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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


OFSTED: we need a brand new model, not just a re-spray

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 February 2018

Frank Coffield
In September 2019 Ofsted will introduce a new Framework of Inspection and it has already begun to work on revising the current version. That timescale and the arrival of a new Chief Inspector offer the chance of change, but whether that change becomes merely cosmetic or genuinely radical will in part depend upon the amount of pressure we, the teaching profession, are prepared to apply.  The danger is that Ofsted will settle for a superficial respray to make it look fresh and up-to-date, but what we need is a model designed anew from first, educational principles – a recovery vehicle rather than a war chariot.
I want Ofsted, for instance, to abandon its grading scale which attaches a single label (“inadequate” or “outstanding”) to the new mega Further Education Colleges (with 40,000 students and 30+ departments). This is just one egregious example of the growing evidence that (more…)

Will the leopard change its spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 11 September 2017

Frank Coffield
Does Ofsted do more harm than good? I have examined the evidence which shows that, despite some clear benefits of inspection, Ofsted’s methods are invalid, unreliable and unjust. A report from the Education Policy Institute, for example, concluded that notable proportions of schools with the highest grades and lowest numbers of disadvantaged pupils are not down-graded even when their performance deteriorates. Conversely “the most deprived schools are systematically more likely to be down-graded”. The very schools that most need help are further harmed by punitive Ofsted reports that make their recruitment and retention of teachers even more difficult.
Besides, attaching a single adjective such as “outstanding “ or “inadequate” to a large FE college with 20,000 students, 1,000 staff and 30+ departments is a statistical absurdity. Research has repeatedly demonstrated that there is great variation within a college or school and one adjective cannot capture either complexity or diversity.
Ofsted needs to change radically and in my new book, which is launched at the Institute of Education by the IoE Press on 13 September at 5:30 pm, and called Will the Leopard Change Its Spots? A new model of inspection for Ofsted, I offer an (more…)


By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 18 March 2015

Frank Coffield
At the end of a recent conference, we were invited to share what we’d learned and one student offered: “What I’ve learned today is that we should build co-construction together.”
Another conference opened with this remark from a specialist in education management: “The polity in general and educational governance in particular have recently undergone a paradigmatic shift.” Before he could utter another word, a school governor (a local industrialist), cut in to ask “I’ve heard of a morning shift, but what in heaven’s name is a ‘paradigmatic’ shift?” If academics continue in this vein, there will soon be calls for simultaneous translation into English.
We are being pressurised to maximise impact so perhaps it would be a good idea, when addressing teachers, to omit the technical jargon, the tired (if not completely expired) metaphors and the comforting euphemisms. Recently I’ve read in (more…)

Politicians should be held accountable when their pet experiments fail

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 January 2015

Frank Coffield
The closure of a third ‘free’ school, this time in Durham, raises some very serious issues for our whole education system and for our democracy. The coalition government invested £900,000 of taxpayers’ money in the Durham free school for only 34 students when it opened in September 2013. Now after five terms it has attracted only 94 pupils, and almost five times as much resource is being spent on these pupils than on (more…)

How England's emetic testing regime is causing new academic diseases

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 May 2014

Frank Coffield
Students are contracting a new disease – bulimia academica – defined as repeated bouts of bingeing on information and regurgitating it in exams. The pressures on students to obtain the best possible grades have become so intense that they feel forced to resort to ingesting large amounts of information and then, in government-induced bouts of vomiting, otherwise known as national tests, they spew it out.
The term – bulimia academica – is not being used lightly as that would insult those suffering from bulimia nervosa. Instead it is considered to be every bit as serious as its medical counterpart. Far from feeling better afterwards, students end up feeling empty and educationally malnourished. The students I’ve interviewed in FE and Sixth Form Colleges come to associate learning not with growing self-confidence and a sense of achievement, but with stress and self-disgust. Learning for them is reduced to the skill of passing exams rather than the means of understanding and coming to love the subjects they’re studying.
The cause of this new disease is no mystery. The increasingly punitive testing regime in England is responsible. Politicians from all the main parties will have you believe that it is robust and rigorous. It’s neither. It’s purgative and emetic and as such is both ineffective and inefficient.
This learning disorder is compounded by its equally distressing twin – anorexia academica – that affects individuals and the system. Some students become anxious about being seen by their classmates to be clever; they restrict their intake to bite-size chunks of information which makes them easier to swallow – the educational equivalent of chicken nuggets. In their teenage years, they lose their previously keen appetite for learning, give lame excuses for repeated failures to learn and pretend to have studied when they have not; and pretend not to have studied when they have. They spend their time reading self-help books about study skills without ever acquiring any. This response may be the self-harming outcome of having been tested every year since they were five years of age, a regime which has turned their stomachs against learning.
The education system also shows symptoms of the same malaise, with some curricula driven by qualifications that have had the educational nourishment stripped out of them. Groups of students can be found in colleges discussing topics about which they don’t have sufficient knowledge to form opinions and so their learning remains shallow. We offer young people so-called ‘transferable’ skills and then discover they need to be in command of a body of knowledge before they can be either critical or creative.
What’s to be done? In a new book, published this month by IOE Press, called Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in Further Education, I’ve scoured the research literature for (and tried out in practice) the most effective interventions; and I discuss the results. Even within the tightening parameters set by government, we can still work at transforming our colleges into learning communities and our tutors into experts in teaching, learning and assessment (TLA). Now that Ofsted has decreed that no college can be judged ‘outstanding’ without being ‘outstanding’ at TLA, the best response is for colleges to access the growing body of knowledge on TLA. And this book is devoted to showing how that can be done and is being done within some colleges.
Frank Coffield is an emeritus professor at the IOE
This post has been re-blogged from IOE Press blog
A book launch for Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in further education will take place at Blackwell’s Bookshop at the IOE on Wednesday 7 May 2014 at 6 p.m.

There's no such thing as 'best practice'

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 24 April 2014

Frank Coffield
For over 30 years a central plank in the reform programme for education of all governments has been the strategy of identifying and disseminating ‘best practice’. There’s only one thing wrong with this approach: there’s no such thing, but the FE and Skills sector is saturated with the term.
I first began to doubt the strategy when watching with student teachers a video of an ‘outstanding’ teacher working with a small group of well motivated and impeccably behaved pupils in a sun-lit classroom. Were the students inspired by the ‘best practice’ of Miss Newly Qualified Teacher of the Year? On the contrary, they either pointed out that they were teaching not 12 middle-class but 32 working-class students from a sink estate, some of whom were refugees with next to no English. Or they worried that they would never be able to match the smooth, practised performance of the more experienced teacher.
In other words, the two contexts were so different that little learning was transferred or the expertise of the “outstanding” teacher was so far above their current level of performance that they felt intimidated. My attempt to spread ‘best practice’ was more like a con-trick played by the unimaginative on the unsuspecting, particularly because the students were left to work out for themselves how to transfer the ‘best practice’ of the video to their own classrooms.
Further reflection led me to the central weakness with the strategy: it builds up psychological resistance in those at the receiving end, because they are being told implicitly that their practice is poor or inadequate. If their practice was thought good or outstanding, why are they being expected to adopt someone else’s ‘best practice’? Almost certainly they think their practice is pretty effective; that’s why they are using it.
Besides, there are questions that need to be asked of all those pushing ‘best practice’. Who says it is? On what grounds? Based on what criteria? Would another observer looking at the same teaching episode agree that it was the best? Is this ‘best practice’ equally effective with all age groups and all subject areas? What are the distinctions between ‘good’, ‘best’ and ‘excellent’ practice, terms which are used interchangeably? These questions are not answered; we‘re expected to take ‘best practice’ on authority, without evidence. There are no sure-fire, student-proof recipes for the complex, ambiguous and varied problems in teaching.
Luckily, there is a well tested alternative – JPD – where tutors jointly (J) share their practice (P) in order to develop (D) it. In an atmosphere of mutual trust and joint exploration, they explain to each other their successes and struggles in teaching their subject. They then move on to observing and evaluating each other’s classroom practices in a supportive atmosphere which encourages the creativity of both partners.
JPD restores trust in the professional judgement of teachers because it does not undercut their current practice, as happens with the strategy of ‘best practice’, but rather it seeks to enhance it by opening it up to discussion with supportive colleagues. Both partners in the exchange play the roles of observer and observed, of being the originator and receiver of practical advice; and both roles are accorded equal status. This equality in the relationships between tutors in JPD goes a long way to explain why it is proving to be far more effective than ‘best practice’.
This is one of the main themes that I explore in my new book – Beyond Bulimic Learning: Improving teaching in FE – which is published this month by the Institute of Education Press. The rest of the book is devoted to showing how some FE and sixth form colleges are responding to Ofsted making teaching and learning the number one priority by introducing what the research claims are the most effective interventions, while dropping the least effective.
I shall explore here in a little detail two examples. First, I show how to harness the potential power of feedback; I say ‘potential’ because too often feedback has negative effects and some types of feedback are more powerful than others. Many students are dissatisfied with the quality of the feedback they receive – eg what is meant by “Be more analytic”? Tutors too are frustrated by students who prefer to receive praise rather than being challenged to think more deeply. The research emphatically suggests that tutors use the strong definition of feedback, namely, if it doesn’t change students’ behaviour or thinking, it isn’t feedback.
Another chapter shows how Socratic questioning can change the culture of learning in classrooms and workshops. It’s a means of challenging students’ thinking in a non-threatening way; and it treats challenges from students as constructive contributions to dialogue.
Other chapters show how social media can motivate students; combine psychological and economic factors to explain students’ motivation; and they assess the impact of ‘flipped’ learning, peer teaching and peer assessment.
The final chapter addresses the question: “can we transform classrooms and colleges without first transforming the role of the state?” My answer is that we can improve the quality of teaching and learning and make our colleges more like learning communities even within the current constraints of government policy and declining resources.