The story so far…
On Tuesday I, and four other education bloggers met with Ofsted’s National Director of Schools Mike Cladingbowl to discuss, among other things, now and why lessons are graded by Ofsted. We were told, “Inspectors must not grade lessons,” and announced this to a jubilant public.
Then, questions started popping up and inconsistencies began to emerge. Various inspectors expressed their confusion about what this meant as, it transpired, Ofsted’s evaluation forms (EFs) contain a box within which inspectors record a grade for teaching quality. So, what were we to believe? Were inspectors meant to grade lessons or not? Cladingbowl had seemed pretty clear, but was it true? Cladingbowl tweeted that he would provide clarification on this point.
Somewhat surreally, I had a phone conversation with Cladingbowl last night in which he explained that although inspectors do not grade teachers or lessons, they may well make a judgment on teaching quality during an observation. This judgement is based on the quality of pupils’ work, teachers’ marking and evidence of other routines being embedded. It is not based on what the teacher actually does during the inspection. Apparently, this has been the case since 2009. Who knew? Cladingbowl then email the text he proposed to publish so that I, and others, could comment on its clarity. I duly made some notes, as did Ross McGill and sent it back.
Today, Ofsted have published Mike Cladingbowl’s promised clarification.
Here are some of the key passages;

So why do we observe lessons at all?
It’s just one piece of a jigsaw of evidence about the work of the school that includes: the school’s own observations and self-evaluation, joint visits to classrooms with the headteacher or other staff, evidence about how teaching has improved, the quality of work seen in books, teachers’ marking, discussions with pupils and staff and, of course, test results and so on. In my view, inspectors must always spend time in classrooms when they inspect. It’s where the main business of the school happens. But the way we use the evidence we gather in classrooms has changed.

This makes some sense. I’m certainly not against inspectors spending time in classrooms. My problem is, and has always been the notion that an inspector can make a reliable and meaningful judgement about how well pupils are learning. And this being the case, any judgements on teachers’ effectiveness seem spurious.
It goes on to say:

Inspectors do not judge the overall lesson. But it is still possible for an inspector to record a graded evaluation on an evidence form under one or more of the four main judgement headings, including teaching, where there is sufficiently compelling evidence gathered by observing routines, looking in books, listening to students and so on. It might be possible, for example, to see evidence of the impact of a recent decision taken by the leadership, which has improved behaviour.
But this is categorically not the same as judging a teacher, or even the teaching, and especially not a lesson overall, by evaluating the performance of the teacher in a lesson or a part of a lesson. Making a judgement about the quality of teaching, based on a wide variety of evidence gathered in the classroom and elsewhere, is not the same as judging how well a teacher performed. I know this may sound like splitting hairs – but it is an important difference.

It does sound like splitting hairs. Having had it explained, I feel I do, just about, understand the difference between judging teaching quality and judging how well a teacher has performed, but by God! it’s a terrifyingly subtle difference that could be used to conceal a multitude of wrong-headed ideological preferences.

Inspectors should not grade an aspect such as teaching, unless circumstances are exceptional, without considering the broad range of evidence that they can gather during a visit to a lesson – for example, the behaviour of the students and how well they are managed, subject knowledge, the standard of work completed in books, the quality of marking and so on – and use this to come to a view about what teaching is like for those students and its impact on their learning over time.

What might constitute an exceptional circumstance? This little loophole is wide open to abuse. Let’s not leave this sort of thing to the vagaries of whim. Let’s nail down precisely the sorts of circumstances that might present as ‘exceptional’.

I was speaking to a colleague today, one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors. He reminded me it is all about outcomes and that it does work both ways. In a classroom he was in recently, a teacher produced, literally, an all-singing, all-dancing lesson. There was music, comedy, costumes, games, ‘thinking hats’, and all with clear objectives on the whiteboard. He recorded a teaching quality grade of inadequate. Not because of the ‘performance’ on the day but because students’ graffiti-strewn books hadn’t been marked for six months and work was shoddy or incomplete. In contrast, he graded teaching as outstanding in a classroom where students sat reading in silence because of the exceptional quality of students’ work and the teacher’s marking in exercise books. He told both teachers what his conclusions were.

This sort of anecdotal reading of the rules is perhaps the most helpful and illustrative section. Don’t we raise a little cheer when the hardworking plodder gets an outstanding badge and his showboating colleague gets a kick in the kidneys?

[I]nspectors will visit lessons for a variety of reasons. This can include looking at whether good literacy is promoted, to check on particular students’ standards, following a group of students to check on their attitudes to learning in different contexts, or how effectively additional staff support students with special educational needs. They can also gather evidence about teaching outside of lessons – and frequently do – by speaking to students, looking at planning, undertaking work scrutiny and talking to senior leaders.

This would seem to suggest that inspectors aren’t always (or aren’t just) interested in checking up on teachers; they’ll also haunt lessons in order to sample what’s going on across the school. And, conversely, they’ll be making judgments about teaching in everything they observe. This is useful to know, and captures the reality that the quality of teaching in a school depends on far more than what goes on in briefly visited lessons.
The clarification is then summed up as follows:

  • Inspectors should not give an overall grade for the lesson and nor should teachers expect one. [Good!]
  • If asked, inspectors will provide feedback to individuals on what they have observed, including the evidence they have gathered about teaching. [I’m not sure whether this is helpful, and it may certainly give some inspectors an opportunity to give vent to their preferences on how teaching should be enacted. This, I guess, needs to be read hand-in-hand with the subsidiary guidance given in December 2013. But, for as long as we have classroom observation used for accountability purposes, it seems entirely reasonable that teachers should know what impressions an observer has formed.]
  • They can share the grade for the evidence gathered about teaching, or other aspects, with an individual teacher. In most instances, it should include evidence about what is routine rather than one-off. [This is where the problems will reside. I’m not sure it’s possible to separate a grade given on ‘evidence gathered about teaching’ from teaching itself. This area is so grey it seems to absorb light. This kind of fudge will only continue to obfuscate anything useful that inspections might seek to do. How much better would it be if we just got rid of the grade altogether?]
  • Inspectors must ensure that this feedback does not seem to constitute a view about whether the teacher is a ‘good’ teacher or otherwise, or if they ‘taught a good lesson’ or otherwise. The feedback they give is confidential. [It would appear almost impossible to avoid tying ourselves up in linguistic knots by pointlessly avoiding such loaded words as ‘good’. It would be much more productive for an inspector to take the time to ask questions and what they think they’ve seen than offer potentially harmful feedback. That said, it’s good to hear that such feedback must be confidential but how, when paired observations with SLT are the norm, can such feedback ever really be confidential?]
  • Teachers need to understand this too, as they often clamour to know what ‘grade’ they got. I understand why they want to know, and it can be difficult to differentiate between a grade for teaching and a grade for the teacher. I accept that we may need to do more here. [Teachers, and particularly school leaders, are going to need a lot of weaning before they can be free of the tyranny of grades. It seems unfair to place this burden on us. The change has to come from inspectors: they can take the lead by refusing to discuss something as complex as learning in such a reductive way.]
  • Evidence gathered directly or indirectly about individual teachers by inspectors should never be used by the school for performance management purposes. [Good. And, as this evidence is apparently confidential, I’m not sure how it could be without something fishy going on.]
  • Inspection is about evaluating the quality of education provided by the school, by considering a range of evidence, and not about evaluating, individually or collectively, the performance of teachers through short lesson observations. [This is great news, but I’m sure it’ll get lost in the confusion about exactly what is being graded when inspectors tick their boxes and fill in their forms.]

Cladingbowl concludes with some advice and some assurances. Takes this section:

Too often, it seems to me, inspectors’ visits to lessons are confused with the ones carried out by headteachers whose purpose may be to identify professional development needs or performance management.

It is clear that there needs to be a ground up reformation of how schools hold teachers to account and evaluate their effectiveness. If Ofsted acknowledge that “it would be nonsensical to suggest that an Ofsted inspector could give a definitive validation of a teacher’s professional competency in such a short time” then where does that leave schools that do this? If inspectors aren’t able to judge a teacher on a 20 minute observation, then neither should anyone else. There are some problems here for some schools’ plans for appraisal and pay.

Finally, if instructing inspectors to feed back on the range of evidence used to arrive at a judgement without giving a numerical teaching ‘grade’ would help, or even removing the grade for teaching on the evidence form altogether, then I am prepared to consider it. We might, for instance, just ask inspectors to note all their evidence gathered about teaching, and then bring it all together at the end of the inspection in a plenary before discussing the single overall judgement on teaching with the school.

This is what we want! Yes, it would be very helpful to instruct inspectors to feedback without giving a numerical grade. And removing the grade would be best of all. I fervently hope that Mr Cladingbowl is already considering this and that this much-needed change is within his power to make. This is what I shall be campaigning for. I won’t rest until the spectre of lesson grades has been exorcised for good.

Related posts

What I learned from my visit to Ofsted