If there was no OfSTED, no league tables, no SLT… just you and your class. What would you choose to do to make it GREAT?

Do that anyway…

Tom Sherrington

Every teacher needs to improve. Not because they’re not good enough but because they can be even better.

Dylan Wiliam

It’s been said before but, I think, bears repeating: Ofsted have a lot to answer for. No one wants failing schools going unchecked but the medicine is often worse than the cure. I spent the morning at a lovely primary school who have just been ‘done’. And they really do feel they’ve been done. They had gotten rid of all the blue on their RAISE Online and felt secure in claiming they were providing a good standard of education, especially after a local authority monitoring visit had told them exactly that a few weeks earlier.

What went wrong? The head teacher is candid about having ‘a couple’ of teachers whose performance sometimes leaves a little to be desired. As luck would have it, a trip had been arranged for day 1 in which most of the strongest teachers were out of school, leaving less accomplished colleagues as the only option for inspectors to visit. The head was advised to get his deputy to cover one colleague’s class on the first day of the visit but decided that this would wrong. Instead he would rely on demonstrating that he knew his data, his staff and his students and had made appropriate provision. Naively perhaps. Whether this decision had any bearing on the judgement is of course impossible to know. But what is clear is that after day 1 of the inspection, the lead inspector was not happy about the quality of teaching. This despite the achievement and attainment of the students.

Now, I’ve argued many times previously that learning cannot be directly observed and if assumptions made in classroom observations contradict results and the evidence of progress over time in books then they’re not worth the mental vacuum in which they’re formed. In this case, the head believes the inspectors had to ‘reinterpret’ the data in order to fit the ‘evidence’ of their observations. It all came down to one group of students making 14% less progress over 3 levels than is expected nationally. The head argued that this 14% was in fact two students. Two students with very well documented histories and very special needs. Surely 2 students can’t be statistically valid? Yeah, right.

Anyway. I wasn’t there and am only hearing the whines and complaints of the injured party. The inspection team have long since galloped off firing their six shooters exuberantly in the air. History is written by the victors and the draft inspection report has just arrived. There it was in black and white: the school ‘requires improvement’. The headteacher is left in an impossible position. He believes he presides over a good school. He believes in the school enough to send his own children there. And he believes that Ofsted’s judgement of his school is, not to put too fine a point on it, wrong.  But holding true to your values in the face of public castigation is horrendously difficult. How do you improve in the face of condemnation, misinformation and personal prejudice?

We were discussing how I might be able to work with teachers in order to help them improve. I subscribe to the view that anyone can improve as long as they want to. He put me on the spot and asked me what 3 things I would do. The short version of my answer is to be the exact opposite of Ofsted. But here’s my 3 step process with a bit more flesh on the bones:

1) Find out what teachers are good at and start from there. Zoë Elder wrote an interesting post a few months back called Even Better If we focussed on What Went Well – the idea is basically that feedback to teachers is usually focussed on what could be improved rather than what was good. Or at least, that’s what we hear:

Image taken from http://fullonlearning.com/2013/05/27/even-better-if-we-specifically-focused-on-what-went-well/

Image taken from http://fullonlearning.com/2013/05/27/even-better-if-we-specifically-focused-on-what-went-well/

To avoid this she argues that we could focus on expanding the good bits or, as Dan Heath  might have it, growing the bright spots.

So, what if instead of focussing on what teachers are getting wrong we invested time in improving what they are already good at? It’s hard to hear that you’re failing. And it’s hard to improve if you’re focussed on what you’re bad at. But we all enjoy talking about our passions and most people are prepared to spend time on what they enjoy. That would be my starting point: get to know the teacher, find out what they’re good at and work out how to do more of it.

2) My next step is based on the belief that we learn more from observing others than we do by being observed. Typically, schools ‘support’ teachers by scrutinising their performance ever more closely. This strikes me as unlikely to result in anything much expect making people ill. We need a certain amount of stress to keep us on our toe but too much stress is counter productive. Instead, I’d rather observe with the teacher I’m supporting. We can then talk about what we’ve seen, how children appear to be making progress and discuss how our expectations have been confounded by the complexity of learning.

It might also be worth focussing on the teacher’s identified strengths. How can what they’ve seen help them improve what they’re already good at?

3) And if all this sounds a bit too touchy-feely, my third step would be to give teachers really difficult things to do. One of my fundamental disagreements with many teachers is that they consider it their job to be to make work easy. This is, I think, completely wrong-headed. Our job is make work hard and to get students to make mistakes. If we make mistakes we can learn from them. Mistakes become normalised and we’re more confident in taking risks. It’s easy to succeed if the bar is set low. Success holds little savour if everyone can achieve it at the first attempt. If we have high expectations then it must follow that students will fail to meet them. Our job is not to lower the bar but to help students deal with the frustration of not being able to get over it. Yet.

And the same holds true, I think, for teachers. Anyone can improve over the short term with masses of one to one attention and support. I tend to think that for all the fear and confusion around Ofsted they actually set the bar pretty low. Hoping children learn exclusively through the medium of big paper and board markers is certainly setting the bar perilously low. Much better to, for instance, work on improving teacher talk than minimising it. The harder it is to achieve success, the more valuable it is. This might seem counter intuitive, and is certainly provocative, but I’m pretty sure that we are only likely to change when we encounter things which startle us out of received (and sometimes very sloppy) wisdom.

At that point the head was required to tell someone off for something and called it a day. We’ve agreed that I’ll come back to do some training and coaching in the new year and I’m very much looking forward to seeing whether I’m right. In the meantime, please let me know where you think I’ve gone wrong and do feel free to provide some refinements to my suggestions.