw said again.

  • The inspectorate’s judgements make a huge amount of [presumably positive] difference.
  • Ofsted judgements show that more schools (9 percentage points!) are good or outstanding.

…therefore Ofsted judgements make a huge amount of positive difference.

Now please note that this does not necessarily mean that the conclusion (that Ofsted helps schools improve) is false, but merely that the argument put forward by the Chief Inspector to support that conclusion is fallacious. And it hopefully goes without saying that a fallacious argument is by definition invalid and must be dropped immediately.

The character Chief Brody in the film Jaws once remarked that they needed “a bigger boat”. The Chief Inspector needs a better argument. And in view of the large amount of taxpayers’ money going to support Ofsted, that new argument should be supplied sooner rather than later. As Professor Coe remarked (somewhat plaintively) in his excellent talk: “Just one would be nice.”

H’mm. More rigour, anyone?