Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead

Over the past few years I’ve been articulating my objections to Ofsted in general and classroom observation specifically. Being a simple soul I was under the impression that whilst these observations may have struck a chord with some teachers, the rest of the world continued rotating in blithe indifference. Other education bloggers seem to be regularly name checked by Michael Gove or invited to meeting at the DfE, but not me. Altogether now…

So imagine my surprise and joy at being contacted by Policy Exchange and invited to discuss my views on Ofsted and classroom observation for a policy reported to be published some time in the spring of 2014.

So today I made my way to Westminster to meet with Harriet Waldegrave and Jonathan Simons. Once through the front door I was bundled through a secret passage and whisked down back streets to a dimly lit underground den where I was plied with hookahs and mint tea.

Here are the nuggets of opinion that I relayed:

  • Schools and teachers should be held publicly and independently accountable, but so should Ofsted
  • Ofsted consume about £270 million of public money every year. A lot of that money is spent sending inspectors into schools to observe lessons. There is a very strong correlation between judgment on attainment and judgments on quality of teaching and learning.  Surely if a school or teacher has great results it’s meaningless to cast aspersions on the methods used to achieve these results? (As long as they’re not cheating!) What value is there in an inspector not valuing a teachers’ practice if that teacher gets great results? Much better to do as Doug Lemov and the Uncommon Schools network did and look at the data to see who is achieving extraordinary results and then learn from them.
  • Ofsted may profess to have no preferred style of teaching but schools don’t believe them. A school with borderline data is particularly vulnerable to ‘rogue’ inspectors. As Sam Freedman explains, this means “many schools are doing things that are not required by the framework – and go against the spirit of that framework’s intentions – because they don’t know what “type” of inspector they are going to get.”
  • Ofsted are interested in accountability rather than improvement; weighing the pig rather than fattening it. The foremost concern of schools though should be improving the quality of teaching and learning.  Why then do most schools simply imitate Ofsted’s observation procedures? According to Dr Matt O’Leary, lesson observation has become fetishised. Why do we believe that grading teachers’ performance will improve teaching?
  • You can’t actually see learning; you can only infer it. Learning doesn’t take place in the hurly burly of the classroom; it’s only learning if students can still remember the knowledge and skills they appeared to grasp next week, next month or next year. If you believe you can judge learning accurately you will be forced to rely on what Professor Robert Coe calls ‘poor proxies for learning’ (like engagement and good behaviour) and will end up judging students’ apparent performance instead. Acting otherwise is either ignorant or dishonest. Unfortunately Michael Wilshaw’s considered opinion is that this is ‘nonsense’. Is willful ignorance a form of dishonesty?
  • Judgmental lesson observations actually drive down standards. Even though Ofsted are now clear that they do not want or expect to see progress in 20 minutes, any attempt to judge progress in lessons will inevitably lead to teachers demonstrating students’ progress in performance.  If you tell schools that you’re looking for ‘rapid and sustained’ progress you will only end up getting rapid progress because that’s all it’s possible to observe in a lesson. But rapid progress prevents sustained progress. Professor Robert Bjork has shown that short term improvements in performance come at the cost of long term retention and transfer. If you are told given a telephone number you try to remember it by repeating it over and over until you find a pen and are able to write it down. As soon as it’s written down you stop repeating it and the memory fades quickly. If on the other hand you want to commit a thing to memory you need allow yourself to forget it in the short term and relearn it at spaced intervals. The sort of teaching that tends to be judged positively by Ofsted is teaching which demonstrates students’ ability to write down telephone numbers because this looks good and progress appears rapid. And so this is what teachers have been systematically trained to do, which has led to teachers being forced to do things that they know are nonsensical.

I may well have banged on about all sorts of other things, but this was the gist of it. I expected that at best this might form an interesting footnote in an otherwise bland report. It still might. But the conversation seemed to indicate that my views aren’t as outré as I might have thought. In fact it seems there’s a clear consensus that judging lessons is very expensive and of very little value. But the really cheering thing about my time today was to realise the following:

  1. We don’t blog in a vacuum; policy makers are listening.
  2. Policy reports written by think tanks like the Policy Exchange have influence with policy makers. This report when it’s published will plop onto the laps of messers Gove and Hunt among others.
  3. There is an emerging consensus that Ofsted needs to be reformed.

How cool is that? My prediction is that Ofsted will no longer grade individual lesson with a maximum of 2 years.

So, school leaders, get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons!

Related posts

The shocking mediation of Ofsted criteria by ‘rogue’ inspectors 10th November 2013
Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym? 16th November 2013
Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations? 23rd August 2013
When lesson observations go wrong – the need to reclaim our professional expertise 12th July 2013
Live lesson obs – making lesson observations formative 3rd February 2013
Are teacher observations a waste of time? 24th February 2012 – maybe we should just observe students?
What’s the point of lesson observations? 17th July 2011 – this is a rhetorical question…