Herding cats would be easier.

When I posted yesterday, I genuinely wanted my post to be about the important aspects of feedback as opposed to marking. I only made a mention of the challenges of Ofsted because I knew that otherwise that would be the response I’d get.

However, as so often is the case, far from being the hidden elephant in the room, Ofsted is fully on display and always up for discussion.

It’s only fair to say that I really appreciate the direction in which the inspectorate appears to be moving, and I genuinely believe the intentions of those at the helm. But it’s the troops that worry me. For just as there are bad teachers (and probably more than many of us would care to admit), so there are bad inspectors that wield more power than any of us would care to have to deal with. And there are many, many inspectors.

Following the post, Sean Harford pointed out the clarification document (which I think is great), and Paul Garvey tried to persuade me that I should have the courage of my convictions. But as I said yesterday, I just don’t. I can’t. And I’m in the fortunate position of being only deputy – imagine how hard it might be for a Head to have such courage.

For the reality is, for all its claims about not having preferred marking styles, and not expecting detail dialogue and many other things, it’s hard to see change on the ground. I wrote only recently about one inspector who proudly tells audiences that they should stick with levels. Any school inspected by him can hope that he follows the guidance about not prescribing a system – but he made equally clear what he’d be looking for. Why would any head of an improving school take the risk of not providing it?

Of course, the reality is that the majority (probably the vast majority) of inspectors are excellent professionals. But we ask them to do a mammoth task. Not only must they judge the current success of a school, they must also ascertain whether or not it is improving, and if not, what is holding it back. All in the space of a few hours. Inevitably there will be obvious places to look, but they’re not always the right places.

I’ve been at my current school 9 months and I’m now confident that I have a grasp of what its needs are as part of its school improvement journey. They’re not the same things that I thought back in September, and they’re certainly not the same things the Ofsted team recommended when they visited before I arrived. Of course, now my colleagues and I have to strike the right balance between doing what is right, and doing what the last team said we must do.

The trouble for inspection teams looking for areas for development is that 2 days is no time at all. It inevitably leads to the obvious conclusions. As I explained to Paul Garvey, in my experience curriculum development and structure is massively undervalued in schools and so means that children don’t make the progress they might. But when was the last time anyone ever saw that in an inspection report? It’s much harder to pin down. Much easier to stick in a statement that says marking could be improved. Who could ever argue with that?

Paul’s argument was that it would have to be supported by evidence; mine is that such evidence doesn’t exist. We cannot possibly point to a causal link between any form of marking and resultant learning/progress. Of course you can ask children, or look at books, or speak to teachers, or a whole host of other things. But the reality is, unpicking why children do or don’t make progress is hard. As David Didau says: we’re using a metaphor to map a mystery whenever we make such judgements.

So when a lead inspector decides that marking should be blamed for poor progress – or even in an excellent school is a good reason for withholding the Outstanding grade, how can anyone argue? If the inspector chooses to state that infrequent, or imprecise or brief feedback is to blame, what possible evidence can you provide to contradict it.

It is easy for a lead inspector to draw the conclusion that if marking were “improved” (of course, without stating how), that progress would also improve. Yet we actually know next to nothing about the link here. We talk about feedback as a great intervention, yet we know little of the detail of what that should look like. I have never seen any report, review or research state how often written feedback should be given, or in what style. We simply cannot be that precise.

But Ofsted reports imply that we can. If an inspector has a preconceived idea of what marking should look like, and doesn’t see it, then there is nothing stopping him from putting that as a recommendation. It would be easy to find evidence to support it, since any such evidence is inevitably subjective; it’s much harder to prove that it’s wrong.

It’s worth stating again, I think Ofsted is trying to change. I also think they usually get inspection judgements right. But the recommendations – that’s much trickier, and yet has such an impact on the profession as a whole. So our whole system is built upon the recommendations of the best intentions of inspectors who all have their own opinions – and years of experience – of what marking (and many other things like it) should look like.

And trying to change that? I’ll stick to herding cats.

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3 thoughts on “Herding cats would be easier.

  1. cazzypot2013 11 June 2015 at 9:17 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. dodiscimus 13 June 2015 at 8:01 am Reply

    It seems to me that there are two things that probably ought to happen. The first is that the evidence on the effect of ‘feedback’ comes out as strongly positive in major meta-analyses (EEF, Hattie, etc) but this is only the overall outcome – the individual studies vary from strongly negative to strongly positive. I’m not aware of anyone digging into this research more carefully in a systematic way but that process might yield some better information about what sorts of feedback processes work in which sort of settings. Questions about type and frequency of marking also seem to me to lend themselves pretty well to large-scale RCTs since we already have a system of whole-school marking policies and even a cursory consideration of the person-hours going into marking suggests that the cost of the research is trivial compared to the cost of doing marking that might not be productive. If it transpired that more was better then nothing changes but at least we would know we were not wasting our time; if the relationship between quantity of marking and outcomes isn’t strong then that’s an awful lot of time we’re wasting.
    Best wishes

    • Michael Tidd 13 June 2015 at 9:36 am Reply

      Yes, you’re absolutely right. The more I read about feedback research at the moment, the less confidence I have that it tells us what we need to know.

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