OfSTED published new guidance just before Christmas, which I learned about via Andrew Old's blog post 'A Christmas Miracle'. He has included the important points 64-67 in his blog, but for the sake of ease I will repeat them here:
'Inspectors must not give the impression that Ofsted favours a particular teaching style. Moreover, they must not inspect or report in a way that is not stipulated in the framework, handbook or guidance. For example, they 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. It is unrealistic, too, for inspectors to necessarily expect that all work in all lessons is always matched to the specific needs of each individual. Do not expect to see ‘independent learning’ in all lessons and do not make the assumption that this is always necessary or desirable. On occasions, too, pupils are rightly passive rather than active recipients of learning. Do not criticise ‘passivity’ as a matter of course and certainly not unless it is evidently stopping pupils from learning new knowledge or gaining skills and understanding.
When in lessons, also remember that we are gathering evidence about a variety of aspects of provision and outcomes. We are not simply observing the features of the lesson but we are gathering evidence about a range of issues through observation in a lesson. Do not focus on the lesson structure at the expense of its content or the wide range of other evidence about how well children are learning in the school.
When giving feedback, inspectors must not argue that they are unable to give a particular grade because of the time spent in the lesson.
Inspectors must not aggregate the grades given for teaching is a formulaic or simplistic way in order to evaluate its quality overall.'
As Andrew Old says, it is now our duty to make sure everyone is aware of this. If you read Andrew's post (and I think you should as the comments add to the post) I would recommend that you also read his subsequent post saying why this news is so important. From what I have read in the past and via twitter I can safely say that Andrew and I have totally different approaches to education, but we share the view that good teaching or a good lesson is 'what works'. I suspect that we both teach in the way we are most comfortable with, which is why I guess (I assume) that we are successful in our roles. I have been fortunate to observe many others teaching through my roles as induction mentor and AST and truly believe that a range of teaching styles are important - and apparent in successful schools. As a teacher who regularly reflects on her practice by asking the children what they think, I am fully aware that some children have preferred a more structured approach, which is why it was important that they received this during my outreach days. I feel that the fact that my children were becoming more aware of their preferred way to learn at age 6 was an achievement itself. I also feel that the range of teaching styles and approaches on offer was what made our school successful.
The purpose of this post is not to brag about OfSTED successes, but to share some observations and reflections. These are my experiences and I am fully aware that with different inspectors, the outcomes could have been very different.
I started my teaching career as an unqualified teacher in a new school for children with autistic spectrum disorders. It was at the same time that the numeracy and literacy strategies had been introduced and, although it was not compulsory in my school, I familiarised myself with these and as many other approaches as possible. That is one of my first tips - try to keep abreast of trends and current thinking by regularly checking the DFE site, OfSTED latest news and reports and of course news from your authority.
In the late 90s at Church Hill,we were given a free reign (under the guidance of our principle) to develop a social skills curriculum with many opportunities for learning outside the classroom. It was an amazing introduction to teaching for me as I approached teaching by delivering a very child centred / personalised curriculum.
In the four years I was at the school we were observed by HMI, educational psychologists and folk from the National Autistic Society on countless occasions. I was a very young-minded 27 year old with an open mindset* and I welcomed all professionals in, because I knew that I would learn from them. Having this approach meant that I was always fairly relaxed, which in turn seemed to affect the 'inspectors' view of me as a teacher. They saw confidence. I know it is easier said than done to ask teachers to relax when stress levels in schools could be extremely high, but it has worked for me. I have the view that I am the expert in my classroom; I know my children and what makes them tick and I teach accordingly. Whilst I am still open to (good) advice, I have been known to argue with inspectors when I feel their observations are inaccurate/unimportant (not necessarily about my lessons). Sometimes they need additional information; they cannot know everything. So that is my second tip: make sure you are the expert on your children and don't be afraid to argue about what is best for them.
It may seem arrogant or immature, but developing an 'I am right and you are wrong' mentality seemed to work for me in the same way as those who say they deal with anxiety by imagining others in their underwear.
During one of our Bicycle Shop gatherings Jenni, Becki and I were reflecting on our recent inspection observations and the feedback we had been given. We have all been employed as advanced skills teachers and as such have had to prove that we were outstanding teachers by gathering portfolio evidence and through our very own day-long OfSTED style inspection (2 lesson observations, scrutiny of work, scrutiny of children's progress in our classes over the past three years, interviews with staff, governors, children and parents). Between us we have many inspection / observation experiences.
During our conversation we compared our recent OfSTED observed lessons and what made them successful. Our experiences were very different, what we taught differed greatly and the children behaved differently, but the one constant was the behaviour management. The fact that the children clearly knew the routines, expectations and classroom rules (not because they recited them, because they were following them) was, to the inspectors, proof that good teaching was taking place. In fact one of the things that was said to me (by a secondary trained inspector) was how my children went from whole class teaching to group activities with less fuss than she would have had with her secondary students. The fact that a child threw up part way through the lesson and another child (with SEN) was behaving out of character did not affect the judgement made. The way that the children responded to these things was amazing - they impressed me greatly that day and proved that they could rise to a challenge. So my third tip is to make sure that you start each year by spending time getting to know your children and establishing high expectations of work and behaviour. This will stand you in good stead when being observed. I will not go into detail about how I do this as I intend to blog about it one day, but I use a mix between Optimal Learning and Bill Roger's suggestions for the establishment phase of the year.
The three OfSTED inspections that I was involved in at Roydon were very different. During the first the inspectors came into all of my lessons, sometimes two at a time, because they had never seen teaching through the mantle of the expert before and they were intrigued. They saw very little teaching, but saw the culmination of English / ICT / DT work in the form of 'Seahorse Production Company' poetry DVDs. In this mantle we had been asked by the BBC (or similar) to make an updated version of Michael Rosen's poetry box video. One of them can be seen on our class blog here (our first year of blogging, so the posts are a bit minimalistic). The inspectors loved how the children were in control, collaborating and making choices. They praised the teaching approach and I felt very proud, but also very aware that if they had come another week they may have seen the start of a mantle and may have been less impressed.
This had happened when my HT came to observe a mantle lesson. He came at the start of the week, when my class became 'Swift Air' - a company to rival Ryanair! It was a maths based mantle and my HT was trying to judge it as a maths lesson, not a mantle. He praised their independence and collaborative working, but was less than impressed about my role. I reminded him that he requested to see teaching through mantle and we had a heated debate about this during which I refused to back down. At the end of the week I presented the maths work. My year 4/3s had been working with money and time, planning itineraries for travellers, working out costs of fully inclusive trips (hotels, flights, car hire etc) and special half price offers, with the more able children going on to work with time zones. I was blown away by their work. They were using and applying a range of maths skills and working with money (numbers in the thousands with 2 decimal points) accurately and confidently. The point that I made was that it only took them 5 hours to achieve this. Yes they may have started slow, but decisions, organisation, collaborative skills need working on too. They felt a huge sense of achievement at the end of the week and so did I. The point is, had that been a real inspection, would the inspectors have the insight to see that the skills at the start of the week needed establishing before the mathematical progress could be made?
I guess this leads to my fourth tip: Stick with what you believe in, but make sure you have a clear idea about the learning outcomes and can justify the journey towards achieving them. If you are not passionate about this journey, you may not be able to persuade someone else of the benefits.
It may help if you have evidence of previous work on a similar theme, to show the results that can be achieved. This is where class blogs can prove very useful.
Of course the way you teach may be dictated by the school, but your personal touches can be added. I was very skeptical about teaching the read, write inc programme, mostly because I like to be in control of my own plans, but I have embraced it and added my own touches to ensure that I am comfortable and enthusiastic when teaching.
In two out of three inspections at Roydon I was fully into mantles, so that is what the inspectors saw. At the time it did not feel like hard work, because the planning was minimal as the lessons flowed naturally from one to another. Indeed in the second inspection I was in role as a very old author and whilst the children were teaching in role, I kept nodding off. It was a risk to do this, but again the inspectors loved the way that the children were leading.
In our most recent and unexpected inspection we knew that their arrival was to do with the previous year's results and (we assumed) a change in headteacher. It felt very different, like we were having to prove ourselves. Although my lessons were already planned, I worked hard to make sure that they would work well and I found additional props for the drama elements, fearing that the inspectors would not be able to use their imaginations in the same way the children were used to doing. It was time consuming because I thought through my teaching very carefully, whereas I am very used to thinking on my feet during dramas. So although it is obvious and more of a statement than a tip, be prepared to work hard during an inspection! Incidently, I didn't spend time on written plans and the inspectors didn't see any, yet I was told that my planning was outstanding. The evidence was in the lesson - it had obviously been planned and prepared carefully. My views on planning are a whole new post, but suffice to say that when I hear teachers saying how long they have spent writing plans it makes me groan, loudly.
As a team we had decided before the inspection that we probably wouldn't maintain our outstanding status and we were prepared for that. What we were not prepared for was the harsh reality. They arrived at the end of our 'book week' and by Thursday lunch time things seemed to be going well; all teachers had got either good, good with outstanding or outstanding for their lessons. We felt quite upbeat. Apart from a learning walk in the afternoon, they didn't seem to carry out any more observations, so we were shocked to hear at the end of the day that teaching required improvement. Where the inspectors in our previous inspections had been looking for proof of our outstanding status, it now seemed as if they were trying to prove that we needed to improve. Aside from one NQT, the teaching staff hadn't differed since the previous inspection. It felt wrong. Apparently an unsatisfactory judgement had been made during registration. Huh? The teacher wasn't aware that it would count as it was literally the register before assembly.
At lunch time on Friday I felt so desperate about what was happening that I asked to visit the inspectors. Although I was told it wouldn't do any good, I felt compelled to try and do something. I was received and commenced to reel off the innovative things about Roydon - the Kidsmeets, the ICT, the drama days, the cluster events and all the other things that made our school unique. I was hosting a digital leader kidsmeet event with an emphasis on livewriting and control ICT that afternoon, so I invited them along. They came and proceeded to question teachers from other schools - most inappropriate! Although I'm sure that they were impressed with what they saw, they managed to turn this into a negative as they were aware that I was leaving Roydon. They questioned what had been done to keep me there and failed to see that I was leaving to take on a new kind of leadership role. The team had come with a negative view and nothing would shift it. So this leads to my final
Some things are out of your control.
What I have learned (some more tips)
These are the (mostly) positive things that I have learned from this inspection. Some of them will seem very obvious:
- Marking needs to be consistent across the school. It is the leadership team's responsibility to monitor this and ensure the policy is updated and followed.
- The leadership team must be familiar with the data and the children it refers to
- Senior leaders must make systematic and rigorous checks on the quality of teaching and learning, through observations, learning walks, moderating work and book scrutinies
- Sustainable practices don't matter. Don't file things in folders, but stick work into topic books. Yes it has time and resource implications, but it is much easier for inspectors to sift through your work (can you feel my resentment about this one?!)
- Create portfolios of evidence of progress for the children whose data implies they haven't made any
And some even more obvious things that need including:
- Know your children, where they are and what they need to make progress
- Politely challenge the inspector's misconceptions. Don't accept their false knowledge. It may not make a difference, but you will feel better for trying
If nothing else, this last OfSTED experience will stand me in good stead for the inspection at my new school that is due in the summer term. I am very aware that I have a lot to do to prepare for this, but am applying some of the knowledge I learned from Roydon and am able to share insights at my new school, which is proving to be very helpful.
I would welcome your OfSTED tips, experiences and views - please leave a comment!
* Last year I read Carol Dweck's book Mindset where she talks about fixed and growth mindsets. It makes interesting reading. I recognised that I may have become more fixed in my NQT year as a result of feeling like I had something to prove. It took a little while to revert back to the more open/growth mindset that I feel I have.