The Importance of Teaching: OFSTED’s view

Michael WilshawOn Saturday I was lucky enough to be able to attend the inaugural London Festival of Education. Whilst there, I attended a talk by Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools, entitled, “The Importance of Teaching: OFSTED’s View.” Since this is such a crucial issue for teachers in the UK, I have transcribed Wilshaw’s talk and posted it below:
It’s great to be here, to be invited to this Festival of Education, the first one, invited by the Institute and by Chris, and I hear it’s gone extremely well.

I’m also pleased to be here because I am a London teacher, or was a London teacher as you know, a teacher for over forty years in London, both north and south London before I got this really easy job as new Chief Inspector at OFTSED, and I thoroughly enjoyed my life as a teacher and as a head.

If somebody had said to me way back in the 60s and 70s when I started teaching that London would be achieving what it is achieving now I wouldn’t have believed it. I think there are two messages behind that.

One is that if somebody ever says, and it will be said up and down the country, this can’t be done here, it’s impossible to achieve here, we’ve got these sorts of children here, or the political difficulties are such here, don’t believe them, because it can happen, because those same sort of things were said about London when I started teaching, were said about Hackney, certainly, when I moved there ten, eleven years ago. It can be done. And that is why it’s so important that people are optimistic about the future of our education service and are determined to do what is being done day in and day out in London.

The second message that I’ve got is that if we’re going to move towards a world-class education system, and that’s what everyone in this room here wants, then we’ve got to make sure that what’s happening in London should be happening elsewhere, and there isn’t such a great variation between different parts of the country, which is staggering, and which other countries are dealing with much better than we are.

Chris mentioned the annual report which is going to come out in ten days. I can’t reveal the details of that but it will have a much more regional focus than ever before and I do urge you to read it, take it to your bed and read it for bedtime reading, look at the web tool, it’s going to be a very sophisticated web tool attached to the report this time round where you can see what’s happening in different parts of the country and draw the comparisons between London and other paths of the country.

It’s happened here in London because of good teachers and good teaching; that’s what’s happened – good teachers, good teaching, led by good people. And there are lots of things I can say about teaching and the quality of teaching but I just want to focus on one and draw some conclusions from it, and that is that good teaching is inextricably linked to good leadership. Good teaching is linked to good leadership. I’ve rarely been into a school where the leadership is lousy and seen people working collectively together.

I want to give you just a small anecdote from my own experience on this where a dozen or so years ago I was seconded to a special measures school, a very badly failing school in east London. Before I went in, the DCS at the time, the Director of Children’s Services, said you need to know, this is a very, very badly failing school. Everything is going wrong that you could possibly imagine can go wrong is going wrong in this school. We’re really worried about it, in fact we’re thinking of closing it. So armed with that information, I went to visit the school and see it for the first time, met as usual by the caretaker, the sort of caretaker that mentions, ‘what on earth are you doing here mate? This is just too tough to turn around,’ that sort of negativity I’ve just mentioned, ‘even the Alsatians go around in pairs here’.

Anyway, when I started there, expecting the worst, I was pleasantly surprised. It wasn’t as bad as it was painted. There were a significant number of teachers, in fact most of the teachers, there were a few that weren’t of course, most of the teachers were incredibly committed to the children of that school – arrived at the school early, left late, and were doing their very, very best.

The problem wasn’t one of those teachers, but it was leadership. Leadership of that school, not just the Head and the Senior Team, weren’t pulling things together, weren’t recognising what was happening in the school, didn’t identify those really good staff, didn’t support them, and didn’t certainly promote them in the way that they should have been. They allowed, because the culture was so rotten in the school, a small number of really challenging children, very badly behaved children, to rule the roost. Consequently, those who had been pulled into that behaviour to be disruptive in class and be rude and abusive to teachers were being pulled in who normally wouldn’t be pulled in. So the culture was wrong, and the culture was wrong because the leaders did not, did not lead on culture. And that’s at the heart of what I’m going to say, which is that you can’t divorce teaching from the culture of the school, and the culture is determined by leadership.

The best leaders – and I hope lots of people, good teachers, outstanding teachers, in the school want to be leaders of our schools – the best leaders understand that you can only improve teaching if you combine a strong vision, what you want to see in the classroom, with a common sense and pragmatic approach to school organisation. In other words, no amount of abstract theorising on pedagogy and the importance of teaching will count for much unless leaders focus on what is necessary to create the conditions in which great teaching can take place.

They must ensure that schools are orderly places where children respect each other and authority and staff.

Places where newly qualified teachers and those in the early years of the profession feel protected nurtured and encouraged to remain in teaching.

If schools do not have professional tutors they should get them. I’m always amazed when I go to schools – particularly secondary schools – and ask newly qualified teachers, ‘who is the person looking after you on a daily basis?’ and that person isn’t easily identified.

Places where the average teacher, not necessarily the outstanding high performer, can do reasonably well.

Places where there is sufficient attention to policy and procedure – and detail – so that everyone understands how the school works.

And places where communication to everyone – including people working in the kitchens – is good, and they feel valued and part of the school.

Good leaders running good schools understand all this, and there are many of them in London. They know that getting all those things right matters, so that they can focus on the most important task of any leader, which is leading on teaching and learning.

Good leaders are passionate about the quality of teaching because they know it is an absolute prerequisite to raising standards. They demonstrate this passion in their own classroom practice if they happen to teach. In the power of their assemblies, when they’re on show in front of the whole school community. The best heads that I’ve worked with – and I’ve been fortunate in working with lots of good heads – took assemblies really, really importantly – they saw it as an important part of the school day, and if they were taking an assembly, they’d put a lot of time and effort into it because they were on show to the rest of the school community, not just the children but also the staff to show that they were good teachers as well.

And in their commitment to professional development – not just on one or two training days in the year, but consistently, throughout the teaching week and the year.

Good leaders foster an open door culture, where teachers are comfortable to be observed and to observe others.

Where good practice is discussed and disseminated and where performance management is seen as a positive rather than as a negative.

Good leaders recognise and reward good teaching. They celebrate it at every turn, and promote those who model good practice, no matter how young they are – this isn’t about long service, this is recognising good people and promoting them in the school and seeing them as role models for the rest.

But they’re also people, they’re also leaders, who don’t shy away from challenging underperformance in the classroom. We know what the research says. I’m sure you’ve heard it throughout today, on the progress levels of children taught by a good teacher as opposed to a poor one. The difference is equivalent to a whole year’s learning. We know what the Sutton Trust says about the impact we would have on our international league position if the ten per cent of the lowest performing teachers were brought up to the average.

Our new inspection framework recognises the importance of leadership in teaching, and that is why inspectors will comment in every report – and I will throw it back if I don’t see it – comment in every report on whether the leaders have a sense of what’s going on in the classroom, and whether they’re taking professional development and performance management as seriously as they should.

As you know, inspectors will be scrutinising less paperwork and spending much more time in lessons than ever before. But they will do so without a preconceived view of what makes a good lesson.

Let me emphasise again to anyone who hasn’t heard this from me or from anyone else in OFSTED. OFSTED does not have a preferred style of teaching, does not have a preferred style of teaching. Inspectors will simply judge teaching on whether children are engaged, focused, learning, and making progress, and in the best and most outstanding lessons, being inspired by the person in front of them.

We don’t want to see lessons that are too crowded, too frenetic, and with too many activities designed simply to impress the inspector. And if that’s happened in the past, it’s wrong. We simply want to see teaching that embeds learning. Ultimately that is what matters.

Indeed, our recent Improving English forum report found a disturbing lack of extended reading and writing in English lessons, because too many teachers thought that they had to plan lessons that focused on activity rather than learning, so if teachers are going through with the class a Shakespeare text, that’s absolutely fine, and do nothing else, that’s fine. If a teacher on a wet Friday afternoon is doing a fairly boring lesson on quadratic equations but the children are learning, that’s fine as well.

So let me be very clear: our judgement on teaching will be predicated on the quality of learning and the progress that students are making. I want to emphasise this because too often I hear that OFTSED adopts a tick box, formulaic approach to lesson observation. If this has been the case before it certainly won’t be now.

Good leaders recognise that while the different methods and orthodoxies slip in and out of fashion, the qualities that help, and make excellent teachers never change. They are timeless and universal.

You’ll recognise the most important ones – an understanding that planning is important to a good lesson, but only as a framework in which the teacher can adapt to the changing dynamics of the classroom and the different needs of the children.

The ability to reflect and critically evaluate performance at the end of the lesson and at the end of the school day.

The ability to differentiate teaching styles and resources for children’s different aptitudes and abilities.
The capacity, no matter how long in teaching, to learn from others and be receptive to advice and training.

And above all an unyielding commitment – an unyielding commitment – to help every child reach their full potential.

I’m sure all you here recognise those qualities and think of many more. OFSTED will certainly recognise and give credit to staff who demonstrate these qualities when they are observed in an inspection. Not all of them, but hopefully most of them.

As I’ve said many times and I say again today, teaching at its best is a most noble and honourable profession. As Chief Inspector, I’m determined that OFSTED recognises successful teaching and those leaders who make that teaching possible.

I’m also determined that OFSTED should support those heads and leaders in schools that are less than good, particularly in this new category of ‘requires improvement’. Heads that are doing their level best in sometimes challenging circumstances to pull a school forward by focusing on what really matters. We will highlight very clearly in our inspection report on the first page and also in the section on leadership and management that these leaders are doing a great job and that the future of the school looks much brighter because the leadership is grasping the nettle. Inspectors will also be asking more searching questions of the governing boards of these schools to ensure they understand the challenges facing the head teacher and are providing the right level of professional, personal, and often emotional support.

Finally, I make no apologies for raising the bar by insisting that all schools should be good schools, and that good is the only acceptable provision for our children and young people and learners in this country. That’s what children deserve, that’s what parents want, and of course teachers want to work in good schools or schools that have the ambition to be good. That’s what teachers want.

We have a great chance of radically improving our school system because – and I’m sure if there head teachers in this room now they’ll agree with this – because we’ve got better people coming into teaching than ever before. That was always my experience over the last ten years. But the big challenge is to hold onto them. Retention is even more important than recruitment.

That’s why its so important that teacher training institutions are good, and we’ll be much more rigorous in our inspection framework of how good these places are, that assessment is good and that teaching is good. I’m not sure they’re always as good as sometimes they’ve been painted. We’ll be looking at that very carefully.

And that trainees are placed in good schools for their teaching practice, and most importantly they get their first job in a good school where they see good practice on a daily basis.

Given the demographics of our profession, with up to forty per cent of head teachers retiring within the next five years, it is vitally important that these young, talented and committed people stay in teaching and move into leadership positions more quickly, and do what I’ve just seen to be describing: creating good schools, with the right culture, which support great teaching and learning.
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Thanks to Keven Bartle (@kevbartle) for making a recording of this talk available.