Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Back in 2011 I started to decide that grading lessons was wrong. I wasn’t exactly sure how to justify this decision beyond the fact that I could see how it warped teaching, made lessons unbearably superficial and put everyone thought an awful lot of completely unnecessary stress. Since then I have put together, what I feel is a pretty convincing case on why it is wrong (on every conceivable level) to grade individual lessons.

In December, after sharing these views with the thoroughly charming, ‘right-leaning’ chaps at Policy Exchange, I made this prediction: “Ofsted will no longer grade individual lesson with a maximum of 2 years.” This seemed pretty bold at the time, but events unfolded pretty rapidly after that.

In February, I was invited to Ofsted HQ to discuss, amongst others things, lesson grading and was told that inspectors haven’t been grading lessons since 2009. This came as something of a surprise, but was welcome none the less.

Then in March, Policy Exchange released their report on Ofsted recommending various changes including the scrapping of lesson grading and, in an effort to curb ‘rogue’ inspectors also acting as consultants to schools to advice on “what Ofsted want”, an end to Additional Inspectors employed through 3rd party contractors.

Well, last week Ofsted announced that its contracts with Tribal, CfBT and Serco would not be renewed, and today, Mike Cladingbowl, National Director for Schools announced the end of lesson grading. Sort of.

What he actually said, is this:

Why I want to try inspecting without grading teaching in each individual lesson

Earlier this year, I wrote about why inspectors observe individual lessons and how they evaluate teaching in schools. I hope it helped to clarify what inspectors do and why. If you have not seen it, then you can read it here.

Like many others, I have strong views about inspection and the role of inspector observation in it. I believe, for example, that inspectors must always visit classrooms and see teachers and children working. Classrooms, after all, are where the main business of a school is transacted. It is also important to remember that we can give a different grade for teaching than we do for overall achievement, particularly where a school is improving but test or examination results have not caught up.

But none of this means that inspectors need to ascribe a numerical grade to the teaching they see in each classroom they visit. Nor does it mean aggregating individual teaching grades to arrive at an overall view of teaching. Far from it. Evaluating teaching in a school should include looking across a range of children’s work, establishing how well children acquire knowledge, understanding the teachers’ own views, observing direct practice, and checking on the views of children and parents.

Although I hope all this is now better understood by schools than it was, I am still concerned that ineffective and unnecessary lesson observation is going on in too many of our schools.

I won’t pretend that some of this is not the result of Ofsted inspection. But when I speak to headteachers I am adamant that it is for them to decide how to assess teaching – and what style of teaching they want – in their school. It’s not for Ofsted or anyone else to do that. I am equally adamant that neither schools nor individuals should use inspection to justify their own particular view. Too often, teachers tell me that teaching is evaluated narrowly or they are told to plan lessons in a particular way, or even to adopt a specific way of teaching, because ‘that’s what Ofsted wants’. Well, it usually isn’t.

I know there are a few out there who continue to peddle this myth of ‘that’s what Ofsted wants’. But teachers and schools must be allowed to teach as they see fit. After all, they know what works for them and what works for their children. Teaching has always been a responsible profession, which is why children are entrusted to teachers, and they should be able to exercise their craft without undue intervention.

So inspection should take a pragmatic view. Teachers should be encouraged to adopt the methods that work best for their children. It’s equally unhelpful in my view to advocate traditional methods only as it is to favour only progressive ones. Traditional versus progressive, false dichotomies or otherwise, might make for an interesting debate when it’s underpinned by evidence but in most classrooms teachers do a bit of both these days. Put another way, children need facts but also need to develop the skills to use those facts.

So what has any of this to do with grading teaching in individual lessons? I think the time has come to try something different. While I am confident that most inspectors have got the message, I fear it is not yet established firmly enough in schools. I suspect that many in the profession still think that teaching can be assessed well by observing, episodically, a few aspects of an individual’s work for only a short period of time.

So in a pilot from 9 June 2014 onwards, across the Midlands region, inspectors will not enter a grade for teaching on each individual lesson observation form. Instead, they will record their observations about what is going well, and what is going less well, and use this to feed back to teachers (if teachers want this) or even groups of teachers. But inspectors will not feed back a specific teaching grade or use grades to arrive at an overall judgement.

They will summarise the strengths and weaknesses of the teaching they encounter, along with plentiful other evidence from the scrutiny of books, discussions with teachers and children, the school’s own view of teaching and so on. Taken together, this will provide a catalyst for discussion and allow inspectors to form a view about teaching overall.

I also want the range of comments made about teaching by inspectors and by those in schools to widen. Like others, I don’t favour individual lesson check-lists that are aligned to specific behaviours. This does little to encourage good teachers or increase professional reflection on what is effective practice.

Of course, inspectors and schools do focus on many of the right things when they look at teaching – for example is the work hard enough and do the children work hard at it?  But comment on teaching is often focused on the same issues – the length of the introduction, the activities set, the match to the needs of children, the quality of questioning and comment on the marking of books. In some instances, it can focus on explaining why the grade was awarded rather than adding fresh insight.

What about teachers’ subject knowledge, the children’s sense of routine, the ability to turn direction mid-sentence, a common sense approach to differentiation, the sense of humour, the infectiousness of the explanation? I see too little of this kind of comment about teaching. I hope we see more reporting of it during the pilot.

None of this runs contrary to the key inspection guidance available to inspectors. Nor will it give preferment to schools where the new approach is tried out. But I do hope it will lead to better inspection and more good teaching in schools.

Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s National Director, Schools.  

You can download the official document here.

How this trial will be evaluated is unclear. But what is clear is that while lesson grading may not actually have expired, we can certainly hear it’s death rattle. I now predict we will be dancing on the grave of the observed lesson in much less than 2 years!

NB I am not claiming any credit for this. The universe conspires.

Many others have contributed to my conclusions including, but not limited to: Rob Coe, Bob Bjork, Graham Nuthall, Matt O’Leary, Joe Kirby, Liam Collins and Chris Moyse. Many thanks to everyone involved in fighting the good fight.