🚨 Ofsted Quotes on ‘Working Memory’ Are Dangerous!

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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.

School A
“The use of memory joggers is helping to embed this ‘sticky’ knowledge into pupils’ long-term memory” (Primary, Nov 2021).Ofsted MemorySchool 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.” 
Ofsted Memory


School C

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). Ofsted Memory

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.

School D

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.

Ofsted Memory


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…

School E

“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’.

Ofsted Memory

School F

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.

Ofsted Memory

School G

“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.

Ofsted Memory

School H

“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.

Ofsted Memory


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!

4 thoughts on “🚨 Ofsted Quotes on ‘Working Memory’ Are Dangerous!

  1. Thanks for pointing this out Ross.

    DfE and Ofsted appear to have accepted the theories on cognitive science without the reservations voiced by the EEF. This is not a surprise – this theory is a legacy of Nick Gibb, no longer at the DfE, but the new team seems to have swallowed the hype. The science behind it is not universally accepted.

    Guy Claxton, a cognitive scientist, challenges much of the literature on cognitive science:
    “…much of the cognitive scientific research that is adduced by the neo traditionalists is actually out of date, highly selected to suit a particular case, and grossly over generalized.” (Claxton, 2021)

    John Hattie has his doubts:
    “So much simplistic nonsense is being touted about direct instruction and the knowledge rich curriculum it is great to see someone finally talking sense. (Hattie,2021 review of Claxton’s book)

    The EEF report on cognitive science was quite clear:
    “The evidence for the application of cognitive science principles in everyday classroom conditions (applied cognitive science) is much more limited, with uncertainties about the applicability of specific principles across subjects and age ranges. ”

    “Applied cognitive science is far more limited and provides a less positive, and more complex, picture than the basic science. For many of the techniques, the evidence was restricted to particular age groups, subject areas, or learning outcomes. Applications of cognitive science outside of these, while plausible given the basic science, are yet to be tested and found effective in the classroom.”
    (EEF, 2019)

    In an EEF podcast, the lead author of the EEF report on cognitive science, Thomas Perry from Birmingham University, warned against ‘over-generalisations at this stage of our knowledge of cognitive science’ and recommended that educators use the EEF report to ‘stop, reflect, and identify gaps.’

    The new ITT framework has cognitive science firmly rooted in its definitions of good practice despite doubts from prestigious teacher training organisations like Cambridge University:

    “Our view, as a leading centre of education research, is that the review’s specifications are not based on the best evidence available about what works in teaching, or teacher education…at best the underlying evidence is restricted and partial and overlooks the need to guard against fads in teacher training that may turn out to be unhelpful to future teachers.”

    Hope it is not a new learning styles panacea.

    1. Thanks for posting all this Robert; the EEF report on cognitive science is important. Much of the profession continues to use the EEF as a benchmark, but few references to the reports when it goes against their beliefs. I’m torn. My journey with cogsci is 10+ years now. I’ve tried to keep a broad perspective and read as much as possible, translating ideas into the classroom. Overall, as written, I think it’s impossible for any observer to pop in and make a reliable assessment of learning. Worse? To make a bold claim that our children are suffering from cognitive load merely from an assessment of responses to questions…

  2. The sad thing is that a nuanced response to cognitive science will see teachers using retrieval practice, spaced learning, interleaving and dual coding, all of which have some evidence of success. There is no way of measuring cognitive load and for inspectors to select an area of knowledge, quiz pupils on it and conclude that their cognitive load has been exceeded is guesswork and not valid as a conclusion. I am concerned that with Ofsted drawing conclusions like the ones you quote in your article, leaders will demand that their staff engage in a lot of rote learning and frequent testing, watering down the overall learning experience of students. We will then have the scenario that we used to have with marking and book scrutiny. Inspectors used to examine books for evidence of feedback being acted upon and this resulted in schools introducing onerous marking policies. This will be replaced by onerous ‘rich knowledge’ policies where leaders scrutinise books for evidence that key knowledge is revisited within and across topics – Ofsted again driving up workload.

    What puzzles me is that with the new ITT framework, the DfE claims it is supported by the EEF. Yet the EEF report clearly says we do not have enough classroom application research to draw firm conclusions and we must proceed cautiously. Is the EEF really independent or has pressure been put on its leadership?

    I share the same dilemma as you. Yes, memory is important, but the work of Graham Nuthall shows how varied and engaging teaching can help retention and recall without resorting to rote learning exercises.

  3. Another thing that struck me in this article were the many references to ‘memory’, ‘recall’ and ‘facts’. Learning isn’t just about remembering what is done in class. It is about doing something with it, especially in further education. I also believe that the Hawthorne effect was going on during conversations with students. E.g. they may have known that an inspection was going on, picked up that teachers and leaders were worried about it/focusing on doing well in it and got tongue tied or thrown out by these strangers interviewing them.

    I also find it strange that they are now focusing on this after previously saying that we teach to the exams too much! We can’t win!

    By the way, I’m also delighted to discover that I’m not the only cognitive science sceptic teacher out there!

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