Can we trust what is written in Ofsted reports?
About a decade ago, we were in a position across the teaching profession where lesson gradings were busted, progress over time (soon-to-be-in-a-lesson) was emerging and performances in lesson observation were being quashed.
It took a few years for the ‘progress in a lesson’ myths to be dispelled, but they are still ‘out there’ in our evaluation of classroom life. Fast-forward to September 2019 and Ofsted announce a welcome shift towards ‘the substance of education: the curriculum.
Away from lesson grades, data collection and any commentary about marking, teachers now have ‘deep dive‘ conversations with inspectors.
In early 2020, Prof Viv Ellis tweeted this photograph that captured key messages from an Ofsted training session – something previously I have asked for in a Freedom of Information request (which was denied).
“[Two inspectors] reported close monitoring of inspectors during these conferences and all training materials being collected at the end of every training session.”
As Prof Ellis writes, “These comments from senior leaders in the profession don’t reflect ideological opposition to inspection but their concern about competence in the current inspection system in England and their declining confidence in it.”
Ofsted inspectors should ask teachers and school leaders about their curriculum intentions, but avoiding getting into the details, should avoid evaluating lessons if activities – selected by the teacher – overload pupils’ working memory (see number 3).
I’ve picked out the key messages related to ‘poor proxies’ for learning (slide 12) i.e. a powerful prompt to probe further to establish whether learning has happened rather than to assume.
‘Working Memory’ featured in Ofsted reports …
Over the last term, I’ve been conducting an ad-hoc linguistic analysis of all published Ofsted reports that feature the word ‘memory’. I see a worrying trend from Ofsted inspectors commenting on pupils’ and their ability to recall facts during observation, deep dive or pupil conversations.
I’ve copied a sample below. I see nothing wrong with this first one, simply because it is an evaluation of a resource used as a strategy for teaching and learning.
“The use of memory joggers is helping to embed this ‘sticky’ knowledge into pupils’ long-term memory” (Primary, Nov 2021).School B
There is also a questionable quote about pupils understanding how memory works! It’s taken me a lifetime to understand how learning happens; I have no idea how someone evaluates this …
“… there are considerable lapse in pupils’ memory of previous work” with no reference to how retention is being tested and in what conditions, despite a clear acknowledgement that pupils “can remember key things that they learned as far back as year 1.”
One from a nursey/junior school too!
“Leaders have created a curriculum that helps pupils to learn well… While pupils generally progress well in these subjects, they do not develop a long-term memory of some of leaders’ intended curriculum” (January 2022).
Could this simply be the difference between a ‘deep dive’ conversation with a school leader and an inspector compared to an ad-hoc conversation with an inspector and pupils from a fleeting observation? I believe so.
I do think it’s time school leaders sat beside inspectors when they have conversations with pupils.
In this school report, the inspectors claim that pupils “understand the research that underlies how they use their long-term memory to remember important knowledge.”
Again, this is an unbelievable statement. It has taken me my whole teaching career to touch the surface of working memory, and get closer to understanding it.
Here are 4 more Ofsted reports with comments from inspectors on ‘working memory’ during school inspection – without any reference to social-emotional mental health, environment or acknowledgement that the inspector ‘may not’ have the full picture…
“Teachers do not always ensure that pupils embed key knowledge” … I’ll finish this sentence … ‘but it is possible that it happens when not being observed by inspectors across the other 188 days of teaching’.
Recent strategies to develop pupils’ memory and recall are “not yet having enough impact.” I mean, what is the point of writing this?
“Pupils cannot always remember what they have learned in the past.”
I sometimes forget who was Henry VIII’s first wife? Sometimes I also forget the order of the planets in our solar system! My memory is so forgetful, even when I am not performing under observation. On the spot questioning, even effective strategies, can draw out incorrect responses from pupils.
“Plans should be clearer about which information is most important for pupils to store in their long-term memory.”
Of course, curriculum plans should be clear, no one can argue with this, but not everything that can be stored can be detailed in a plan. ‘Less important information’ is possibly additional schema that is built upon prior knowledge, not less important information … unless the details are outlined as ‘redundant’ concepts, rules and facts.
“There are gaps in pupils’ knowledge and understanding. These result from a legacy of poor provision. Therefore, without overburdening teachers or overloading pupils’ memory, leaders should ensure … an appropriate balance…”
The challenge is what is not taught is not learned, and what is not learned cannot be tested. This school runs the risk of pupils not securing good examination scores if it follows this advice – and penalised again if they do when reinspected.
There are hundreds and hundreds of other examples that I am sifting through and you can follow my progress here.
I fear ‘memory’ comments in Ofsted reports are The Emperor’s New Clothes.
I call upon all teaching colleagues to question these comments in your reports; challenge the notion that any inspector can evaluate pupils’ cognitive load and working memory ‘processing’ from a one-off deep dive!