Why I love Graded Observations!

imageI’ll get this out of the way first. I love graded observations because they give me the excuse every few weeks to invite around 20 of our teachers out to a slap-up meal to say thank you for delivering an outstanding lesson to our students. I love eating good food, and I love mixing with professionals who are at the top of their game. Graded observations allow me to do both.

I also like grades because they help me gauge the temperature of teaching and learning in the college. With over a thousand teachers in Manchester, and at least as many again spread throughout the UK, I want to know whether we are cold and clammy, or warming up nicely. Our next full Ofsted inspection is at most only a few weeks away and I need to be confident about what any visitors to our classes will experience when An Inspector Calls.

Not everyone feels the same way about grades. Social media has become a battlefield in the debate about Observations of Teaching and Learning (OTLs). Academics and researchers are winning plaudits or purple hearts as they enter the fray, firing off papers and powerpoints. There are a wide range of thoughtful blogs about both individual experiences (like @cazzypot) and systemic issues (@headguruteacher). Even Ofsted has engaged with tweeting teachers and hastily offered (different!) clarifications for schools and for colleges.

So what’s wrong with graded OTLs?

Well, the argument goes, they’re not valid and they’re not reliable. They measure the wrong things. They encourage teaching performances, not real teaching. They put undue pressure on teachers. They focus everyone on the score, on tick-lists, not on the strengths and development needs that lie behind the score. And the biggest problem with grades could well be how senior leaders like me try to use them.

And what do I think now after submerging myself in this social media maelstrom?

I’ll try to articulate the things that have resonated with me from the debate and the research. There will always be an element of subjectivity in OTL grades, but I believe there are ways to make them more valid and more reliable.

I’ve noted Ofsted’s Schools Inspection policy FAQs, including: “Ofsted has no preferred lesson structure or teaching style.”  Agreed. For validity, we should also be clear what we are looking for, but not expect to find every single criterion met in every single lesson.  I also favour unannounced OTLs, and the use of the Ofsted Thursday notification system, to reduce the chances of observing a ‘performance’ rather than a normal lesson.

I expect our trained observers to be drawn from our best teachers. They’ll know then what outstanding teaching and learning is, and how it can be delivered. I also accept the Gates’ Foundation MET research that moderation, or using a second observer for part of the OTL, enhances reliability.

My experience, supported I think by last week’s #ukfechat discussion, is that most of us like a grade, even if, as @drmattoleary suggests, this ‘normalised behaviour’ reflects more how we are institutionalised to want grades rather than that they’re good for us. Last year we had a two term experiment with ungraded OTLs during which teachers were obsessed with “What would the grade have been?” and managers devised complicated ways of analysing feedback to try to predict the same thing. We weren’t quite ready to lose our grades – yet.

There was one suggestion by @HilaryNunns last week to move to a ‘Pass/Fail’ model of grading OTLs. To my mind that’s more or less what we’ve got at the moment. Since Ofsted moved the bar from Grade 3 to Grade 2, grading has become quite a blunt tool. Grade 2 is now the ‘Pass’ grade with some differentiation available in the form of a ‘Pass with Distinction’ Grade 1. Grade 3 is effectively a borderline Fail with some specific work required and Grade 4 is a different discussion.

So how could senior leaders be the problem?

Basically, we love numbers. Give us a number and we’re easily convinced that there’s an exact science behind it. The biggest risk linked to grading is when managers begin talking confidently about ‘Grade 3 teachers’ or place all-or-nothing emphasis on the observation grade. A career in FE teaches you that if you don’t triangulate every piece of evidence you have, then you’re very likely to compound poor judgements with making bad decisions. Aggregated across the college, a grade profile of teachers may allow you to develop a sense of how teaching and learning in general is moving, but for an individual teacher?

In the working year of a teacher, a graded OTL is the equivalent of 5 seconds in a football match. It is a snapshot of teaching at a particular moment. You cannot live by grades alone. To monitor and manage the performance of that teacher, you need to triangulate with other, different evidence. The MET research suggests that the other evidence could include structured learner feedback and analysis of learner outcomes, and that such sources of evidence are best combined with roughly equal weighting.

Colleges today are multi-million pound businesses where management time is understandably consumed by issues such as funding, recruitment and retention, staff deployment, and a range of, hopefully, carefully thought-out KPIs. At every level of management, though, we risk spending ridiculously little time discussing what is our core ‘process’ – teaching and learning. We need a robust understanding of teachers and of teaching, and that means having an ‘open door’ to what goes on in the classroom.

It means encouraging a range of events including unannounced graded OTLs, announced ungraded developmental OTLs, and peer observations. It means supplementing these with themed ‘learning walks’ to monitor and support innovation and best practice.  It means enabling teachers to truly become ‘reflective practitioners’ and creating spaces in the working week when teachers can meet to think and talk about teaching and learning. And all this requires a high level of common understanding and trust in the terms of engagement for each type of intervention.

I believe Ofsted got it right when they refocused the inspection framework on teaching, learning and assessment.  I also think that the Ofsted criteria for colleges are broadly looking for the right things. I’ll be able to tell you very soon how good they are at finding them!

So, for the moment, let’s keep graded observations, but only as part of a balanced strategy for measuring and improving teaching and learning. And in return, I’ll keep ordering Crostata Al Frutti Di Bosco for teachers who, like Matty Burrows, managed to score an outstanding goal in the five seconds when the cameras were watching.

About dp40days

A senior leader in Further and Higher Education, now based in Moray (pronounced "Murray") on the coast of the Scottish Highlands. (I know, I love paradox). We have more sunshine and less rain each year than my previous home in Manchester, and about fifty more distilleries too! You can find me on Twitter as @DP40days. Blogs so far have been mainly about work and travel but frankly, I've been a bit quiet recently. Maybe that's about to change...
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10 Responses to Why I love Graded Observations!

  1. steevbeed says:

    Here on the chalk face OTLs are often seen as an open invitation for Teachers to be bullied. There are not enough checks in place to ensure this is not the case. This is illustrated by the fact that schools have no right to disagree or challenge an Ofsted judgement, that same righteously infallible attitude cascades all the way down the system. For the record, I hate graded observations.


    • dp40days says:

      I understand that. As I said, I don’t think the system can work properly without trust.


      • steevbeed says:

        I wasn’t knocking your blog, it was thoughtful and well written. I have always welcomed support and constructive criticism – learning all the time – but those features of seem to be getting lost along the way.


  2. It seems to me that your defence of graded observations is based on two things:
    -your teachers’ nervousness on not getting a grade, and
    -SLT’s obsession with ‘data’.

    Neither of these are good reasons to carry on with a system that has clearly been shown to be haphazard and destructive. What you measure is what you get; so, of course, teachers will put on their best performance if the aim of the observation is to assess how good their teaching is. The only way that you might stand a chance of seeing ‘normal’ teaching is if the observation is genuinely part of a continual development programme (like the learning study approaches outlined by a few bloggers recently). To be honest, I have my doubts that current SLT are suited to that approach; it’s not what has been in place during their journey to SLT……..However, it is time to give up graded observations and really get to grips with what is actually needed. Also, I am of the opinion (and it’s just my opinion) that it is the management of the educational establishment that Ofsted (and its replacement accountability organisation) should focus on. Good SLT empower, poor SLT damage.


    • dp40days says:

      Thanks for your response. Instinctively I agree with Pirsig (referenced in previous blog) that grades subvert the learning process, so to be consistent I should oppose grading OTLs. However, I don’t think that either in terms of our maturity as a learning organisation or our Quality journey we are quite in the right place for that – yet. I do agree though with your last sentence.


      • Well, I think it is time for SLT to lead….whatever is the right thing to do, is the right thing to do; in spite of the organisation’s maturity or quality journey……


  3. I am new to FE (18 months) and I am prepared to be shot down in flames here 😉 but, I sometimes wonder if we are making to much of this? A person comes into your classroom and observes you teaching. Afterwards they make suggestions to improve, or not, as the case may be. When I was younger I was a DJ. I was observed for 4-5 hours by a couple of hundred people. Some thought I had it right and some didn’t. As a carpenter everything I did was on show and if it wasn’t right someone told me. As a teacher I now find that most of the time its just me and the students, no one knows what I’m doing, so you can’t blame them for wanting to know. My chemistry teacher used to tell us to copy from page x to page y, pour himself a cup of coffee and read his paper for two hours. he could have done with an observation. I know there is all the political wrangle involved but surely the most important thing to us as teachers is; are the students learning? Are they progressing and are they going to get anything out of the learning experience long term? Everything else, as in all jobs is just superficial BS?


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