Why less is more

I have always liked to think that I have my finger firmly on the pulse of all things educational. However, these past few weeks I have found it rather difficult keeping tabs on the numerous blog posts on Ofsted’s latest proposals to improve the inspection process. If you’ve never heard of Mike Cladingbowl before, you have now. I actually applaud the way Ofsted seem to be engaging with social media in an attempt at clarifying and consulting. It does feel like we are all being given a chance to chip in, especially when Ofsted refer to the influence certain uber-bloggers are having on shaping their thinking. If we want to aspire to developing a world-class education system then we need an inspection system to match. Openness and integrity must be at its core.

There’s nothing though like the imminent publication of a couple of influential Think Tank reports to sharpen the mind. It’s understandable therefore that Ofsted are indulging in a spot of kite-flying to gauge the opinions of the masses, especially with a general election looming. Only this weekend we read of Ofsted’s plans to create a new blueprint for inspecting good schools and how this might incorporate the intelligent ACSL response. Ofsted’s National Director of Schools  accepts that the current inspection regime stifles innovation, with schools too often ‘awash with squadrons of inspectors.’ Instead what we need is ‘constructive and expert professional dialogue.’

All well and good but is anything likely to change in time for the general election? Unlikely. So what to do in the meantime when the squadrons descend into school? Well certainly, we don’t need inspectors bombarding classrooms with what feels like a lightning attack within the first few hours of an inspection. If ultimately what inspectors are looking for is evidence of learning, then strangely enough, piling into lessons to watch a teacher may not be the most obvious starting point. Less is more and it needs to start with the classroom.

I’ve always believed that any valid system of inspecting schools must be based on observing lessons. As a head of a school previously in special measures I have practically dragged inspectors kicking and screaming into lessons to see learning in action. If nothing else it might make them forget the fact that RAISEonline is a sea of blue. I’ve seen teachers reduced almost to tears because an inspector didn’t come and see them teach. So why as an inspector (and indeed as a headteacher) am I beginning to wonder whether observing lessons is all that it’s cracked up to be?

For years I’ve gone into classrooms, firstly as a rookie teacher learning the ropes, then as a subject leader, appraiser, headteacher and finally as  an Ofsted inspector. It’s such a privilege to be able to spend time in lessons and to observe the art of teaching. I like to think that I was good at it (observing that is, and not teaching) and had a pretty good grasp of what good teaching looked like. Nowadays of course we don’t look at teaching anymore and haven’t for a while in fact. The focus – quite rightly – is on the learning, with the shift moving away from the adult as a performer to the child as a learner.

But that’s the problem. I genuinely believe that deep down I don’t actually know what learning looks like. There, I’ve said it. I’m talking proper full-on embedded-for-life learning, not just the ‘look Miss I’ve finished’ type that involves simply writing the WALT and completing a worksheet. And even if I did know what ‘full-on learning’ looks like for a child, I’m not sure that I can judge how much learning has taken place across a whole class of 30 children all with very different starting points and styles within just 20 minutes. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure if children actually learn anything in a lesson. In much the same way as when exercising, the muscle doesn’t appear there and then, the same applies when learning during a lesson. The real benefits (i.e. learning gains) are only evident a few weeks later. We all accept that these learning gains are a direct result of teaching during a lesson or sequence of lessons, so can teaching – and the associated learning – ever be evaluated during a single lesson observation?

The answer of course is no. Ofsted know this only too well and have issued several rally cries to this effect during the past few weeks. Inspectors have known for a while that we are not to judge teaching during a lesson ‘unless circumstances are exceptional’ (whatever they may be). Nowhere in the inspection framework will you find guidance or criteria for grading a lesson. I don’t have a problem with this. I understand the difference between grading teaching and a lesson. I think it’s right that we don’t judge a teacher when we’ve only been with them for 20 minutes. So what then is the point of observing lessons during an inspection when the evidence that we are looking for can most likely be found elsewhere?

If the sole purpose of observing a lesson is to verify what learning and teaching are like over time, then unless we’ve had opportunities of finding this out beforehand, what is the point of going in if we have no proxies against which to verify? Apart from RAISEonline and a set of joining instructions, I have very little information on how, when and where learning takes place in a school prior to an inspection.

When inspection teams do arrive at a school we seem to be obsessed with getting into classrooms within the first five minutes of the inspection starting. To the untrained eye, it may appear to be a bit of a scramble. I find myself barely in a school half an hour before I’m required to make a judgement on what teaching and learning are like over time having sat in the back of a lesson for a few minutes. I suppose I could take the easy way out and go with what RAISEonline is showing but I simply won’t allow this to obscure my judgement. If I did, then what is the point of even visiting the school in the first place? Invariably I leave the EF teaching box blank due to a lack of evidence but I know this may displease the lead inspector who by this stage may be doubting my credentials.

So whilst we wait for the Think Tanks to arrive, here is what I would like to do. It’s remarkably simple. On day one, I want to sit in a room with samples of children’s books (or whatever else the school chooses to send me that best captures learning – coursework, profiles, devices, learning journals and so on). Leave me alone, immersed in the books, and within an hour or so I will know how well pupils learn. I will be able to evaluate progress, attainment, challenge, resilience, creativity, curriculum coverage, marking and feedback. The list goes on. I can then have a look at the teachers’ own assessment data to corroborate it. If the teachers’ assessments match what’s in the books then I’m pretty confident at being able to come to a view as to what teaching (and learning) is like over time. Senior leaders can then join the discussion so that together we can come to an agreement on what the narrative is telling us. In short, we let the books tell the story of the school. Indeed, the best schools will already have done this and can then show me their own similar evaluations, confirming at the same time that leadership and management are both strong. The remainder of day one can then be spent talking to children about their books and walking around school with them looking at their displays and learning walls. It doesn’t take long to determine how confident and effective a child is at learning by spending time with them. All of this will provide me with invaluable evidence to confirm what I’ve seen in books and on the walls throughout the school.

With this in place, day two can then be used proportionately to spend time observing lessons to verify what’s been seen in books and from discussions with learners and leaders. I no longer need to ask the head to show me where the best teaching is as I now already know. When I’m in the classroom the teacher should know what the outcomes in their books are telling me so any judgement on teaching will not come as a shock as it won’t be based on performance whilst I’m in the room. It will also make clear the difference between judging teaching over time based on learning as opposed to the teacher’s performance in the lesson. Most importantly though, it takes away the pressure on the teacher to ‘showcase’ or get out the bells and whistles.

So whilst Ofsted appear to be in a conciliatory mood, let’s use this time to have intelligent discussions about the purpose of inspection and the role lesson observations can play. If during this period we happen to agree upon a definition of learning and what it looks like in a classroom, even better. Ofsted’s obsession with observing lessons is miss-placed in an organisation conceived almost a quarter of a century ago. A lot has changed since then and we’ve all become a lot more sophisticated about how we go about coming to professional opinions about how good our schools are. We certainly need a lot less sledgehammer. We want to be subtle but at the same time obvious. The novelist and poet Oliver Goldsmith got it just about right. “Subtlety may deceive you. Integrity never will.”

7 thoughts on “Why less is more

  1. I like this approach; it’s all about rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in with your kids on a daily basis. A one off ‘outstanding’ lesson doesn’t show all of the hard work put in behind the scenes by the teacher (and the kids) to get them to where they want to be. Many teachers can teach ‘outstanding’ lessons but it’s what happens around that lesson that truly makes it outstanding.

    For example a young man in my class is so driven that he asks for support at lunch times to work through targets, which he has identified as areas to improve. This wouldn’t be picked up in an observation ( or maybe even a book scrutiny) but a pupil voice would allow him time to explain how he develops his own learning.

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  2. claireeades says:

    Having a friend who works as a secondary teacher in a school where the management are obsessed with observations, it is welcome news indeed that such ‘kite flying’ is going on and opinions like these are being voiced. She is a consistently outstanding practitioner whose books are exemplary (their words): her pupils rate her highly because of the quality and creativity of her lessons and her incredible feedback which enables progress in their learning. Yet I watch with horror just how stressed she becomes when Ofsted-obsessed management pressure is applied with regards to observations. They make her doubt herself in a way that isn’t productive or helpful. The children, books and learning walls would definitely speak for her and demonstrate the quality of learning that occurs every day in her classroom without putting her through such an ordeal. The observation would serve better as a confirmation and verification of what happens every day in her classroom. I hope Ofsted really are listening for the sake of people like her.

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  3. Nic says:

    The flaw here is still the assumption that the high-stakes system can continue based on proxy measures of learning (that are claimed to be objective but are demonstrably not). However, as is currently the case with lesson observations, this simply leads to schools striving to put on a good show. Whilst your new proposed measure – classwork – is a much better proxy, the result would still be an undue focus on the aspect that will be (or is rumored to be by ‘those in the know’) inspected.

    The recent discussions have led me to conclude that ofsted needs to withdraw from this game altogether. Instead, we should expect schools to devise and implement sophisticated teaching and learning policies. Ofsted can then audit the school (wrt t&l) to determine:
    – if the policy is adequate
    – if practice matches policy
    The bottom line would remain attainment evidence from nationally standardised assessments. I appreciate that this has it’s own issues but it is fair and statistically valid.

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  4. Whilst I agree the tide is turning, I’m concerned about the emphasis on book scrutinies.
    What about subjects without books? Aren’t the students learning? And therefore, if you don’t ‘see’ learning and progress in a book does that mean that it’s not happening? Teachers use books in different ways.

    I think the only fair way would be to then sit with the teacher who owns the books and discuss them. They should also bring their assessment records/tracking data or in some cases twitter teachers have told me it’s all in their head so you will need to ask them.

    Such focus on books seems to be swapping one unscientific judgement with another?

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