Should Ofsted judge ‘quality of teaching’?
We all know, that as well as giving an overall grade, Ofsted give schools an individual judgement against 4 criteria: attainment, behaviour & safety, leadership & management, and quality of teaching. Theoretically it would possible to possible for a school to different grades for all four areas in one inspection. To my knowledge this has never happened.
The correlation between some judgements is a lot stronger than others. There is fairly weak correlation between the behaviour grade or the leadership grade with a school’s overall grade. It’s reasonably common for schools to be awarded one grade higher than their overall grade in either of these categories. But the correlation between quality of teaching and attainment is 97%. Likewise, the correlation between these two grades and the overall grade tends to be a given.
In today’s TES, former policy adviser to Gove and Director of Research at Teach First, Sam Freedman has explained why he thinks Ofsted should no longer judge schools against the quality of teaching they offer. This sounds anathema. Surely the most important thing schools do is to teach. If Ofsted aren’t going to be inspecting that, what on earth will they doing?
Well, the commonly held view amongst most teachers and school leaders is that a lead inspector makes a preliminary judgement based on a school’s RAISE online data and then turns up in classrooms looking for confirmation of a decision that has already been made. Now, possibly is really is the case that quality of teaching correlates very accurately with attainment; if you think about it, this makes sense. If you teach well, you’ll get good results. So maybe Ofsted are right to do this.
There are several problems with attempting to judge quality of teaching separately.
Firstly, in the overwhelming majority of cases, it’s a waste of time and effort. Inspectors find what the school’s data tells them they are going to find. This only results in pointless stress and anxiety for teachers. Ofsted have already clarified that individual lesson and teachers are not being graded so wouldn’t it be more honest to get rid of the clipboards? As Freedman says, “for that 3 per cent where there is a difference, is it worth the upheaval it causes within schools, the misery it causes for individual teachers when they get their teaching graded as a 3 or 4? I don’t think so.” The first thing we need to persuade Ofsted to do is to change their Evaluation Forms to make it impossible for ‘rogue’ inspectors to continue ignoring the official guidance.
The second consideration is that judging teaching quality is a chimera. Freedman says,
The problem with lesson observation is that it relies on making a connection between what you are seeing and a belief that pupils have learned. You can’t see how much knowledge pupils have gained over the course of that lesson, so you end up drawing a conclusion from your belief about what good teaching looks like. If you’re progressive and it’s a really creative, imaginative lesson, then you will think that’s good teaching. If you’re more traditionalist and you will think if they [teachers] stand up, spend a lot of time talking and get a lot of information across, then that is good teaching. But it’s actually incredibly hard to assess.
I’ve made the case on many occasions that learning is invisible and all we’re able to see is pupils’ performance from which we can only infer inaccurately. So all that happens in an observation is that the observer rewards what they like. What what see in an observation is just the background of teaching. Judging a professional on a snap shot is foolhardy and unfair. There’s an almost universal belief that there are good and bad teachers. But there is only context. Teaching that seems to produce good learning will vary from day-to-day and lesson-to-lesson. Sometimes certain approaches work and sometimes they don’t. Friday period 5 will have a very different atmosphere to Tuesday period 2. The same kids approach learning differently depending on what they’ve already know, where they are in the teaching sequence, meteorological conditions, how recently they’ve eaten, what they’ve eaten, the phase of the moon and a whole host of other imponderables. Any half way decent teacher will adapt their teaching in an attempt to meet these ever-changing needs. What you might do with one class on one day will be entirely different to what you might do at another time with a different group of kids. Everyone, no matter how wonderful their results, can have a bad day.
This is acknowledged by Ofsted National Director for schools, Mike Cladingbowl:
In a classroom [a HMI] was in recently, a teacher produced, literally, an all-singing, all-dancing lesson. There was music, comedy, costumes, games, ‘thinking hats’, and all with clear objectives on the whiteboard. He recorded a teaching quality grade of inadequate. Not because of the ‘performance’ on the day but because students’ graffiti-strewn books hadn’t been marked for six months and work was shoddy or incomplete. In contrast, he graded teaching as outstanding in a classroom where students sat reading in silence because of the exceptional quality of students’ work and the teacher’s marking in exercise books.
This is reassuring, but sadly, doesn’t seem to be the experience of most teachers.
There’s also the problem that Ofsted seem to have some peculiar views about what constitutes good teaching. The ‘best practice’ described here seems to consist of using Mr Men to explain Wilfred Own’s poetry, ‘Boggle Boxes’ and “humorous references to the dance song ‘I like to move it, move it’.” I would find it hard to take seriously the judgements of anyone who shared these views. And that’s because it all about preferences. Who cares what I prefer? But equally, why should we care what an Ofsted inspector prefers? All we should be concerned about is what we find most effective with our students. This is something that a school is best placed to judge.
A bigger problem is that judgements of teaching quality distort teaching. These judgements result in schools being given meaningless and arbitrary targets for improvement when what they really need to do is improve attainment. It’s pointless saying that teachers should develop students’ oracy or that there should be more collaborative work. Conceivably the poor results are for these reasons, but I doubt it. Most often results are not where they could be because of expectations. In truly outstanding schools low-level disruption isn’t accepted, high quality work is insisted on, and there is a belief that everyone can be significantly better than they currently are. Of course the quality of teaching is hugely important. But no amount of time spent developing teachers’ questioning skills or training them how to differentiate better will make much impact, because it really doesn’t matter what teachers do. What matters is what teachers believe.
So to conclude, I’m not arguing that Ofsted shouldn’t judge quality of teaching because it’s unimportant. Quite the opposite: quality of teaching is much too important to leave to the whimsy of whatever inspector wanders in to your classroom.