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Ofsted chief gets her sums wrong

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‘THE school funding crisis is leading to cuts in teacher numbers and an increase in their workload, Ofsted warned today.’ 

The source for this story in the education journal TES on Wednesday was a blog written by Amanda Spielman, the Ofsted chief inspector. By quoting extensively from the blog, TES was able to paint a damning picture of the impact that funding pressuresare having on schools. Spielman highlighted rising teacher-pupils ratios, more out-of-subject teaching and an increasing workload all round. She also noted that the average age of teachers in England was the lowest in the OECD.

‘As we found in our teacher well-being study last year,’Spielman concluded, ‘this is likely to increase teacher stress and harm retention.’

It is testimony to Ofsted’s competence that such an important statement by the chief inspector was published on the morning of Wednesday February 19and taken down a few hours later. TES reported Ofsted’s explanation that ‘it was not ready to publish the research’ that accompanied its boss’s assertions.

It does seem clear, however, that Ofsted is backing schools in blaming shortcomings, including teacher stress, on spending cuts over the past decade. Quite how this conclusion fits with an improved performance by English schools in the latest international OECD PISA tests is far from obvious.

If any conclusion can be drawn from this most recent international data, it is that a spending shortfall has required our schools to deploy more cost-effective teaching methods and that these have enhanced attainment. The lesson that Ofsted and schools should have learnt is the one the OECD has been teaching to governments around the world for some time. It is the quality of teaching that matters most in schools, not the amount of money that is spent. If spending per pupil mattered most, we would be near the top of the OECD’s international attainment league table, instead of in mid-table mediocrity.

Measured by the OECD’s authoritative, triennial PISA tests for 15-year-olds, pupil attainment is generally higher in school systems around the world where teaching is mostly teacher-led. Child-centred group work of the type which defines primary school teaching in UK and permeates many lessons in secondary schools is rare in the superstar school systems of the Asia-Pacific which dominate the PISA tables’ top ten positions.

Closer to home, PISA best-in-Europe but comparatively low-spending Estonia is far more geared towards the Asia-Pacific than the UK’s educational ‘Blob’ would like us to know.  Mart Laidmets, a deputy secretary general at Estonia’s education ministry, told Wales Online that Estonia is ‘a little bit like Asian countries’ in having ‘a tradition to study a lot’. Importantly and sensibly, learning through play directed by teachers is at the heart of learning in kindergarten but more formal learning is gradually introduced.

Even Finland, the darling of our Blob for its perceived educational excellence, is flashing a warning beacon as a consequence of its growing embracement of child-centred teaching methodologies.  On the latest PISA tables for mathematics it has fallen from second to 16th place since 2006. In science the fall has been from first to sixth over the same period. A decline is also evident in literacy, from first position in both 2003 and 2006 to seventh now. Finland has the widest gender gap in reading among the 79 countries that participated in the PISA assessment.

Equally concerning for Finnish educators is that the number of poor readers identified by the PISA tests doubled between 2008 and 2018. Finland has long prided itself on a guarantee of equality regardless of family background. It was partly for this reason that in our recent general election, Labour declared an intention to emulate Finnish schools.

It is teaching methodology, though, that matters most in raising attainment in schools. Traditional teacher-led, whole class lessons are generally more effective than the pupil-led, group work alternative. There is a place for the latter but when it becomes the dominant teaching ingredient, the progress of pupils is retarded. It explains why, according to the OECD, UK 15-year-olds languish up to three years behind less-well funded pupils in some of the best school systems around the world.

The chief inspector’s blog blaming educational underperformance on funding shortages was pulled because Ofsted does not have research data for it in place. It should, however, have been pulled because its analysis is fundamentally flawed.

Child-centred teaching methodologies require an army of cash-consuming support staff. Extraordinary as it may seem, a majority of school employees are no longer teachers. Teacher-led classrooms allow for more effective teaching, better pupil behaviour, less teacher stress and, as evidence from around the world shows, bring better results. They are also much more cost effective. In the UK the money released could be used to enhance the salaries of good teachers and to attract the best new graduates into the profession.  

Research from the Institute of Fiscal Studies has shown that there was a real terms spending increase on education of around 900 per cent between 1953 and 2009. If more spending could solve the problem of underperformance in our schools, it would have been fixed a long time ago.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovernhttp://www.cre.org.uk
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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