What has Ofsted been trying to achieve with its ‘research reviews’, which have been taking place into a range of national curriculum subjects over the past 18 months?
To judge from the reaction from much of the profession to at least three of them, it is almost as if they were set up to alienate thoughtful teachers from across England, further damaging the inspectorate’s standing with the workforce.
I’ve been having a look this week at Ofsted’s use of some of the evidence it cites in its recently-published review of research in English, before pulling back and also noting responses to its documents on maths, and modern languages.
The widely-made argument, put forward to me by observers including classroom professionals, subject associations and academics who lead their fields, has been that the reviews have been partial and misleading, in their pursuit of what can appear ideological preconceptions about how the subjects should be taught.
The most damaging criticism may be that the reviews support a range of generally conservative or traditionalist-leaning positions currently in vogue at Ofsted, from the idea that teachers should not try too hard to make literature “relevant” to children to the notion that pupils need to learn the technicalities of language before they can engage with communication.
On the claim specifically that research findings have been misused, a summary of responses gives a flavour.
Last year, the Association of Mathematics Education Teachers called for the research review in its subject to be withdrawn, stating that findings cited in the report had been misrepresented such that 86 of 307 references did not match the statement in the report.
In an editorial published in March, the Language Learning Journal stated that Ofsted’s review of its subject was “partial, and therefore political”.
The National Association for the Teaching of English echoed this finding for its subject, saying in a statement: “The research drawn on is limited and partial, and referencing does not always support the claims that are made.”
A trustee of the English Association wrote in the TES that this was a “very poor report…dominated by opinion and ideological preferences.” A forensic blog from the English and Media Centre also called for it to be withdrawn.
On this issue of whether research had been misrepresented, I spoke to researchers specifically about the English document. I was staggered by what they told me.
Ofsted had stated that a book three English specialists had written summarised “areas of overlapping knowledge into 4 overlapping fields”. Actually, the writers told me, the book had listed five fields, with the one omitted by Ofsted – called “the idea of literature” – having been left out, they suggested, because it appeared to be “inconvenient” to the document’s narrative.
Ofsted’s document also, they said, included three statements on their findings which were simply untrue: they were “nowhere in the book”, the authors including Carol Atherton, a departmental head of English, told me.
This concern echoes that of a maths researcher who was quoted in Schools Week last year stating he had been “astonished” to find his research cited to support the notion that homework motivated children. He had not investigated this.
Ofsted has stated that these are not conventional literature reviews, where academics trawl through existing studies across a field to try to reach a view on the overall state of knowledge. Rather, they “set out the research that has informed our thinking on subject quality”.
But this seems to underline the widespread view that this has been a cherry-picking exercise, with research chosen to fit Ofsted’s pre-standing lines on what constitutes quality in a subject. In reality, given the above, it may be worse than that: it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some of the research seems to have been cited so that it can be made to look as if it supports Ofsted’s line.
And what appears to be Ofsted’s line is in many cases highly contested. To take the English document alone, there are concerns that it plays down the role of critical thinking among students and the idea that texts should be relevant to their lives. What I understand is the limited evidence on the relationship between the teaching of grammar and pupils’ writing attainment seems not to be reflected, either, in this document.
Ofsted’s reach into classrooms is clearly huge. If the inspectorate has been misusing research findings, as it appears, this has major implications, as schools generally take the inspectorate’s findings seriously. As Dr Atherton said: “People will be very very worried: very concerned that what their departments are doing is actually following what Ofsted says they should be doing.”
And yet, for all the inspectorate’s pointing-back to how it set up the reviews, this is widely being seen as a case of Ofsted simply not telling the full truth or even, it could be argued from the above, inventing findings to suit its line. In an organisation which should, as an inspection agency, stand or fall on its ability to pronounce objectively on reality, this should be seen as a national scandal.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist and founder of the education news website Education Uncovered.