It’s a Myth-tery: 7 ways in which Ofsted are better than SLTs

Posted on October 11, 2014

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This is a summary of my presentation to Teaching and Learning Takeover (TLT14) this October. The organisers asked me to base my presentation on my most-read blogpost The Myth of Progress Within Lessons. This is what I came up with.

I began by reasserting my twin premises from the original blogpost:

There is no such thing as progress within lessons. There is only learning.

And

The main perpetuators of the myth of ‘progress within lessons’ are leadership teams within schools, not Ofsted.

If anything, with numerous and notable exceptions amongst school leaders, this has become even more true: not because school leaders have become even more faithful subscribers to the myth, but because Ofsted (at least at their leadership level) have done even more to distance themselves from the myth.

And as if to illustrate that point for me (not to mention steal my thunder, the buggers), Ofsted released their ‘Clarification for Schools‘ bombshell document the day before my TLT14 presentation. If you haven’t already read this, why on earth not!!! Read it. Print it. Photocopy it. Pigeonhole it. Wallpaper your Head’s office with it.

The key point is that it is ‘clarification for schools’, not inspectors as has previously been the case. Which means that we ought to take notice from the outset when they write that the purpose of the document is “to dispel myths that can result in unnecessary workload in schools”. Not only have the sods stolen my thunder, they’ve even stolen my key word!!!

The Un-Magnificent Seven

I wanted to spotlight specific school-based practices that I felt jarred with the guidance in the Ofsted ‘School Inspection Handbook’, areas where we, as school leaders, perpetuate myths that simply aren’t there. These were the seven I identified.

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To try and unpick why so many SLTs stick with these core practices, I organised them into three categories: command, control and contort.

Command Mechanisms

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Leadership teams rarely like to admit their capacity to command, but these mechanisms are a demonstration of exactly that. They are a way of ‘passing on’ the formal systems of command that we see emanating from the DfE and Ofsted. There is a lot of dressing up of these as being about developing teachers to impact upon teaching and learning, but they are, in their very essence, a formal means of commanding the professionals below leadership team level to behave in certain ways.

The Obsolete Grading of Lessons

I won’t spend much time on this because it should be as dead as Monty Python’s Parrot right now. If you are a school leader still grading individual lessons of teachers then stop it right now. Not only is it something Ofsted will not be doing, but it isn’t even something that they expect you to be doing. As the handbook says, with regard to what they expect schools to provide pre-inspection.

Records of the evaluation of the quality of teaching, but inspectors should not expect to see records of graded lesson observations.

The new ‘clarification’ document goes even further:

[Ofsted] does not expect schools to use the evaluation schedule to grade teaching or individual lessons.

In short, graded lesson observations ARE obsolete. Don’t be a dinosaur.

Obsolescent Lesson Observations

Perhaps I am on less steady ground with this one, but if we are going to chase lesson gradings out then we have a duty, as school leaders, to look further at the ways in which we command teachers during the whole lesson observation process: removing the grading is surely not enough.

Instead we should be looking at the very top-down nature of internal observation processes. Why on earth would we assume that promotion to a school management and leadership position marks us out to be the best at making judgements on the quality of teaching? What gives us the right, as the people who teach the least in a school, to put ourselves forward as the chief arbiters of effectiveness over those who teach the most?

As well as challenging SLT-led observation protocols, I would also suggest that we need to look again at the co-observation process, whereby SLT ‘team up’ with middle leaders to replicate the Ofsted process of ‘quality assurance’ (which surely would be better renamed as ‘conformity assurance’)? The negative impact on reliability and validity of co-observations is clearly noted by Ofsted when they say, in the inspection handbook, that inspectors “should also be aware of the potential impact on pupils’ behaviour of the presence of an additional member of staff in a classroom”.

And don’t even get me started on those schools who are happily making a direct link between lesson observations and performance related pay!!! Even if we see a teacher for half an hour every half term, we will only be seeing less than 0.4% of their teaching across the school year. In their handbook, Ofsted make it clear that their observations “may not be used by the school for performance management purposes” because they know that it just isn’t right to make an holistic judgement on capability as a result of an unreliable, invalid and unrepresentative process. Why should we?

In case any school leader is reading in a state of apoplexy with regard to what I am writing here, convinced that ‘Ofsted expects’ schools to do top-down, PRP-informing, co-observation of their teachers, let me refer them to the new ‘clarification for schools’ document.

Ofsted does not require schools to undertake a specified amount of lesson observation.

Clear as water from a mountain spring, is it not?

Relentless Progress Checking

One of the main problems for teachers of our dependency upon the myth that Ofsted expect to see ‘progress within lessons’ is the ever-shortening timeframe around the actual Ofsted words of ‘progress over time’. If we believe that progress can be ascertained over half an hour, then it should be easy for our staff to show ‘progress over time’ each and every half term, no?

No.

The new wording within the inspection handbook tends to eschew the profoundly prosaic notion of ‘progress over time’ in favour of the far more poetic “significant growth in pupils’ knowledge and excellent attitudes to learning”. Growth as a metaphor beats progress hands down in my book, and that of most teachers and (I trust) school leaders. But growth is a messy, non-linear and non-guaranteed process. It doesn’t plot neatly onto a ‘flightpath’ and it can’t be measured entirely in numeric data or snapshot observations.

If your school only evaluates pupil learning on the basis of brief observations and half-termly levels and grades, then it is likely that you are not measuring growth at all, just progress. And if you are only measuring progress, perhaps linking it to PRP or capability measures, then it is likely that you are not measuring anything other than compliance. And if that is the case, what perverse incentives have you introduced into your systems that might in reality militate against actual growth, in favour of mythical progress? It’s worth thinking about.

Control Mechanisms

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As with commanding staff, school leaders are reluctant to admit that their policies and practices seek to control them, but that is exactly what they do if they are done in the spirit of ‘Ofsted chasing’.

The Pace of Activities Over the Pace of Learning

Again, I shan’t spend long on this one as I think that Michael Wilshaw has been unequivocal about it since day one and the publication of the ‘Moving English Forward‘ document.

Alas, many of us promoted to SLTs were babes of the National Strategies and NCTL ‘leadership by numbers’ courses that prioritised preferred pedagogies. But the world has rightly turned since then, and if Ofsted can recognise that ‘what works for teachers, works’ then why can’t we?

[Inspectors] should not criticise teacher talk for being overlong or bemoan a lack of opportunity for different activities in lessons unless there is unequivocal evidence that this is slowing learning over time.

We need to show more respect for the professional individuality of those trained to a postgraduate level in charge of their own classrooms, provided it is effective over time.

Differentiation by Levels/Grades

I’ll be honest and say here that I’ve always hated the ‘all/most/some’ version of differentiated learning objectives. And I’ve seen some of the worst ever lessons where teachers have diligently produced ‘levelled’ worksheets to try and show that they have catered for all in their classes. I’m much more in favour of a ‘pitch high, support below’ approach to teaching and lesson planning.

But having admitted all that positive stuff, let me also admit that I have restricted a lesson observation to satisfactory on the grounds that a tiny proportion of the class weren’t learning and weren’t catered for in planning. How wrong, and how chastening it was to see this in the latest inspection handbook.

It is unrealistic for inspectors to expect that all work in all lessons will be matched to the specific needs of each individual pupil.

Of course, it is still my wish as a school leader to see every student catered for in every lesson, but I forget at my peril that this is also the wish of every teacher when planning and teaching lessons. Sometimes, though, it just doesn’t happen the way we wish and a supportive dialogue (plus effective INSET) needs to be the way forward, not a reduction to ‘all/most/some’ as a planning tool.

Lesson Plans and Context Sheets

This is another of my more challenging sections of this post. I am coming rapidly to the conclusion that schools need to get rid of the control mechanisms of compulsory proformas for lesson planning and lesson observations. Ofsted have signalled this for some time now and, when inspected in June 2013, I was able to repeat their mantra of ‘planned lessons, not lesson plans’ to staff the afternoon before the inspection team descended. It was, I believe, a crucial factor in sending out a message of trust to staff that helped them to relax and be confident in themselves for what proved to be a very positive two days.

Not only do inspection teams now no longer expect to see lesson plans, but the handbook states that they “must not advocate a particular method of planning”. The ‘clarification for schools’ document goes further (and challenges us to be better internally) when it says:

Ofted does not specify how planning should be set out, the length of time it should take or the amount of detail it should contain. Inspectors are interested in the effectiveness of planning rather than the form it takes.

This is a far cry from the horror stories we hear about teachers being required to submit lesson plans for evaluation and even grading to their leadership teams. In whose name, if not Ofsted’s, is this happening?

Contort Mechanisms

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The final heading within which I wanted to locate my un-magnificent seven of school practices was ‘contort’, and I see this more as an outcome of those practices already addressed (an unintended consequence’ if you will, because I genuinely believe that this is not the intention of the overwhelming majority of school leaders).

Compliance Through ‘Consistency’

The more I think about the word ‘consistency’ in a school context, the less I like it. Sure, I want consistency of systems and structures as they relate to things such as pay, conditions, staff wellbeing and the like, but I don’t believe that homogenisation of how people think and act, plan and teach, interact and respond, is an attractive or necessary premise on which to base effective leadership decisions.

And neither does Ofsted, if the inspection handbook is to be believed. As well as clearly stating that they don’t favour any teaching style, the document notably says that…

Inspectors should be ‘looking at’ and reflecting…not ‘looking for’ specific or particular things.

Hear hear to this, I say. School leaders have earned promotion, often (although not exclusively) as a result of being effective classroom practitioners. But if most are like me, we did it out own way, refusing to toe the line on a regular basis, taking chances and risks along the way. Many of us still do so as leaders, so why wouldn’t we value heterogeneity amongst our colleagues. Perhaps that is the biggest chance or risk we should be taking, knowing that some will get it right and some will get it wrong, and knowing that we will be there to support those who get it wrong when the time comes.

The Way Forward?

I hate to write a seemingly negative blogpost or give a seemingly negative presentation, so to finish I wanted to suggest some alternative ways in which school leadership teams could (should?) move forward in what is clearly – on paper at least – a more permissive model of inspection emerging from Ofsted.

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From Command to Conversation

Instead of grading lessons, carrying out top-down internal observation schedules and progress checking anything that moves, we need to be putting in place more holistic staff evaluation policies. After all, in my new role, I line manage my PA and the school’s Business Manager: will half an hour observing her manage my diary or observing him meet with the auditors provide me with enough information to tell me if they are doing a good job? We need to be applying the models of ‘intelligent accountability’ that we so often demand of Ofsted in our own organisations and we need to explore outcomes in an ‘autopsy without blame’ manner.

At Canons we have not just abandoned the practice of grading lessons, but have done away with our ‘Whole School Review’ format. Already, the Maths department have begun filling the void with half-termly ‘pop-ins’ that are entirely bottom-up and focused on supporting one another with teaching. In the past half term I have met with all department leaders and their line managers to review their past year and preview their coming one, a process that has been wholly supportive, genuinely conversational and utterly enlightening.

From Control to Contradiction

In a more mature model of school leadership, trust is given to highly educated and qualified professionals. Out goes an insistence on pace of activities, differentiation by levels and enforced lesson planning with an overabundance of non-negotiable bureaucracy (how I despise the term non-negotiable by the way). In their place comes a ‘surplus model’ approach, in which there is an assumption that staff have both the capability and capacity to do great things in their classrooms without being told how to do so by leaders.

The net result of a move from leadership control of classrooms is the creation of an arena where contradiction is valued, not sidelined. By contradiction, I mean an understanding that what works for me (and which I could enforce on others as a Head) might not – indeed does not – work for others, and vice versa. Instead of being the Trojan Horse, packed to the gills with what strategies I have found useful in my teaching to unleash upon the staff at my school, I need instead to welcome the Trojan Mice teachers bringing their own strategies to their own classrooms, refining them and sharing this with others in a supportive professional learning environment.

From Contort to Collaboration

Most fundamentally of all, school leaders who wish to avoid the pitfalls of the past need to see beyond consistency as the defining value of what occurs in a school. It is not something that can ever be achieved, nor is it something that we should ever want to achieve when we have such an abundance of unique talent at our disposal, all of whom will give much more if they feel that they and their professionalism are fully valued and respected precisely because they are unique.

Instead of seeking compliance through consistency, it is my view that we should apply two fundamental ‘people principles’ in everything we do as school leaders. The first of these ‘people principles’ is that almost every adult who works in a school does so for the right reasons. In my experience that has been about 99.8% of people I have come across. The second of these ‘people principles’ is that an even greater proportion of these people (perhaps 99.9%?) want to get better at their job, have the students they teach learn better and, through this, achieve more. If we keep that in mind, then why would we need to command, control or contort those who teach in the schools we lead?

Don’t get me wrong. None of what I have suggested is as easy as commanding, controlling and contorting. In fact, by comparison, holding conversations, inviting contradictions and facilitating collaboration is messy, time-consuming and riddled with risks, but so is the real process of education (as opposed to the artificial process of proving progress). Most of all, it involves a recognition that you can’t actually command or control all of the people, all of the time. This is no bad thing, but it does rather leave you feeling a lot like this character from Shakespeare in Love (if you replace the word ‘theatre’ with ‘education’)

Conclusion

My chief contention in the presentation I gave at TLT14 was that those of us still ‘Ofsted chasing’ are actually chasing the wrong Ofsted, the Ofsted of 2005. The inspection handbook of 2014, and the ‘Clarification for Schools’ document offers us a far more optimistic model of ‘Ofsted chasing’ for the future.

On ‘conversation’, Ofsted say that…

Leaders focus relentlessly on improving teaching and learning…and teachers seek to assess the effectiveness of their own teaching and adapt accordingly.

On ‘contradiction’ they say…

School leaders and teachers should decide for themselves how best to teach, and explain why they have made the decisions they have and provide evidence of the effectiveness of their choices.

And on ‘collaboration’ they say that outstanding schools enable the…

Creation of a culture of high expectations and aspirations and scholastic excellence.

Who can argue with any of these, but it’s how we get there that matters most to our staff.

If anyone reading this from a school leadership position feels like we still have to get into our metaphoric trucks and follow the Ofsted tornadoes, then the least we can do is head in the right direction, as outlined by these documents. If not, we could be the ones wreaking destruction for all the wrong reasons.

Personally, I’m happy to take Ofsted at their word when they say…

It is up to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits rather than by reference to the inspection handbook.

After all, this is what I went into school leadership for; the sense of mystery.

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