What do Ofsted call ‘outstanding’ in English (and why should G&T leaders care)?

During the next few weeks G&T Update will look at how subject-specific guidance on what makes for ‘outstanding' Ofsted judgements will impact on G&T students. In this issue and the next two the focus is on English: this week we are looking specifically at achievement, teaching and curriculum

Working recently with several English departments judged to be outstanding, across a fairly wide range of disadvantage, two observations immediately struck home. Firstly, it has become blindingly obvious that there are many routes to excellence, but that despite the judgement all the departments recognise that improvements in terms of teaching and learning were still needed. Secondly, that being English teachers they were highly articulate about all their perceived shortcomings, but were far less so about their considerable strengths. Judgements have been made about the obvious effectiveness of their teaching, but they are unsure, even disbelieving, as to why.

This might be symptomatic of the ‘de-skilling' of teachers that has gained momentum over the last decade, where confidence has been eroded as goalposts are moved seemingly at random and hectoring line judges have undermined our self-judgement. There is always the sneaking sense that something has to be ‘missing' in our performance, but we often have little sense of what is needed to fill the gaps.

But it also might be that the reasoning behind the judgements made by Ofsted is still unclear to many. Since the subject-specific report English at the Crossroads was published in 2009, there have been other attempts by Ofsted to address the question ‘what makes a department outstanding in English?' Many of the characteristics of outstanding schools apply equally well to excellence in English. There is no point to repeating ideas already published elsewhere. For subjects, it is the detail that matters in terms of what makes the English curriculum, departmental approaches or a particular lesson more effective in one school than another.

There are several Ofsted documents that explain how judgements are made, but in this article we will look at the two key recent ones for English (Excellence in English, and the 2009 Section 5 evaluation schedule, updated in September 2010), and discuss what the implications might be for departments teaching G&T students.

Subject feedback letters, produced following survey visits, normally contain separate judgements on:

  • achievement
  • quality of teaching 
  • quality of the curriculum
  • effectiveness of leadership and management
  • overall effectiveness in the subject.

In coming to these judgements, inspectors use the relevant criteria and grade descriptors from the 2009 Section 5 evaluation schedule (as updated in September 2010), as they can be applied to individual subjects.

Outstanding achievement, teaching and curriculum quality in English
The descriptors below (in this issue for achievement, teaching and the curriculum; we will look at leadership and management in the next ebulletin) are supplementary subject-specific descriptors which provide guidance for English. They have been considerably edited and strimmed down here to allow ease of comparison, and tidied up with outstanding on the left, whilst to the right is ‘merely' good.

Outstanding Good
  • Pupils exhibit very positive attitudes towards the subject. They express their ideas fluently and imaginatively in both writing and speaking.
  • They enjoy English lessons and express their ideas confidently and with some originality in both writing and speaking.
  • They are very keen readers and show a mature understanding of a wide range of challenging texts, both traditional and contemporary.
  • They enjoy reading a wide range of texts and can talk and write with understanding about them.
  • Their writing shows a high degree of technical accuracy and they write effectively across a range of genres, frequently showing creativity in their ideas and choice of language.
  • They enjoy writing and write confidently for different purposes and audiences, showing a good degree of technical accuracy.
  • Pupils have a mature understanding of the differences between written and spoken language.
  • Pupils are able to vary their language according to the particular demands of the task.
  • They have learnt to be effective independent learners, able to think for themselves and to provide leadership, while also being sensitive to the needs of others.
  • They are able to show independence and initiative, for instance raising thoughtful questions or helping to drive forward group work.

Whilst there is the usual feeling of ‘how far down this piece of string are we?' and ‘just a bit more of magic ingredient X and we get to move from right to left', there are also some features worth commenting upon with regard to G&T students. Achievement is clearly seen here to be a result of creating more thoughtful, independent students who have the confidence in their own abilities to make and support mature judgements. They have enough self-belief that they can be more open and creative in their responses and they have been challenged in a non-threatening way, so don't regard struggling as an admission of defeat. As a result they see English as a subject that stretches them and encourages them to think for themselves.

Quality of teaching in English
 Outstanding  Good
  • Teachers make imaginative use of a wide range of resources, including moving image texts, and make English highly relevant to the needs of their pupils and the world beyond school.
  • Teachers make effective use of a wide range of good quality resources. As a result, lessons meet pupils' needs well, and pupils learn to appreciate the importance of English beyond school.
  • They have a detailed knowledge of texts and use this well to extend pupils' independent reading.
  • Teachers share their understanding of a wide range of classic and contemporary texts and use this to stimulate pupils' wider independent reading
  • Pupils are fully engaged through active and innovative classroom approaches including well-planned drama activities, group and class discussions
  • Activities are varied and imaginative, engaging pupils well through drama and varied discussion work.
  • They take every opportunity to encourage pupils to work independently and homework tasks significantly enhance pupils' learning
  •  Homework is thoughtfully planned and helps to develop pupils' independence.
  • Systematic approaches to marking, target setting and feedback challenge all pupils to improve work in reading, speaking and listening, as well as writing.
  • Feedback from marking and target setting is clear and identifies the next steps in pupils' learning.

Each school we worked with demonstrated a confident and individual approach to the teaching of English, and they also demonstrated real strengths in key areas such as expertise in the language that supports selection of texts, technical support for students and a clear understanding of the syllabus requirements. However, the areas that each outstanding department reported as weaknesses demonstrate a common and interestingly illustrative focus. Most felt that they did not sufficiently explore the big ideas/concepts and allowed the exam requirements to dictate too much of their teaching. They didn't trust their students' motivations and judgements sufficiently to stop spoonfeeding and talking too much from the front. They all believed that they didn't differentiate well for the top end, instead relying on those students to get on with stretching themselves. The approaches outlined above by Ofsted seem to indicate that the more imaginative the activities the department undertakes, and the more it forces students to think for themselves, the better the chance of being judged outstanding.

The curriculum  
 Outstanding  Good
  • The curriculum is distinctive, innovative and planned very well to meet pupils' needs in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • The curriculum has some innovative features and is well-designed around the needs of pupils in the school.
  • Imaginative approaches and experience of a wide range of challenging texts ensure a rich curriculum that enables pupils to make very good progress across the different areas of English.
  • The curriculum is broad and engaging, with a good range of texts. Active approaches help pupils to make good progress in reading, writing, speaking and listening.
  • Key aspects such as poetry, drama and media work are fully integrated into the curriculum and help to provide a rich and varied programme for pupils.
  • Good attention is given to areas such as poetry, drama and media.
  • Schemes of work build clearly towards productive outcomes for pupils involving real audiences and purposes.
  • Opportunities are taken to make direct connections between classroom study and the world beyond school.
  • Pupils' learning is very well enhanced by enrichment activities such as visits, workshops, reading groups, and chances for writers to work with pupils in school.
  • The curriculum incorporates regular opportunities to meet with practitioners working in English, such as writers and theatre groups.

The schools we supported also felt that they hadn't really known the range of texts that students had already read and felt that the texts they typically chose to study weren't sufficiently challenging for their G&T students. The curriculum is an essential part of the way a subject is seen and sees itself. It is vital in setting up the kinds of challenge that all of our students should see as a right. It takes a strong and self-assured department to see itself as distinctive and different. Ofsted clearly appreciate it when departments take this risk. In the next article we will look at ways to improve the effectiveness of leadership and management, how Ofsted judges this and what detailed strategies have been shown to work well to enable outstanding progress in English.

Next week's ebulletin will look at outstanding leadership and management in English