Get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons


Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead

Over the past few years I’ve been articulating my objections to Ofsted in general and classroom observation specifically. Being a simple soul I was under the impression that whilst these observations may have struck a chord with some teachers, the rest of the world continued rotating in blithe indifference. Other education bloggers seem to be regularly name checked by Michael Gove or invited to meeting at the DfE, but not me. Altogether now…

So imagine my surprise and joy at being contacted by Policy Exchange and invited to discuss my views on Ofsted and classroom observation for a policy reported to be published some time in the spring of 2014.

So today I made my way to Westminster to meet with Harriet Waldegrave and Jonathan Simons. Once through the front door I was bundled through a secret passage and whisked down back streets to a dimly lit underground den where I was plied with hookahs and mint tea.

Here are the nuggets of opinion that I relayed:

  • Schools and teachers should be held publicly and independently accountable, but so should Ofsted
  • Ofsted consume about £270 million of public money every year. A lot of that money is spent sending inspectors into schools to observe lessons. There is a very strong correlation between judgment on attainment and judgments on quality of teaching and learning.  Surely if a school or teacher has great results it’s meaningless to cast aspersions on the methods used to achieve these results? (As long as they’re not cheating!) What value is there in an inspector not valuing a teachers’ practice if that teacher gets great results? Much better to do as Doug Lemov and the Uncommon Schools network did and look at the data to see who is achieving extraordinary results and then learn from them.
  • Ofsted may profess to have no preferred style of teaching but schools don’t believe them. A school with borderline data is particularly vulnerable to ‘rogue’ inspectors. As Sam Freedman explains, this means “many schools are doing things that are not required by the framework – and go against the spirit of that framework’s intentions – because they don’t know what “type” of inspector they are going to get.”
  • Ofsted are interested in accountability rather than improvement; weighing the pig rather than fattening it. The foremost concern of schools though should be improving the quality of teaching and learning.  Why then do most schools simply imitate Ofsted’s observation procedures? According to Dr Matt O’Leary, lesson observation has become fetishised. Why do we believe that grading teachers’ performance will improve teaching?
  • You can’t actually see learning; you can only infer it. Learning doesn’t take place in the hurly burly of the classroom; it’s only learning if students can still remember the knowledge and skills they appeared to grasp next week, next month or next year. If you believe you can judge learning accurately you will be forced to rely on what Professor Robert Coe calls ‘poor proxies for learning’ (like engagement and good behaviour) and will end up judging students’ apparent performance instead. Acting otherwise is either ignorant or dishonest. Unfortunately Michael Wilshaw’s considered opinion is that this is ‘nonsense’. Is willful ignorance a form of dishonesty?
  • Judgmental lesson observations actually drive down standards. Even though Ofsted are now clear that they do not want or expect to see progress in 20 minutes, any attempt to judge progress in lessons will inevitably lead to teachers demonstrating students’ progress in performance.  If you tell schools that you’re looking for ‘rapid and sustained’ progress you will only end up getting rapid progress because that’s all it’s possible to observe in a lesson. But rapid progress prevents sustained progress. Professor Robert Bjork has shown that short term improvements in performance come at the cost of long term retention and transfer. If you are told given a telephone number you try to remember it by repeating it over and over until you find a pen and are able to write it down. As soon as it’s written down you stop repeating it and the memory fades quickly. If on the other hand you want to commit a thing to memory you need allow yourself to forget it in the short term and relearn it at spaced intervals. The sort of teaching that tends to be judged positively by Ofsted is teaching which demonstrates students’ ability to write down telephone numbers because this looks good and progress appears rapid. And so this is what teachers have been systematically trained to do, which has led to teachers being forced to do things that they know are nonsensical.

I may well have banged on about all sorts of other things, but this was the gist of it. I expected that at best this might form an interesting footnote in an otherwise bland report. It still might. But the conversation seemed to indicate that my views aren’t as outré as I might have thought. In fact it seems there’s a clear consensus that judging lessons is very expensive and of very little value. But the really cheering thing about my time today was to realise the following:

  1. We don’t blog in a vacuum; policy makers are listening.
  2. Policy reports written by think tanks like the Policy Exchange have influence with policy makers. This report when it’s published will plop onto the laps of messers Gove and Hunt among others.
  3. There is an emerging consensus that Ofsted needs to be reformed.

How cool is that?

So, school leaders, get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons!

Related posts

The shocking mediation of Ofsted criteria by ‘rogue’ inspectors 10th November 2013
Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym? 16th November 2013
Why can’t we tell a good teacher through lesson observations? 23rd August 2013
When lesson observations go wrong - the need to reclaim our professional expertise 12th July 2013
Live lesson obs – making lesson observations formative 3rd February 2013
Are teacher observations a waste of time? 24th February 2012 – maybe we should just observe students?
What’s the point of lesson observations? 17th July 2011 – this is a rhetorical question…

44 Responses to Get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons

  1. teamspears says:

    David, as a middle leader in the most scrutinised department possible (English) I find myself asking more and more- who is it (observation/ scrutiny) for? I am swamped by Half-termly learning walks with only a vague focus shared with staff (‘we’re looking at progress this time’); book trawls without personalised feedback, only generic whole school feedback (‘some marking was terrible and we need to address this’) and pointless lesson obs that just reveal what the observer would do if it were their class!
    More and more we are being pushed to provide pieces of paper for an evidence base that is flawed, meaningless and redundant to the motivation, success and achievements of staff and students alike.
    It is wonderful that you have been able break the barrier and bring some of these issues to the overlords, let’s hope this is the start of a positive change that will allow teachers to actually teach and stop the ridiculous game our profession has become!

    • David Didau says:

      Please feel free to circulate my blog in your school! Thanks

      • Jonathon says:

        Nicely written its going to my department tomorrow. I am glad that it’s not just me that thinks the current education system is a ever increasing list of pointless things to process, that possess very little value with your ability to paint by numbers more valued than individuality. Almost as if someone is trying to squeeze the life and joy out of it.

  2. Danny Brown says:

    Great post and fully agree. We stopped grading lesson obs at our school this year, 6 graded lessons last year have now transformed into 6 opportunities for developmental feedback and teacher improvement. A huge improvement.

  3. Anna says:


    That was VERY cool indeed! I loved reading this, thanks!

  4. Great stuff David. Keep it up!

  5. Paula king says:

    I’m a little bit speechless. Love it. Keep blogging!

  6. bt0558 says:

    Really nice post. Haven’t always agreed with your posts David but this one is on the money for me.

    Good you had the opportunity to put these views forwrad. I think you represent the views of a large number of teachers.

    • David Didau says:

      Thanks. I wouldn’t presume to represent the views of most teachers – in fact I often think my views are at odds with the majority (as your comment indicates:)) but it does seem that there is a convergence of views on this. It’s pretty great when the likes of Prof Coe tell you you’re right.

      • Alan Salt says:

        I stopped grading for 3 years in a secondary academy, largely because feedback was impossible as conversations were obsessed with justification of the grade, rather than discussion of what could help learning move forward. Was received well by teachers, although some ‘outstanding’ staff found it challenging as they no longer had the instant validation of their status. Other leaders in our federation found it more difficult to reconcile with their rather ‘machismo’ views of accountability and practice. More fool them. I suspect the challenge for change will be trying to display this type of policy as the beneficial challenge it really is for both teachers and SLT, without being contrary to the ‘tough’ management posturing prevalent in policy makers and OFSTED….

  7. david says:
    A growing number of schools are trying to change and trying to persuade the schools they support to re-think obs and use them to develop colleagues. I actually think the unannounced obs and their ilk allied to grading are destroying careers, especially in schools deemed inadequate or special measures when the usual knee jerk reaction is to learning walk staff out of a job rather than find the time to support their devpt when they need it most. The NTEN lesson study offers a different way forward amongst others.

  8. Rosie Hughes-White says:

    Not just cool but eloquent and great thinking. It’s reassuring that someone is listening and that you speak up for what is right. Thank you.

  9. Buffalo says:

    Speaking as a teacher in a school recently told to our surprise that we require improvement, and being subsequently subject to an onslaught of panicky, ludicrously short-term management demands to observe and learning-walk us to death, I couldn’t agree more – or be more heartened – with your post today, David. Having been personally singled out for the heavy-mob treatment I can tell you first-hand that I have become a far less effective, pro-active, thoughtful teacher than previously. Now I’m just aiming at survival until the end of the year. And we are STILL being told that we need to demonstrate ‘progress’ in any random 20-minute section of a lesson because ‘that’s what Ofsted want’. Talk about a confederacy of dunces…

    • David Didau says:

      Ha! “A confederacy of dunces” would make a great blog title. Maybe you should start?

      Thanks for your comment – I feel your pain.

      • Buffalo says:

        You’re welcome to that one, David. You could do it better than I. The whole Jonathan Swift quote: ‘When a true genius appears in the world you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.’ – sums up the problem with trying to be truly outstanding as a teacher in any meaningful way these days…

      • I think the original quote will help here: When a true genius appears in the world,
        You may know him by this sign, that the dunces
        Are all in confederacy against him.
        Jonathan Swift, “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting”

        • David Didau says:

          Good job you’re here Martin. Thank you

          • Thank you! You too…

            Teachers should, however, take over the reins of ‘inspection’ by having ‘open rooms’, popping into each other’s lessons to get paper, have a chat, do a couple of mins of team teaching, watching, sharing… informality can help drive improvement… (not if it gets like Piccadilly Circus, but you get my drift…)

  10. Gareth Denman says:

    Added to the cannon in order to convince my new head that he is wrong to want to grade lessons with a number purely for accountability purposes. His thinking seems to be going in the wrong direction. My humble experience leads me to believe that many leaders think that learning to be a better teacher uses a different approach to how we would expect anyone else to learn about anything else. Enjoying the posts. Thank you David.

  11. Cherie Sykes says:

    I always enjoy your blogs and this one is fantastic. I totally agree, if education is being reformed, so then should ofsted; the fear culture of lessons observations needs to change.

  12. Very cool, on all three counts – I’m really glad you were able to pass all of this on and even more glad it appears someone’s listening. Roll on 2014.

  13. Anne says:

    I am not a teacher but am so disappointed how the British education system has gone mad over last 15 years since I left UK. Seems you need to learn some approaches used by other sectors and get back to basics. A good start would be to engage ALL people and hold focus group discussions with staff, students, parents, administrators and school boards – then you can begin to understand what is really going on and what is really needed. Systems that are forced onto others ultimately serve no purpose as people learn to manipulate them and “play the game” but nothing actually gets achieved or resolved. I could NOT believe some of the amazing resources in schools which are currently so underused as students and teachers don’t seem motivated to make the most of them as either the rules complicate things or they are just taken for granted so are not appreciated. Having witnessed the detrimental affect of development systems in Uganda over many years it is evident that UK is now locked in this useless system which neither empowers students to learn nor motivates teachers to be social agents who inspire the next generation. As an artist/ communication Consultant I have witnessed effective learning, behaviour change and social activism through the “out of the box” approach when everyone has been fully engaged in the progress.

    Thanks for your blog it really motivated me to chip in with my bit.

    PS I am a parent with children in British International school system and as we have begun to follow the UK system more closely the school has also begun to slide downwards. Please somebody start the change rolling I would be happy to join in the dialogue!!!

  14. Hi David
    Great post, helps me move my thinking on lesson observation forwards.
    I have spent two anxious years leading on Quality of Teaching in a school judged outstanding in November 2011, with “good” for teaching.
    In the past year I have been training as an inspector with Ofsted, an experience I have found really interesting and useful. In my experience not only is the training for Ofsted inspectors very useful, but also the calibre of my fellow trainees was impressive – they are all leaders in great schools, and were a diverse group. Ofsted has an important role in quality assuring schools. Their role is not, and will never be, school improvement, as they are only in a school for a short time. Therefore school leadership teams which design their observations around what Ofsted do will only ever quality assure, they will move away from school improvement.

    On addition I am increasingly of the view that grading individual lesson observations gets in the way of giving useful feedback to help teachers improve.
    @kalinski1970 ‘s blog describes one possible way of changing what we do here:
    What I like about the approach he describes is that emphasis is out back where it should be-we are not doing any of this to please an imagined Ofsted inspector, but to teach students more effectively. It puts the professionals back in charge.

    • Debbie says:

      Yes! This post is exactly what I have been thinking. I never seem to be able to play the game and ‘perform’ with observations and always found them stressful and ultimately have not got anything out of them.

      It’s so refreshing to read a post which reflects this. I shall be sharing with key colleagues at my school. Thanks David!

      • Steve says:

        Hi David,
        I agree with lots of what you say here and am heartened that policy makers are taking notice of the excellent education blogs out there. I did want to pick up your point about ‘ if a school or teacher has great results it’s meaningless to cast aspersions on the methods used to achieve these results.’ I say this with an international perspective. The Lauded Hong Kong education system in which I work achieves astonishing results; look at PISA. Within the local system there are a HUGE majority of schools using rote learning and drilling to secure theses results. You will regularly see students heading home at 6-7pm following extra tutoring. I’ve also come across similar practice when working in the UK. I think you do need to look at the practice in all schools and those that orientate only around OFSTED and terminal exam results may be doing so against the (longer term) best interests of their students.

        • David Didau says:

          I take your point about the system in South Korea, Hong Kong and Shanghai. These are cultural differences and it is of course stupid to look at the findings of PISA and decide that we’re doing a comparatively poor job in the UK. No matter how much we might want to increase our national standing in such league tables there is no desire to see children working 11 hour school days. Culturally, we just don’t value results at such a cost.

          That said, within our education system, how a teacher teaches is unimportant if they’re achieving good results. Just because you or I (or a rogue inspector) might have a personal preference for a particular kind of teaching methodology there is little excuse in insisting that others conform to our whims. Trying to change a crusty old, didactic teacher who gets great results will only result in them being a less effective teacher. And who wants that?

  15. Steve says:

    Hi David,
    I wouldn’t look to advocate for a specific teaching style (like most folk a mixed economy done well gives variety to a students day) but nor would I be satisfied that positive outcomes on say PISA would mean that I took no interest in the way they were achieved. I think when you chase after something, such as a terminal result/ outcome there are side effects. Creativity, enjoyment and confidence are side effects in this part of the world. Chasing after C grades in GCSE Maths has led to inappropriate early entry, multiple entry via different boards; it (for some schools) did deliver what were seen as ‘good results’ but it may leave a fragile understanding of the subject geared toward the key points of getting a C grade. I’m not sure that this is done in best interest of the pupils.

  16. […] article was basically talking about how where he teaches at, inspectors come in and evaluate teachers and the lessons. Basically […]

  17. A great post David. We’ve taken a big leap in this direction at KEGS. We’ve introduced a system of departmental review that looks at learning over time in the round; lesson observations are just part of an overall picture and we certainly don’t link formal performance evaluations to single lesson observations. We get to know teachers over time, so any one lesson is part of a wider pattern. Lesson study has been introduced which is already proving to be very fruitful. The question of grading is one we’re looking at now; we’re having a moratorium and could well abandon them altogether.

    The two issues to resolve are this: 1) What is the risk of losing touch with the prevailing inspection regime’s criteria? ie is it fair to a teacher not to let them know how an external inspector would judge them – even if we feel the grading impedes the feedback process? 2) How do you convey the scale or degree of improvement needed. Without grades, a teacher could receive constructive feedback but think they are better than they are and work less hard to improve. I felt this happened in some cases last time we had a year off the grading. There’s something sharp about saying Good but not Outstanding and the equivalent further down – even though the criteria are deeply flawed.

    That’s where we are. I suspect it’s just a matter of time..

    • David Didau says:

      1) Not much risk at all if Ofsted’s rhetoric is true (and there’s much cause for optimism in Wilshaw’s annual report.)
      2) I’m increasingly convinced that asking teachers to ‘improve’ based on observations is wrongheaded. Why would you want to change what someone does (barring cheating or unprofessionalism) if they get great results? Who cares if they don’t do what we think is best? We should only have these conversations if results are a problem.

      Maybe the only classroom observation should fit into these strands:
      - Evaluative to ensure that basic standards are being met in terms of professionalism and student well being – pass or fail
      - Formative – Lesson Study. That is all.
      - Capability – to check that support is being followed where results show that teaching must be ineffective

      • Steve says:

        Hi David,
        Our observation cycle is hung around a coaching model. Part 1 (September) is to pair up with a colleague and each to take a turn to be coached through a recent lesson; as it wasn’t observed it is a pure coaching experience with the intention of reflecting deeply. We then work in threes (November to January) to jointly observe which includes a pre-meeting to work through planning/ knowledge of the group etc… from discussion afterwards the teacher who is observed has set goals around their practice which they are to work at. At this point I meet and discuss the goals set and we agree on a lesson for me to pop into…again, we pre-meet to have a coached conversation around planning etc… I will then observe the lesson. Our observation requires the teacher to reflect on the lesson which we discuss during the follow up meeting. No grading is used, I’m interested inshore our views align or not. We’re working on our culture of open doors and staff wanting to be observed. My cop out here is that we don’t have OFSTED.

  18. […] grist to the anti-lesson grading mill. See this post for its rational […]

  19. […] Has lesson observation become the new Brain Gym? Where lesson observations go wrong Get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons […]

  20. […] One of the many nuggets excavated from last night’s Lesson Observation debate (you can watch a recording here) was that grading lessons is a piece of lunacy so obviously open to misinterpretation, misunderstanding and abuse that it should be abandoned immediately. The only conceivable justification for continuing with such a practice so clearly unsupported by evidence is fear of Ofsted and as Chris Moyes, Liam Collins and others have shown, this too is an entirely unnecessary nonsense. So, if you do nothing else, stop grading lessons! […]

  21. anna says:

    A sound education system is not just important for the development and betterment of a nation like it is so often said, but the development of humanity itself. Unless there aren’t chains of progressive changes made, the significance of the important things in life is at risk.

  22. […] may remember a blog I posted back in December: Get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons. It was written after being invited to chat to Jonathan Simons and Harriet Waldegrave, the authors […]

  23. […] may remember a blog I posted back in December: Get ahead of the curve: stop grading lessons written after being invited to chat to Jonathan Simons and Harriet Waldegrave, the authors […]

Feedback is always appreciated

%d bloggers like this: