Something remarkable has been unfolding at Ofsted Towers over these last few windy weeks, where leading inspectors – in particular HMI Mike Cladingbowl, director of schools, have been busy myth-busting.
His particular mission has been to reiterate that, first, there is no Ofsted-preferred teaching style, and, second, that inspectors should not grade individual lessons.
Misunderstandings proliferate around lesson observations. There has, for example, been an assumption, partly driven by the kind of comments found in many inspection reports, that inspectors want to see lots of independent learning and a minimum of teacher talk. (For example: “...work is over-directed by the teacher and there are few opportunities for students to find things out for themselves.”)
But wait! What’s this we find in Ofsted’s Inspection Handbook?: “Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of teaching or show preference towards a specific lesson structure.”
Chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw, and other senior inspectors, have said the same thing, so the intention could hardly be clearer. What matters is the learning.
And yet, school after school has heard quite a different story from inspectors and consultants. Feelings on this contradiction were strongly expressed by teachers on social media, and in November last year, David Didau in his blog The Learning Spy was moved to write a post about “The shocking mediation of Ofsted criteria by ‘rogue’ inspectors”, in which he describes (from personal experience) how an Ofsted inspector, working as a consultant in a school, told staff: “Teacher talk must be minimised. Students must be learning independently for significant proportions of every lesson.”
At the end of 2013 you have the feeling that Ofsted leadership decided enough was enough. So, in Ofsted’s January 2014 document Subsidiary Guidance Supporting the Inspection of Maintained Schools and Academies, the long paragraph 64 emphasises, with examples, that inspectors must not give the impression of a preferred Ofsted style.
The message is repeated in the February 6 Schools Inspection Policy: Some FAQs. Ramming the point home, Ofsted themselves have removed comments on teaching style from some inspection reports.
Similar efforts have now gone into finally ending the practice of inspectors grading individual observed lessons – kept alive partly, it has to be said, by those teachers who want to be graded.
Now, an Ofsted document written by Mr Cladingbowl – Why do Ofsted inspectors observe individual lessons and how do they evaluate teaching in schools? – published on February 21, reminds us that: “Inspectors should not give an overall grade for the lesson and nor should teachers expect one.”
A significant part of Ofsted’s clarification mission, important as a demonstration of the growing influence of social media, took the form of a meeting on February 18 at Ofsted HQ where Mr Cladingbowl met a small group of people well-known through their blogs and Twitter comments – head Tom Sherrington, teachers Tom Bennett, Mr Didau and Ross McGill, and clerk to governors Shena Lewington.
The five emphasised just how influential Ofsted is in determining what happens in schools and how easily information can be misinterpreted, leading to a culture of “what Ofsted wants”.
The meeting also explored in some detail the ambiguities around lesson grading, and it was clearly this discussion that led, after further conversations, to Mr Cladingbowl’s February 21 guidance document.
So that’s it, done and dusted? No more angst about observations? Maybe, but I’d say school leaders, teachers and governors will need to be alert for continued misreading of the rules.
In his follow up to the February 18 meeting, Mr Sherrington writes on his blog: “There are still elements of the written guidance that have yet to be fully aligned and, naturally enough, there are inspectors who have not fully taken on board the significance of the guidance. Mr Cladingbowl has been updating guidance to inspectors to make this more and more explicit – with evident frustration at how difficult this has been.”
Some heads and teachers, too, asked during an animated Twitter conversation on February 23 how inspectors can arrive at an overall grade for teaching in a school when no grades are given for lessons.
Mr Cladingbowl tackles this, in fact, in the February 21 document, explaining that lesson observation is only one part of the evidence on quality of teaching. At the same time, he concedes that, “...it can be difficult to differentiate between a grade for teaching and a grade for the teacher. I accept that we may need to do more here”.
For me, there’s one important message in all this that schools must not miss. If Ofsted concludes that it’s inappropriate to grade a lesson on the basis of one-off observation, it becomes difficult to see how schools can continue to do it for their internal observations.
That said, I’d guess few teachers are holding their breath.
Resources and further reading Bloggers at the Ofsted meeting
Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship.