I’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.