Common English Forum response to draft Ofsted Education Inspection Framework
Response of the Common English Forum
The Common English Forum brings together representatives of twelve subject associations and other professional bodies across the span of English studies, from the primary sector through to higher education, and across the three different fields of English: literature, language and creative writing. It meets regularly with the Department for Education on questions of national curriculum, examination reform, facilitating subjects and other policy areas. For the purposes of the present consultation, the Forum convened a special meeting and sought input from other parties with relevant expertise. This response statement represents the collective view of the Forum and of others consulted. The organisations which contributed directly to the drafting of it are the English Association, the English and Media Centre, the United Kingdom Literacy Association, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Educationand the Let’s Think in English programme. Some of these organisations are making their own separate submissions, to which this statement occasionally cross-refers.
There is much about the draft Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (EIF) that the Common English Forum welcomes. It addresses a broad consensus of concerns that exist in English education. We all agree that there is too much teaching to exams and that there needs to be more of a focus on a broad and balanced curriculum; we all agree, too, that teaching has become too data-driven and that something needs to be done about teacher workload.
The EIF itself is a brief document which we strongly endorse with one or two qualifications. If schools are left to interpret it on their own terms, we believe it will contribute to the development of a much healthier education system – one which will encourage schools to develop their own approaches to curriculum and pedagogy without worrying about whether or not they are teaching ‘the Ofsted way’. Such a system – perhaps ‘culture’ is a better word – would see a mixed economy of approaches emerging that are tolerant of one another, and even borrow from one another, rather than being endlessly confrontational and defensive. For English, this economy would be rooted in the pluralistic practices and kinds of knowledge that exist not only in schools, but also in the three academic disciplines of English: Literature, Language and Linguistics, and Creative Writing.
The EIF, though, does not exist in isolation, but is part of a package of documentation that is bound to have a strong influence on how it is interpreted by schools. Much of this documentation shows distinct biases about what inspectors might be directed to look for when passing judgement on schools. In tone, this is out of step with the light-touch, open-ended EIF itself. Left unchallenged, there is a risk that it will lead some schools to adopt certain practices against their better judgement. Though Ofsted, like us, would like to see a richer, more robust curriculum, some of the documentation seems to offer an inadequate account of ‘richness’ as it would apply to our subject (and presumably others) and even runs counter to some of its values and traditions. The documents in question include the Ofsted Inspection Handbook, the EIF Overview of Research, and various training Powerpoints and videos. In their current form, there is a risk that they could lead to new ‘Ofsted myths’ springing up to replace the ones that teachers (and inspectors) have been battling against for years.
We urge Ofsted to revise this supportive documentation to ensure that the new inspection framework does not lead subject specialists to replace the current set of data-driven, assessment-led practices with ones which are equally detrimental to the subject. In English, we aim to promote disciplinary coherence and convey a clear conception of knowledge to our pupils. With this in mind, the following are the areas that we feel Ofsted needs to address when implementing its new EIF in relation to English. We recognise that the documents currently available cannot be subject-specific, but are writing this in the hope and expectation that separate guidance will be developed for inspectors about English.
1. Emphasise the importance of subject knowledge and continuing professional development
We believe that teachers of English should be well qualified within their subject area, but also that teachers should work to develop their subject knowledge throughout their careers. Part of this involves the provision of high-quality CPD where the specific focus is on subject knowledge. This area of development has been under-represented in CPD provision for many years. Underpinning this is our belief that teaching is at its best when the teacher is passionate about the subject and can share that passion with learners. The continuing development of subject knowledge and related pedagogy is, we believe, an important part of maintaining that passion.
To that end, the Common English Forum advocates teacher involvement with CPD via subject associations and learned societies such as those represented on the Forum. (Other subjects, of course, have equivalent associations.) Subject association conferences, publications and resources offer valuable support for subject teaching across all phases, including teacher education. Evidence of involvement with subject associations and participation in such activities should be identified as a positive factor in inspections.
The draft Framework states that ‘leaders (should) provide effective support for those teaching outside their main areas of expertise’. It would be difficult to argue against this, but at the same time it is worth observing that English as a subject discipline in secondary schools is more frequently taught by non-specialists than is the case in other subject areas. While non-specialists often provide excellent teaching of English, we believe that it is desirable for the subject to be taught by specialists in that discipline. An alternative form of words for the Framework might be: ‘Schools should do all they can to ensure that as far as possible teaching is carried out by teachers who are specialists in that subject. Where this is not possible, leaders should provide effective support for those teaching outside their main subject area such as that provided by subject associations and learned societies.’
2. Acknowledge the diversity of English as a set of practices
One of the strengths of English is that it can be studied effectively in many different ways. Ofsted must make room for this – recognising the merits of schools that place high value on, for example, knowledge about language, studying multimodal texts, exploring popular culture alongside canonical texts, etc.
3. Avoid promoting one curriculum model over another
Ofsted’s research material splits curriculum into three categories: knowledge-rich, knowledge-engaged and skills-led. This does not seem to us a helpful distinction, given that effective curriculum models need elements of all three. The guidance material is also clearly weighted in favour of a particular construction of the first of these three categories.
The distinction may, in fact, lead to an unduly complicated conceptualisation of what a good curriculum should be and make schools unduly anxious about trying to fit what they do into one of the categories (and being particular anxious if they do not subscribe to 'knowledge-rich'). In fact, the attempt to fit the peg into a narrow hole might actually risk the richness of a so-called ‘knowledge-rich’ curriculum. We’re all aware of how new ‘constructions’ can lead schools to skew their thinking to fit a particular model, distorting their curriculum in the process. In this case, an attempt to follow an ‘Ofsted model’ could have the inverse of the desired effect, producing a distortion of the broad and balanced curriculum being advocated.
4. Recognise that the ‘how’ of English can never be separated from the ‘what’
The Ofsted training videos talk a lot about inspections focusing on the ‘what’ of curriculum rather than the ‘how’. But in English the two are inseparable – the ‘how’ in relation to the ‘what’. How a text is studied is just as important as what the text is. In fact, given that the subject is so huge and will always require choices about what to include and omit, the ‘how’ is what provides a coherent thread for pupils progressing from year to year. The texts will vary, but the forms of response will remain generally constant, developing in sophistication.
5. Recognise there is much more to a good English curriculum than ‘learning science’ theories
Ofsted’s Overview of Research has a narrow definition of learning, which focuses on a limited body of research that is much more about the ‘how’ than the ‘what’ of curriculum, and is thus at odds with Ofsted’s own stated desire to shift the focus to curriculum content. Spaced or distributed practice, massed practice, interleaving, retrieval practice, elaboration, dual coding, cognitive load theory, interesting as they may be, are all derived from the fields of brain science and psychology. These have a long general history, but they lack a strong research base showing the impact of their direct application in specific classroom settings.
This is particularly the case for English, given that most examples are drawn from Maths, Science, or even learning a sport. Applied too rigidly to English, these theories risk limiting textual exploration and personal response. Ofsted needs to recognise different paradigms of learning within the English subject area, and draw on a wider range of evidence bases. See for example Eaglestone (2017); Davis (2013); and Tennent et al. (2016).
At times the theories proposed by Ofsted actively work against some of the subject’s established practices. For example, the Ofsted training material stresses the importance of ‘prior knowledge’. When teaching a literary text, it recommends giving pupils lots of background information about its context before reading begins. This can be a useful approach, but ignores the fact that in many cases such context emerges within texts themselves, and that coming across information in this way is integral to the reading process itself.
This is equally true for children in the primary phase of education whose learning about narrative device and authorial intent can be interrupted by this approach. We are already hearing of some pupils being told what a novel or play is about in its entirety before reading, as a consequence of misunderstanding what is meant by ‘prior knowledge’. We don’t want a situation where this becomes the norm because of a lack of clarity in Ofsted guidance.
The omission of any mention of subject disciplinary research (and subject-related educational research) is of equal concern. At primary and secondary level, much of the most valuable research for teachers of English is that conducted within the subject itself. Teachers who are up-to-date with current research about knowledge and practices in their own subject will be well placed to share that knowledge with their pupils. Clearly the material published so far cannot go into the specifics of individual subjects. However, it could emphasise that care that needs to be taken when deciding whether or not a particular learning theory is suitable within a particular discipline.
We urge Ofsted to accept the conclusions of the report of the British Educational Research Association and the Royal Society for the Arts, Research and the teaching profession: Building the capacity for a self-improving education system (2014), which recommends that teachers should have opportunities to engage in research and enquiry, and that schools and colleges become research-rich environments in which to work. The report defines as a research-rich context one which makes ‘systematic use of evidence from multiple sources in schools, colleges and classrooms’ (p. 21) rather than relying on narrowly-confined evidence bases.
6. Understand the limitations of assessment
We strongly endorse the EIF’s statement on assessment and hope that this message will be reinforced in other documentation and inspector training. Over-assessment in primary and secondary education has been detrimental to English and counter-productive pedagogically. A recognition of the limitations of frequent assessment will help to reduce the number of ‘exam-style’ activities that learners engage in – especially throughout Key Stage 3 – and create more opportunities for extended or creative reading and writing activities – fostering enthusiasm and enjoyment of the subject.
7. Prioritise language teaching over vocabulary teaching
The Ofsted documents place a strong, and in our view disproportionate, emphasis on the importance of vocabulary teaching. While there is clearly some correlation between vocabulary size and attainment, as with other aspects of language development, Ofsted needs to be clear that vocabulary development itself can only occur within the context of rich study within the subject as a whole – in particular wider reading and rich classroom talk. The explicit teaching of vocabulary is of some use in developing pupils’ language ability. However, what can be achieved by this is relatively limited and of almost no value if further language study is neglected as a consequence. The most up-to-date research, from the Education Endowment Foundation and others, including significant meta-studies not referenced in the Ofsted research document, acknowledge this. Inspectors need to be made fully aware of this so that they recognise when engagement with vocabulary is of genuine benefit to pupils. For details, see the submission from Let’s Think in English.
8. Avoid the tendentious term ‘cultural capital’
‘Cultural capital’ is defined in the handbook as referring to the learning contained in the National Curriculum programmes of study. If that is the case, then why use the term at all, particularly as it is a difficult concept that is tricky to pin down, often used glibly and without exploration of its full implications? It belongs primarily to the field of sociology and the principles behind it do not transfer simply across to school learning.
Its inclusion in the EIF and guidance materials risks making English teachers feel obliged to focus on texts of a particular kind, and to stay clear of others, even though they would offer rich learning experiences. Inspectors should also recognise that English study, within the academic discipline, often involves questioning what culture is, which texts are ascribed high value and why, for example. This process needs disentangling from any concepts of cultural capital that remain in the guidance materials otherwise it could lead to the undermining of later statements regarding the commitment to ensuring that we value all learners.
9. Recognise the different purposes of reading
The documents make positive comments about the value of reading for pleasure, which are to be welcomed. However, care needs to be taken when recommending that pupils need to read material at or above their chronological age. Clearly this is desirable in the classroom on almost all occasions. However, Ofsted needs to recognise, as the Department for Education did in a 2012 report by its education standards research team, that there is an established link between reading for pleasure and attainment which is not based on level of reading, or at least presents a more complex picture. The guidance materials need to take care not to lead schools to place excessive limits on reading material outside the classroom, and so risk putting pupils off reading. At the moment, some of the guidance material implies that challenging reading material will only be looked on favourably by inspectors. Young readers do need to be challenged – but they also have a right to feel comfortable in their personal reading choices so that they can genuinely read for pleasure.
Levels of difficulty or challenge for all texts – fiction and non-fiction – are not solely dependent on word or sentence length or complexity but on a range of other factors such as metaphorical use of language; textual structure; multimodality. Nor do levels of difficulty necessarily relate to chronological age. As Alexander and Jarman (2018) have shown, young readers may take great pleasure in reading challenging non-fiction texts such as science books.
Ofsted therefore needs to refer to a much wider range of research evidence about fiction and non-fiction reading tendencies rather than relying on one single data source. See especially the work of Cremin et al. (2014), which has influenced large numbers of teachers who are, in turn, undertaking exactly the kind of research into reading which Ofsted advocates. For further examples, see the submission from Let’s Think in English.
10. Recognise multiple ways of using talk in the classroom
The documents recognise the value of classroom talk, which is to be welcomed. However, they include lots of qualifications about how speaking and listening activities need to be tightly structured and formalised. This is not always the case in English, and so it is very important that Ofsted inspectors are clear about the difference between talk as ‘oracy’ and ‘talk for learning’. The first is about helping pupils to speak and listen well in multiple contexts – everything from formal presentations to informal dialogue, from individual speeches, to group discussions. By contrast, with ‘talk for learning’, the focus is less on improving talk and more on how dialogic approaches support learning in the subject. At primary and secondary level this is talk for subject learning, first and foremost. The qualifications about structuring classroom talk are unhelpful unless this distinction is fully understood.
The above points will presumably apply to some extent to other subject disciplines too, but our concern here is exclusively with English. We already operate in a system where form in English is excessively valued over content (see Myra Barrs’ comments towards the end of this excellent Guardian article about English). This means that pupils are often being rewarded for performing to an examination-focused idea of what English looks like, rather than for the quality of their ideas and thinking. This problem won’t go away if English teachers feel pressured into conforming to the rather narrow notion of learning contained in some parts of the EIF documentation. We will simply see one set of performances replaced by another. This needn’t be the case but it does require Ofsted to act firmly and clearly to identify the broad range of practices that are possible in an English curriculum. And it requires a recognition that a national regulatory body has a responsibility to acknowledge the validity of multiple approaches to curriculum and learning within specific subject disciplines.
Alexander, J., & Jarman, R. (2018). The pleasures of reading non‐fiction. Literacy, 52 (2), 78-85)
Cremin, T., Mottram, M., Collins, F. M., Powell, S., & Safford, K. (2014). Building communities of engaged readers: Reading for pleasure. London: Routledge.
Davis, P. (2013). Reading and the reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Eaglestone, R. (2017.) Doing English: A guide for literature students. 4thed. London: Routledge.
Tennent, W., et al. (2016). Guiding Readers - Layers of Meaning: A handbook for teaching reading comprehension to 7-11-year-olds. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.