Here is a recent advert encouraging graduates to join the teaching profession. It is really an advert encouraging graduates to join the management profession. I have not seen it since. Perhaps teachers complained about the implications: there’s nothing wrong with wanting out of the classroom as soon as possible and also management do not need a solid background in actual teaching!
Some thoughts on the Ofsted inspection process
There needs to be an acute awareness of the fact that what an observer sees and subsequently says is subjective. This is why non-judgemental feedback is crucial. The ‘Ofsted-style’ grading is divisive and unhelpful. It’s wrong for Ofsted to do it every few years and it’s even more wrong for staff within a school to do it to each other every term.
It is divisive because it sets up an insidious hierarchy of 4s, 3s, 2s and 1s; beguiling but harmful. Are observers really so inarticulate that they need a number-system to express themselves? A lesson observation is a chance for the – presumably more experienced and skilful – observer to pass on hints, tips and helpful suggestions. Anyone can read between the lines to see what the observer made of the lesson as a whole. Without an Ofsted grade the feedback loses much of its power to inflate or crush ego, neither of which is a desirable outcome. The feedback then becomes solely about the quality of the observations made. The observer is no longer a judge but more properly a guide and mentor. In a school we should be acting on the principle of common understanding with an approach that fosters self-respect and builds a collegiate atmosphere of professionals; the headteacher the first among equals.
From a top-down perspective the requirement of judgements and re-judgements make sense and is helpful as it produces reassuring spreadsheets of data and hard evidence of ‘Teacher X’ moving from a 4 to a 3, a 1 to a 2 and so on. From the ground up however it looks and feels quite different. It is, for a number of teachers, demoralising, depressing, frustrating and very stressful. The judgement is made and without any dialogue there is no way to state your case; to draw attention to the shortcomings of the observations themselves, that is to shine a light on the limited perspective of the observer*. Feedback must be a dialogue. For example “You approached that in a way that I never would have. Why was that?” is much better than “What you did there was too advanced/too easy/insert judgement here”. The observer should not be jury and judge. It might make good TV like The Apprentice but it’s no way to build morale and build a team.
Staff morale, and this is the case for a significant number of teachers, plummets. Some classes in a school may be much more demanding than others. This needs to be constantly acknowledged. It is too easy to criticise and we all thrive on praise. We would not treat pupils in this way for precisely the same reason that we should not treat adults like this (sad to say that we do, in fact, treat pupils like this because of the high-stakes testing we have in England). However it remains true that teaching is stressful enough without these added pressures.
But what about those teachers judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’? Firstly I’m not convinced that the best teachers ever think of themselves as ‘outstanding’. You are a teacher, always learning. More importantly where does a teacher go who is labelled ‘outstanding’? This label may well be applied within the first year or two of a teacher’s career! Can you be ‘outstanding’ after 2 or 3 years teaching? I think you can but only if ‘outstanding’ is defined as the possession of a limited set of skills combined with the ability to comply with your individual school’s lesson protocol. The minority of inadequate teachers can be dealt with, while the few outstanding teachers – and it is a few if this term is going to have any real meaning – can be led towards Advanced Skills Teacher (AST) status or similar. This leaves the vast majority of teachers on a level playing field – your goods and adequates – working on their skills/knowledge/expertise in a mutually supportive environment.
* I have known numerous observations, of my own lessons and others, where a teacher has been told that one or two pupils were at one point misbehaving in some way behind the teacher’s back. This is always put forward as both a helpful insight and evidence of the observer’s keen awareness of everything going on in that classroom. It is neither. Looked at from the teacher’s point of view there is a huge amount that the observer does not see (e.g. the individual characters of pupils or the recent progress a class may have made)
The following quotes in bold are from a recent lesson observation; these quotes are followed by my thoughts on each one. The intention is to show how a system of quick judgements can be both inaccurate and destructive. ‘Performance-related pay’ is being pushed through at the moment as the obvious solution to poor teaching. The following few points illustrate how easy it is to make inaccurate judgements. There is also a sense that the final grade is more important than the development of the teacher’s practice. This has disturbing implications for a new era of ‘performance related pay’.
- ‘The lesson was pitched too low for the class’ – During verbal feedback a critical point was made regarding a single pupil who was considered not to have been adequately challenged. The lesson was about how to spell words by thinking about the sounds, a typical lesson in Year 1. The child in question was able to write sentences and had not been made to do so. His sentence-writing at this time was limited to words being squashed together with many capital letters in the wrong places. As this was the sixth 45 minute Literacy lesson of the year (and of his life) formal sentence-writing skills had not yet been addressed. It would be unhelpful to both pupil and teacher to see his same mistakes being repeated. The group-work session was, as always, differentiated into three separate exercises for three ability-groups within the class. Bearing this in mind, and considering the case of this single pupil, it is impossible to explain how the entire lesson can be regarded as having been ‘pitched too low’.
- ‘…however you did stop during the lesson and checked pupils understanding before redirecting them.’ (sic) – Poor grammar and punctuation aside it is still unclear how this helped to mitigate the lesson being ‘pitched too low for the class.’
- ‘Lesson not resourced and ready to go’ – The Teaching Assistant (TA) had received the resources for this lesson from the TA of the other Year 1 class next door. This was because the same lesson had just been taught next door (NB all staff have been encouraged not to waste resources in the school by unnecessary duplication). This handover was at the start of the lesson as the observers entered the classroom. Those observing knew why the lesson was not already resourced as they walked through the door. That this detail has been noted as a failing is the clearest indication of all that this observation was not carried out in a helpful and supportive way.
- ‘Least able children were supported by the TA in the group-work session. Ensure that these children rotate daily so that they are getting teacher input and independent time’ – Quite simply: they do rotate daily. A quick glance at the planning shows this.
- ‘The teaching was found to be satisfactory as the lesson was pitched too low for the pupils’ – This is a very revealing statement indeed. Here we can see that the word ‘satisfactory’ has actually been reinterpreted to mean ‘less than satisfactory’. For this sentence to actually make sense the word ‘as’ should be replaced with ‘but’ (i.e. the teaching was found to be satisfactory but the lesson was pitched too low for the pupils). Ofsted began the process of degrading the word ‘satisfactory’ and now this is carried on by management teams within schools who have internalised those values. Ofsted has now abandoned its attempt to bring a new meaning to the word ‘satisfactory’ and has replaced it with ‘in need of improvement’.
- Not a single descriptor within the ‘Good’ category is highlighted: this tells me there was nothing good about the lesson! Quite apart from the fact that this is demoralising as a judgement it is also inaccurate when the category-descriptors are examined. Without any sense of poor judgement or exaggeration the following descriptors could easily have been highlighted: ‘There is no evidence of disruptive behaviour’ (Outstanding) or ‘Pupils are motivated and engaged’ (Good) However these descriptors were not highlighted.In fact all highlighted descriptors fell within one category: ‘Satisfactory’. This in itself is suspicious. It is as if the need for a clear ‘grade’ was more important in this exercise than helping teachers to improve their practice. Many equivalent ‘good’ and ‘satisfactory’ descriptors are practically the same anyway (i.e. little more than arbitrary judgements).
Internal observations should be conducted in a professional and supportive way. They are not meant to be an Ofsted inspection but a check that standards are being upheld. More importantly it is a time for the more experienced teacher to help the observed teacher. A punitive and unreasonable observation results in an unmotivated teacher. It puts an individual on the back foot trying not to do the wrong thing rather than pushing to do what is best for the class.