Ofsted Imperfect

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.

Divisive

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.

Unhelpful

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)

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