There’s a lot said and written about what Ofsted do and don’t want to see in lessons, and it turns out a lot of it is nonsense. Fortunately though we have Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector, saying all kinds of sensible things:

Ofsted should be wary of trying to prescribe a particular style of teaching, whether it be a three part lesson; an insistence that there should be a balance between teacher led activities and independent learning, or that the lesson should start with aims and objectives with a plenary at the end. We should be wary of too much prescription. In my experience a formulaic approach pushed out by a school or rigidly prescribed in an inspection evaluation schedule traps too many teachers into a stultifying and stifling mould which doesn’t demand that they use their imagination, initiative and common sense.

Quite right. And he says of an ‘outstanding’ maths teacher:

He was the head of maths. He was a very traditional teacher. He taught in a pretty didactic way, but the kids loved him across the ability range. He knew how to teach maths. You know what a great maths teacher does?  Builds block by block to ensure that youngsters don’t move on until they understand the ground rules. He would spend many, many hours in the evening every night preparing powerpoints for himself and for the staff in his department and he would disseminate good practice, in terms of how to use powerpoints, to other people in his department and beyond his department to other schools in Hackney and beyond. And he produced absolutely fantastic results although some people would say he was a very didactic teacher.
Extracts form a speech to the RSA, 2012

This all sounds really encouraging, and in the School Inspection Handbook there is further clarification:

Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of teaching or show preference towards a specific lesson structure. As such, inspectors will not look for a preferred methodology but must record aspects of teaching that are effective and identify ways in which teaching and learning can be improved.  Page 10

And if we’re in any doubt, we can refer to Mary Myatt, a lead inspector who writes a damned fine blog. In some of her most recent posts she’s taken the trouble to point out exactly what should happen during lesson observations. In this post she says:

A 20 minute observation can only tell part of the story so what else needs to be taken into account?  In a nutshell it must relate to students’ progress over time. As a result the quality of teaching judgement links closely to the judgement on achievement. If a ‘good’ or even ‘outstanding’ lesson does not lead to good or better progress over time, then it follows that the quality of teaching is likely to require improvement. And the flip side of this is that if a lesson is observed which requires improvement but the progress is good, then the judgement on the quality of teaching over time will be good.

And then goes on to add this:

So why is the lesson observation still perceived as such a significant ‘snapshot’ when it is part of a bigger picture? My guess is that it is because it feels like one when you are on the receiving end of it. But the Ofsted schedule makes clear that a wider range of indicators must inform the judgement on the quality of teaching. ‘Inspectors must not simply aggregate the grades awarded following lesson observations’ (School Inspection Handbook Sep 2013 p 37). So if they are part of, but not the complete story, why do some schools insist on making judgements about the quality of teaching just by adding up the proportion of lessons graded good or better? If this is the case, and they are not also taking account of progress over time, considering students’ work and the quality of feedback and taking account of the views of students, parents and staff, then it is unlikely that leadership and management can be judged as good.

Fine. Anyone who’s read the handbook will be au fait with this, but it’s brilliant to have it confirmed from the horse’s mouth, so to speak. In a follow-up post she writes:

So, from an inspection point of view: don’t put on a show case lesson, please. We spot it a mile off and so do your students. It’s meant to be natural, because we’re trying to get a picture of normal practice, over time. This is hard, I know. I’d be intimidated by me standing in the back of the class. But, until the schedule changes, it’s a given. And every other profession and business has quality assurance embedded in its practice. I’m tough, but kind. And actually I’m not interested in what you are doing, but the impact of what you are doing on your students. So the radar needs to go from you to them. And if you get this, it gives you freedom to teach to your strengths. Forget about me, or anyone else observing you.
So, what are inspections looking for? Above all, they are looking to check how robust the school’s own evaluation is of the quality of teaching. So, we need to sample some of these. If the school’s practice has been to judge the quality of teaching based solely on aggregated lesson observations, without taking account of how much progress students are making, the quality of feedback, what pupils, parents and teacher are saying, they are likely to have got it wrong. A handful of lesson observations do not a judgement make. They have to relate to how much progress students are making, over time. Not every ten minutes.

And that’s great. The message of the Chief Inspector is clear, borne out and clearly supported by instructions to inspectors in the handbook and enacted with clarity and compassion by a lead inspector.
So why do so many schools get this wrong? Why do so many teachers continue to be given worryingly unhelpful lesson observation feedback about ‘progress’ in lessons? (If you’re in any doubt that schools do get this wrong and that teachers’ lives are made miserable as a result, you only have to read this blog post for a fairly representative example of what goes on routinely up and down the country.) This would seem akin to the situation where every year I ask Year 7 pupils to put their hands up if they think you put a comma where you take a breath and all their eager little hands shoot up. Then, whenever I speak to primary school teachers they all deny ever having taught such a thing. Where does this kind of misinformation come from?
In the past, I had thought stories about rogue inspectors contradicting all this sensible advice were exaggerated. Alistair Smith talks about an industry of ‘Ofsted Whisperers’ (often Ofsted inspectors acting as consultants) who go round telling schools “what Ofsted want”. The implication being that although it says x in the Inspection Handbook, what inspectors really want to see is y. But despite masses of anecdotal evidence to the contrary, I’d never actually come across an inspector actually doing this until last week. I had been invited to work with teachers at an institution which had recently been judged as ‘requiring improvement’. My message is all about teachers needing to reclaim their expertise, and being able to clearly show that no one knows their students in their classrooms teaching their subjects better than they do. I spent some time discussing and dispelling various Ofsted myths and for the first couple of workshops all went well. Staff felt inspired to be the expert in the room and clear about what was and wasn’t expected by Ofsted. But in the third workshop someone interrupted to say that the Ofsted inspector down the hall was telling people the exact opposite of my message. Upon investigation I discovered that this inspector was telling people the following:

  • Detailed lesson plans were required for all observed lessons
  • Progress needed to clearly demonstrated in 20 minutes
  • Teacher talk must be minimised
  • Students must be learning independently for significant proportions of every lesson.

To say I was flabbergasted is putting it mildly. But, rather than accept that this was all true, I decided to speak to the inspector over lunch. I had every expectation that his views would be much more nuanced than had been reported and that we would be able to find common ground. I was wrong. The inspector really did seem to think that these thing were true and really had been training teachers that they should be doing them. Needless to say, I made my views clear and was able to support the points I made with reference to the Handbook. I’d like to report that all ended amicably and the inspector thanked me for my perspicacity. This was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not the case. This was the point at which our discussion ended:
“Yes, that what it says, but it’s not what we actually look for, and it’s not how we judge schools. If schools want to guarantee a good outcome they need to follow my advice.” Or words to that effect.
Well. How do you respond to that? I’ve no idea how widespread this view is, but it would appear that Old Andrew’s continuing campaign against ‘rogue’ inspectors enforcing a progressive teaching agenda is entirely justified.

Related posts

Where lesson observations go wrong
Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations?
The problem with progress Part 1: Learning vs Performance