Differentiation: A plea to Ofsted

Written by: Dr Adam Abdelnoor | Published:
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Please Ofsted – how can we address the gaps in learning within our classes of 30 children without elaborately differentiating our teaching intent? Dr Adam Abdelnoor asks the question...

Ofsted has little confidence in schools’ internal progress and attainment data. As Stephen Rollett said in April, “it is clear from the draft handbook that Ofsted is proposing not to look at schools’ internal data” (SecEd, 2019).

Instead, under its new Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019) it wants to know exactly how schools are planning their curriculum delivery (what it now calls “intent”) and how well they are carrying it out (what they now call “implementation”). As regards the third “i” – impact – it seems Ofsted’s primary focus will be on national moderated outcomes.

Secondary schools that had purchased progress-tracking software specifically to demonstrate attainment may feel some annoyance, especially if budgets were tight.

But there are two reasons why the changes Ofsted has implemented are a cause for celebration. The first reason is the reason Ofsted has given, which relates to their needs as an inspectorate. Its concerns reflect hard research evidence and a growing body of opinion sceptical about the reliability and validity of pupil assessment practices.

The problem Ofsted has identified has a teaching and learning perspective, too. Standardised assessment regimes draw teachers’ attention away from the specifics of each child’s learning path, labelling children without shedding much light on what they need to learn next.

Even if we could assess a class of children reliably, what would we actually be saying about the individual children?

As a parent, I am more enlightened when told that my child can “multiply two two-figure numbers”, or can “write fractions as decimals”, than by being told my child has reached Level 2c. Is this not equally true of the teacher? We are better placed to scaffold our teaching when we know precisely what numbers and operations skills a child already knows than by having an opinion about what level they are.

The counter-argument is that if the grade is correctly assigned the teacher will know what the pupil is capable of. But we all know the process of summing up a broad raft of competencies into a single value involves a sort of mental haggling to balance the conflicting messages the detailed assessment is giving.

We cannot summarise something without reducing the precision and subtlety of the raw data. A global score easily becomes a social group identifier, telling the child and the others in their group where they rank.

Employers, and higher and further education settings, would in theory also like to know exactly what an applicant can and can’t do. But since the function of the applications process is often binary – appoint or no – it does not help to have the detailed picture. In that context reducing outcomes to a global score systematically is more effective than making on-the-go judgements.

Ofsted is probably right to say we have relied over-much on summative end-of-cycle global assessments as a basis for planning, and in doing so have papered over gaps in progress.

Assigning summary levels to pupils also has a big impact on teacher expectations – proven to have a significant impact on performance (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). And when children’s perceptions of rank affect their motivation and academic focus, this combines with the teachers’ own expectations to reinforce patterns of marginalisation.

Compare “You are a 3b” with “You can do long division and are starting to learn how to use letters instead of numbers”. There is a stark difference which I don’t believe needs explaining.

So we should celebrate the changes to Ofsted because it brings teachers back to the heart of things – what is taught, whether it is learned, how schools are sequencing the next steps, and how they are identifying gaps in learning. Ofsted is very clear on this.

The assessment “This child is a 3b” is fully armoured. We can’t see “into” this global judgement. But if we start measuring progress in terms of specific learning objectives then we are much better placed to address the learning gaps. I suspect Ofsted has thought deeply about this and recognised a potential issue. It has slipped a comment into the new handbook with regard to differentiation. Under paragraph 26, implementation, we are told that inspectors will evaluate the extent to which teachers “respond and adapt their teaching as necessary, without unnecessarily elaborate or differentiated approaches” (Ofsted, 2019).

Without “unnecessary” differentiation! What is this? No such evaluation criterion appears in the 2015 framework for inspection.
The potential issue is that at the end of a teaching cycle, within a curriculum progress model, assessment should show exactly which goals have been met, for each child. Scrupulous teachers will be moved to try to address all the gaps in every child’s progress presenting a potential differentiation overload. But despite Ofsted’s reassuring words those gaps will still need to be addressed.

In the USA, children who don’t attain the required grade repeat the year. A child can be held back twice, but if they fail to pass the grade at the third attempt, they are transferred to the responsibility of the special education department. Children are given a second year to attain the same learning programme, with a head-start from the previous year and greater maturity.

In the UK, this approach is seen as less than satisfactory except in unusual circumstances. If adopted, it would also require yet another review of how government league tables based on GCSE outcomes are contrived.

Can we find other strategies that do not drive teachers to try the impossible? Might parents work on a shortlist of catch-up goals? Could some pupils attend after-school classes? There are many workable ideas, but they all involve further elaboration of the school plan.

Personalised digital learning resources will eventually mean every child has an individual education plan. But we are not there yet. So please Ofsted, how can we address the gaps in learning within our classes of 30 children without elaborately differentiating our teaching intent?

  • Dr Adam Abdelnoor is chief executive of Narrative Forum.

Further information

  • Putting Ofsted’s new framework into practice, Rollett/SecEd, April 2019: http://bit.ly/2PwCaLI
  • Education Inspection Framework, Ofsted, May 2019: http://bit.ly/2M3ttuj
  • Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development, Rosenthal & Jacobsen (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968).
  • Narrative Forum is an education software and content company supporting small and special schools to manage children’s progress and wellbeing. Visit www.narrative.org.uk


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