Sir Michael Wilshaw’s letter to inspectors – January 2014

Message from HMCI – Sir Michael Wilshaw

Over the last 18 months, I have emphasised in a number of speeches that Ofsted is not prescriptive about the way that teaching is delivered and does not recommend a suite of preferred teaching styles. Inspectors should only be concerned with the impact that teaching has on children’s learning, progress and outcomes. Our new guidance on the inspection of teaching in schools reinforces this. I quote:

‘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.

It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.’

Nevertheless, I still see inspection reports, occasionally from HMI, which ignore this and earlier guidance and, irritatingly, give the impression that we are still telling teachers how to teach. Let me give you a few examples from recent reports I have just read:

• ‘Teaching will improve if more time is given to independent learning’
• ‘Insufficient time was given to collaborative learning’
• ‘Students are not given sufficient opportunity to support their classmates in their learning’
• ‘Pupils are not sufficiently engaged in their own learning’
• ‘Teaching requires improvement because pupils do not get enough opportunities to work alone or in groups’
• ‘Weak teaching is characterised by teachers talking too much.’

It is quite acceptable for a teacher to talk a lot as long as the children are attentive, interested, learning and making progress. If not, it is quite legitimate for inspectors to say that poor planning and lesson structure meant that children lost focus and learnt very little.

There is so much more that could be said about teaching without infringing the professional judgement of teachers to decide the most appropriate style of teaching to get the best out of their students. For example:

• Do lessons start promptly?
• Are children focused and attentive because the teaching is stimulating?
• Is the pace of the lesson good because the teacher is proactive and dynamic in the classroom?
• Is homework regularly given?
• Is literacy a key component of lessons across the curriculum?
• Do teachers use display and technology to support teaching?
• Are low expectations resulting in worksheets being used rather than textbooks?
• Are the most able children provided with work which stretches them and allows them to fulfil their true potential?
• Are children expected to take books home to do their homework and return them the following day?
• Does marking give a clear indication of what the children have to do to improve and are clear targets being set?
• Is the structure of the lesson promoting good learning and are children given sufficient time to practise and reinforce what is being taught?
• Do teachers have sufficient expertise to be able to impart to students the necessary knowledge and skills to succeed?
• Does the school have a robust professional development programme which is improving the quality of teaching by disseminating good practice across the school or college?
• Are teaching assistants supporting teaching effectively or are they simply ‘floating about’?

In summary, inspectors should report on the outcomes of teaching rather than its style. So please, please, please think carefully before criticising a lesson because it doesn’t conform to a particular view of how children should be taught.

In saying all this, I recognise that a report-writing orthodoxy has grown up over the years which owes as much to the formulaic approach of the national strategies as to any guidance that Ofsted has given inspectors. We must continue to break free of this and encourage inspectors to use their freedom to report in language that has meaning and relevance to the institutions we inspect and the parents and students who read our reports.

Only by doing this can we hope to use inspection to raise standards.