Progress being made, but OFSTED are still Requiring Improvement


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Over four months ago I wrote an article beginning with the question: ‘What does Ofsted want?’ I stated that this question is perhaps the most powerful question in English education and has the most impact upon our practice in the classroom. The leverage that OFSTED has over our school system is huge and the single greatest (indirect) mechanism the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, has to determine change within schools. Whilst people debate the efficacy of individual lesson observations, the larger question about whether OFSTED, in its current form, is fit for purpose remains largely unsaid.

Most recently OFSTED has looked to improve their media communications and have looked to talk to the masses. No bad thing. They have looked to communicate better through social media to reach elements of the profession that the Department for Education can often fail to reach. The SoS Michael Gove, HMCI, Sir Michael Wilshaw and Mike Cladingbowl, OFSTED’s Head of School, met with the @Headsroundtable to discuss accountability – see here – and Mike Cladingbowl then met this week with Twitter and blogging luminaries, Tom Sherrington, David Didau, Tom Bennett, Ross McGill and @clerktogoverner – see here – and take the time to read the equivalent posts by @learningspy and @teachertoolkit. Although only a couple of high profile events in social media terms, they indicate a reaching out to the profession, or at least a recognition that their communications need to improve.

Mike Cladingbowl was keen to emphasise the move away from individual lesson grades as part of the inspection process in both meetings. All very positive in theory, but little has seemingly changed in reality. In response to Tom Bennett’s Twitter questioning about lessons being graded there were many respondents who confirmed this is still the case – some as recent as last week (!) – see here. The fearful response from school leaders, who don’t wish their school to be tainted by the mark of ‘requiring improvement’ or worse, will not be assured by this reality. The whispers and fears about OFSTED will only continue – with this attempt to bring clarity revealing inconsistency only continuing to provoke the fears of school leaders.

OFSTED clearly need to address the communication within their organisation on a national scale. OFSTED work with SERCO, Tribal Group and the CfBT Education Trust (which also runs academies and Free Schools – is this a potentially worrying conflict of interest?) in conducting inspections. Sub-contracting can be notorious for embedding systematic inconsistencies. Is this the problem for OFSTED? The scale of this national undertaking is significant, but, clearly, OFSTED’s own governance and communication system is requiring improvement. Surely, there is a national retraining programme required of inspectors, with a high media profile, to ensure a greater consistency of standards. It is no small irony that our inspectorate requires independent quality assurance of their inspections.

A question I would ask would go a step beyond grading lesson observations. Is the whole process of judging teaching in schools based on a fistful of snapshots flawed? Should we not get rid of lesson observations and instead focus on the quality of school leadership, behaviour and achievement. If achievement is good then the teaching is working. If the leadership is good then the curriculum is being developed appropriately and teachers are developing under the continuous professional development system of the school. Behaviour can be observed by dropping into lessons informally; interviewing students; reviewing parent view; following an individual student, and so on.

As long as we retain the judgement for teaching then we will retain the worst of the uncertainties about ‘what do OFSTED want‘. Whilst this is still in question school leaders will still fearfully take to reading OFSTED reports, ‘exemplar’ materials and chasing OFSTED consultants who peddle the ‘outstanding lesson’ myths. This whole process of judging teaching in the OFSTED mode is deeply ingrained and needs a very public revision, ideally led by a more coherently redesigned process of inspection.

I understand why such national regulation exists for schools, especially when there is no other recourse to deal with failing schools, but it must be more consistent than at present. OFSTED quite clearly requires some improvement of its own.

Related posts:

See my article on the OFSTED Stockholm Syndrome here.

14 thoughts on “Progress being made, but OFSTED are still Requiring Improvement”

  1. Alex
    Years ago the Girls School Association ran its inspection framework as a Quality Management Audit (QMA) before the independent sector united under the one size fits all inspection run by ISI. I agree with you that the OfSTED interventionist approach has not been helpful, and it’s quite obvious that their text as written is in such a way that multiple interpretations are possible. Loads of School groups have QMA procedures, IB ( and UNESCO ( being 2 examples.
    Under local authority management alone, standards did not improve. Permitting schools to move to individual accountability was seen to be a positive step forwards, but that’s not worked as intended. Opening up the Free school and Academy routes is certainly throwing new challenges at all schools yet to migrate, but no guarantees either. Corruption remains a serious part of the edu landscape, and that is perhaps the bottom line. As a profession, we don’t have quality standards to rise up through to show we are suitably qualified to work at the next level, and I see that to be a major issue.
    Because teacher shortage exists in more challenging schools, early promotion is endemic. I really do think teachers should aspire to a Masters in Assessment within 5 years. Being accepted to be a Peer Inspector on Inspection teams is another qualification to be earned (and retained). Setting school against school is where we have got to – a dog fight of the fittest, in terms of recruitment and retention. If performance pay is to be implemented, then it should include steps for these extrinsic qualifications, and pay lost when Assessment found wanting or Inspectors ticket lost.
    I am sure you know Atul Gawande’s checklist manifesto – we need an educational quality checklist for Headteachers and Senior Management in schools.

  2. You pose an interesting points in regard to removing the judgment on teaching. As a HT I find that the hardest part to evaluate in our SEF, as I want to write “how do I know teaching is good and better? See the previous evaluation on achievement!” As you say, surely if achievement is good then teaching is good. What I find myself doing however is just rehashing much of the achievement evaluation in different words.

    However if we do remove that judgement/evaluation focus what are we saying? That a school should only be judged by its data? I know plenty of good teachers whose data doesn’t always tell that story because of a range of to their factors.
    Do we really want to remove teaching from the judgment/evaluation (after all isn’t that what we are; teachers)

    Finally, my school is an area of high deprivation with children coming to school already at a significant deficit.. It take much better teaching to ensure good achievement in my current school than in my previous where many of the children had tutors /attendedKUMON/ had parents that actually read with them. I know it’s a bit of a sweeping generalisations, but having worked in a range of diverse areas, I know that in some areas children will achieve well no matter what the quality of teaching. Whereas, in areas like my current one, teachers need to be not only good educators but also counsellors, social workers, dieticians etc. Not all good achievement is the results of equally good teaching.

    1. I do understand that concern. The measures for achievement should be multiple and take into account progress and other factors. Progress for students near the bottom of the NC scale is usually slower than more able students, but there are measures to take this into account. I also agree that social factors must be taken into account. Again, this could be judged under achievement and leadership.

      The stark reality is that the ‘inspection by data’ already exists anyway! This would bring it to light, forcing OFSTED to be clearer about their process.

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  4. Even if teaching is not inspected, it still leaves too much to subjective judgement. We did not “prep” our pupils as other schools do, we just asked them to be themselves. Our school behaviour is amongst the best I’ve ever seen having visited schools all over the UK, China, Sweden and Seychelles. Yet we were told behaviour for learning was only “good”, as the students did not show a “zest for learning”. Upon showing examples of students’ proactive approach to learning and parental letters about improved attitudes towards learning, the inspectors were not interested. This confused and angered many teachers as the inspectors met us all on day 1 stating that they were here to find evidence of all the good things happening and that should they miss something, we should highlight evidence for them.

    Similarly, I’ve been in numerous schools which scored outstanding. In terms of data, all these schools did was benchline low and then bump students up half a grade every term (the kids making good progress get bumped up a full level). That is what outstanding seemingly is. At our school, we haven’t fudged the stats like a certain series of The Wire. In fact we’ve done away with levels altogether. Yet, because our assessment system is not like every other school, we apparently failed to show progress over time. This is despite chronological folders showing clear progress across all subjects. Once again, the inspectors were not interested.

    It seems inspectors are so set in their ways for what they are looking for, if you try to do something different or indeed highlight a different (yet successful approach), they find it hard to accept. Gove himself got rid of KS3 levels and encouraged schools to devise their own system, yet where we have done just that, we have been accused of not having robust data.

    The lack of integrity and professionalism of our inspection, conducted earlier this month was shocking. To say one thing re: evidence and “being here to find all the good things” and then do the opposite was so disheartening for the teachers in the school.

    Ironically on our visit, there was a third person who was training to be an inspector. I cannot imagine how effective they will become given the amount of bad practice seen- grading every lesson including an NQT and also publicly asking a teacher to point out the level 3 students (in the presence of the class). The list of malpractice was unbelievable. As teachers, we are professionals, we hope that our regulating body is also professional. Until it is, it certainly requires improvement.

    Thanks once again for your poignant post.

    1. Further to your point WL, it seems to underline my concern that if we remove teaching from the judgements, then it all becomes about the end of Key stage 2 or 4 outcomes. There have been two primary schools in my LA judged as outstanding where at the start if the inspection they were told the team were here to confirm they were outstanding. The team had already made that judgement based on the data before stepping foot in the school. Similarly, one school was told “we are here to confirm you are good”.
      Your comment about your behaviuor judgement also confirms that it’s all about the data. Back in December Wilshaw put out information regarding the fact that in many schools the behaviuor judgement was often higher than achievement or teaching and he wasn’t happy with this. The thinking behind his statement was that behaviuor means learning behaviuor, and outstanding behaviour would lead to outstanding achievement. So conversely, good achievement must be as a result if good behaviuor!
      I’m really concerned that if we take teaching out as something to be evaluated/judged, we are on the slippery slope to schools having external inspections, all they would need to do us review the data to grade the school.

      1. We were told a similar thing about what they were ‘confirming’. I don’t see inspectors acting any differently in the current circumstances with a teaching grade.

        The reality is that they can go in the classrooms and give whatever grade they want from simply flicking through a child’s book. The idea that a grade for teaching allows us to really ‘show our stuff’ beyond the data simply isn’t true.

        Is data sometimes flawed? Yes. I think the leadership grade is essential to show if a school is improving beyond the current data. With a fistful of progress measures the leadership team would and should be able to demonstrate improvement and progress.

        Keeping the teaching judgement is a bit of an agreed falsehood so that OFSTED can appear to be focusing upon the chalk face. The reality is different. We may as well get rid of the grading and help stop the whole industry of distortions that attend ‘outstanding’ teaching and learning.

        1. So, is what your saying is that the only way to judge teaching is to judge the progress the children are making? I have a teacher who, in my eyes is outstanding. She’s taken on a class where last year (for lots of different reasons) behaviour was so poor a member of SLT had to sit outside the room each lesson. Children were disengaged and unkind to each other. Consequently progress was minimal and a focus this year has to be improving behaviour and accelerated progress. The class teacher this year has turned their behaviour around; every time I go in the class there is a calm ordered atmosphere, children are working hard and their attitudes to each other have significantly improved. And yet, progress data shows that learning is not yet moving on. If I only consider progress outcomes, at this part of the year this teacher would be RI at best, which is just not true.
          I’m not starting an argument here, I am genuinely interested, it’s through professional dialogue that we reflect upon and improve our practice. How do we capture the evidence with regard to teacher effectiveness that’s not just about making APS progress?

          1. As you describe it, clearly progress has been made in terms of behaviour and attitude to learning. I would be very suprised if there was no evidence of improved learning if in the previous year the group were behaving so poorly. That being said, I would judge leadership as knowing the quality of teaching over the course of a year. If every teacher was deemed outstanding, but there was no progress being made relative to the starting points of the children that would be daft, but in specific circumstances, like as you describe, it is about the wisdom and judgement of the school leadership. Of course, our students being happy and kind and valuing one another is essential, but we also want them achieving at the same time. We need both and they can and should develop at the same time with an outstanding teacher.

        2. Thanks for the dialogue Alex. Firts time I’ve been brave enough to post why I think in an open forum ;). Having just reread the Ofsted document posted yesterday, it’s made clear that the nature/form of an Ofsted lesson observation should be very different to a Headteacher one. It is in our school and I’m happy with that. We still need to be in a place where our wisdom and judgement is so reliable that teachers don’t have to be put through the 20 minute, no-notice, high-stakes that is a current lesson observation from when an Inspector Calls!

  5. ‘Should we not get rid of lesson observations and instead focus on the quality of school leadership, behaviour and achievement.’
    For me this is key. If this were to happen the onus would be on the leadership team to develop effective ways of developing teachers e.g.through lesson study, action research etc. that is leadership leading teaching. The focus then would be about true teacher learning over time; not learning the quick moves to the monkey dance of an observed graded lesson.
    A great post thanks.

    1. I think it’s about what you see the lesson observation as. As a one of snap shot judgement they are worthless, and any Leader who goes in, observes for 20 minutes, passes judgements and then walks away is inadequate.

      I have had teachers who I’ve stopped observing as they go to pieces in a formal observation, but every other piece of evidence I have points to them being an excellent teacher. But observing other teachers has helped me identify the excellent practice that others can learn from.

      In our school they are used as part of a means of identifying good practice which that teacher can share with others. After observing the teacher I talked I about, I asked her to lead a triad of teachers from Y4-2 looking at how we build on KS1 achievement in writing. This has led to improvements across all three year groups, and has the potential to impact across the school as the three teachers have shared their findings with the rest of our teachers.

      The trouble is as long as Ofsted doubt the “wisdom and judgement”of Leaders ( and clearly reading about those whose systems lead to “monkey dancing” there’s a place for that doubt) there’s little room for change

      1. I agree with that – how you define observations is key. Easy to make them punitive if that is what is wanted; also, they can be made formative and coaching focused. Obviously, the more of the latter we get the better for teachers – and students.

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