So, how did your Ofsted go then?

Well first of all, thanks for asking. As you know, a full Ofsted inspection is like one of those mythical trips to Las Vegas: what happens in Ofsted stays in Ofsted – at least until the report is published. This one was a demanding, but a very well-run inspection and so, sorry, no fractious incidents to report. And no report due out for a while yet either*.

Amidst the growing tide of tweets and blogs challenging the Ofsted modus operandi, I wanted to reflect on the recent clarifications on inspection observations made by Ofsted. So this piece isn’t really about our inspection. It’s a continuation of the graded observations discussion, but in the light of having recently seen it acted out for real.

As you know, Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted National Director for Schools, clarified that schools’ inspectors do not judge a teacher or the overall lesson by evaluating the performance of the lesson’s teacher. He stated that “it would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency [in a 25 minute observation]”. The parallel clarification for the further education and skills sector provided by Matthew Coffey in February 2014 was that college inspectors do not inspect or grade teachers, but rather the impact of teaching, learning and assessment activities on learners’ progress and overall development.

I do actually kind of get this argument. I can understand it intellectually. It might feel a bit different though for a teacher in the middle of a real inspection. You can rationalise observation of your lesson as anonymised collection of impact evidence, but emotionally the grade must still feel pretty damned personal. Did our teachers feel ‘not graded’ during the observations of their lessons? Of course not.

One of our newest curriculum managers was devastated by the feedback of a Grade 3 judgement on the observed part of her lesson. She was concerned it undermined her not only as a teacher, but also, as a manager of teaching. (It shouldn’t do, she is at least Good on both counts). Another teacher whose lessons are consistently judged ‘Outstanding’ by our own internal systems welcomed the confirmation of this judgement from his Ofsted observation. He never once thought “that outstanding grade wasn’t about me. It was for the impact of activities in a class I just happened to be working in”.

But is this a reason not to grade? Most of our teachers wanted feedback and they also wanted a grade. They asked for grades because in the heat of the moment they weren’t always able to discern which precise judgements had been made from the grade descriptors fed back to them. Teachers were usually happy to share the confidential grade with colleagues and managers – or just occasionally, to share a better grade of their own choosing!

Like most providers, we gathered up reported grades from observations throughout each day. We had to keep reminding ourselves though, not only that the reporting of grades might not be accurate, but that classroom observations were only one part of the evidence inspectors were using to judge our teaching, learning and assessment.

The buzzword throughout the week was “progress”. Progress and attainment were the focus of learning walks undertaken across the college. At this time of year it should be easy enough to evidence whether or not learners have made progress across the course of their studies – progress towards competence and qualification, towards employment and progression. Not quite as clear to me is how you can always monitor progress in an individual lesson. Only if our link managers heard that “learners make good progress” in their evening catch-up sessions, could they tell whether inspectors were pitching up on the Good side of the Grade 2/3 boundary.

Tweachers have been getting hot under the collar about consistency in observation, and that Ofsted shouldn’t have a “preferred teaching style”. Early on in the inspection I picked up feedback that one lesson had been too “tutor-led”. I bristled like a desert meerkat crossing the path of an expensive insurance policy. Then I heard about a short flurry of Grade 1 observations, each of them a totally different style of lesson. I flattened my ruffled fur. The thing is, some lessons can be too tutor-led. It’s just that tutor-led isn’t always a bad thing.

The instance of inconsistency when it did occur was around sweets. One inspector saw a teacher giving out sweets as prizes in an Adult lesson and thought it a bit childish. Another inspector in another lesson saw something similar and thought it engaging. Maybe it was just done better, with the right note of wryness. Anyway, we weren’t going to go to war on a single ToffeeGate moment!

Sam Freedman, one of Michael Gove’s former advisors, recently wrote that Ofsted’s school judgements on teaching are unreliable as in 97% of cases they merely mirror the school’s attainment figures. He asks whether observations are therefore worth the “upheaval” (for schools) and “misery” (for individual teachers). I’m not aware of any comparable analysis for the learning and skills sector, but from what I’ve been able to find out, it does look different in FE. In 2012/13, the first year of the new inspection framework, grades for Teaching, Learning and Assessment and for Outcomes for Learners only coincided in around three-quarters of college inspections.

Teaching is sometimes found to be better than Outcomes in colleges, but almost never worse. The quote attributed to Sir Michael Wilshaw that “what works is what’s Good” could be misinterpreted as an argument to focus just on outcomes and not on how they are achieved.  The current inspection focus on teaching and learning, as the core process we have to offer our learners, feels to me to be too valuable to lose. The “upheaval and misery” of observations/inspections is probably a debate for a later blog.

The clarifications meant there were no surprises for us, either in how the inspection was handled, nor in the range of judgements on teaching and learning that were made. Despite being on the lookout for it, we didn’t notice any significant inconsistencies between inspectors (and we had 16 of them to look at!). Nor did we get a whiff of an inappropriate “preferred style” of teaching being promulgated. I confess to having made the phrase “What works is what’s Good” something of an pre-inspection mantra, but colleagues made sure I didn’t get the chance to use it in any conflagrational situations.

And finally, there were as always some teaching and learning moments that won’t appear in the full Ofsted report. Like the inspector who criticised the relevance of a role play in an observed lesson where a student had pretended to faint, only to be told afterwards that the student hadn’t been pretending. Or the tutor who on being told that the lesson she had taught was ‘Outstanding’ totally forgot the Coffey clarification, took it very personally, and then proceeded to hug the inspector who had observed her! Bet they don’t prepare you for that at Inspector College.


*This blog was published privately after the inspection but only publicly available after publication of the inspection report. It was also written before Ofsted announced their proposed pilot of college inspections without graded lesson observations.

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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