Sharing joy and knowledge from an ordinary life

A Week with Ofsted

I wrote this 1 week ago:

I have never had the inclination to blog on the wider issues relating to our job. I’ve never felt the need to, what with so much writing on the subject being blown around from very other direction. Yet this week, and especially this day, has lead me to WANT to blog on the subject of Ofsted. It never felt necessary before; they were a distant matter to be feared from afar, but then I came face to face with them.

So, after 1 year and 4 months of anticipation (for me), the call finally came and our College is being inspected for the entirety of this week.

The vast majority of teachers live in fear of their judgement as I imagine celebrities fear the media; we shudder at the thought of what light their glaring lens might choose to show us in. They are not close to our everyday work and happenings yet they are given licence to pass judgement on the very complex matter of teaching and learning. I am fully aware, and absolutely all in support of, the fact that we need to be accountable to someone, but I do have an issue with the who and the how. Which, essentially, is most of it.

The who:

No, not that one, but really, who are they? We don’t know their credentials when they arrive to pass judgement on what we’re doing and we haven’t had the time to build up enough of a relationship to trust that judgement implicitly. Would and even could we expect our students to trust our judgement on their work if we never spoke to them and then just turned up to mark their work? I suppose this is their examiner at the end of the year but the same goes for the ineffectiveness of that process… a post for a later date!

The how:

No, not that one, but how they assess is so warped that even they’re confused! Are we grading the teacher or the lesson or the learning? How can each possibly be distinguished from the other? If the teacher is outstanding then the lesson will be. If the learning is grade 1 then it’s likely that the teaching is. Does it really matter or make a difference what language we use?

We also get told that the judgement isn’t just being made on the snapshot of learning seen, but the learning over time. From what I’ve seen this week, that definitely isn’t happening and how could it when they’re only here for a week and in a room for a little less than an hour? It would be a physical impossibility!

Another problem exists in the way the inspectors are shifted strategically around the school or college. From what I’ve witnessed, they’re passed from one wonderful set of people to another. The College have carefully handpicked the bits they want to be seen and have tried to hide the uglier spots (although there are very few of these). And of course, given the option, why wouldn’t they? Ofsted will, I’m sure, reach all the evidence they need to find, but is it in the fairest and most transparent way possible? If I was wanting to check the learning in my classroom, I wouldn’t just ask my top scoring students as that would be a wholly inaccurate reflection.

What I do understand is the why. I completely appreciate the need to be assessed and accountable. After all, we are responsible for young people’s futures and it’s an incredibly important job… as we’re all more than acutely aware.

The possible solutions:

In my mind, sets of inspectors should visit establishments more regularly. Yes, I did say MORE regularly!
The benefits of this is various. They’d be able to get close to the heart and the culture of a place; they’d be able to see how it breathes on a daily basis and not merely witness the frantic speed at which it huffs and puffs through an inspection week. There would be no need to prove ourselves and justify our existence in a mere week as the work taking place could be seen over time. At the moment, Ofsted employs a wholly summative approach to assessment that, if not deemed fit for our learners, should certainly not be seen fit for the assessment of learning taking place across a whole institution.

If a more regular model of inspection was adopted then if a school or college is viewed over time as not making the suitable amount of progress, then measures of support could be brought into place to protect our learners’ chances sooner, rather than three years later when they finally turn up to pass judgement.

Time and money are the only possible reasons I can think of for this not to have happened already. I’m sure there will be other reasons that the far more accomplished of my peers will happily point out to me. Until they do, I love my brilliant idea so please let me languish in it for at least an hour before you rubbish it completely!

During our recent open classrooms week, I saw six classrooms in the space of an hour. I saw six snapshots of learning, which even from my lowly vantage point, were an effective indication of the position of T&L in the College. This week, I haven’t seen a single inspector, except the one I met with. Why are they not a more visible presence diving in and out of this and that? Volume, I’m certain, would raise its own issues, but I struggle to believe that if three entire departments in the College haven’t yet laid eyes on a single inspector, that a fair judgement is being made. Something’s amiss. Increase the volume and the frequency and you’d certainly make me happy. And I know Ofsted are all about making ME happy!

Their criteria needs to be clearer and far more accessible. Its lack of clarity might allow Ofsted to use far too much of their personal professional judgement… or at least teachers can easily view it that way because we don’t understand it fully. The worst mark schemes induce the same fear of the unknown in the classroom between teachers and students. Such a lack of clarity heightens the fear factor unnecessarily.

So those are the main thoughts that this week has provoked for me so far but I’ll end with the good. I met the HMI for T&L on two separate occasions today and I was surprised in a couple of ways. He was far more ruthless than I’d expected, yet simultaneously far less so. He terrified me but he was astute and picked up on all the areas for development the College requires. He had an agenda and couldn’t be lead away from it. He wasn’t interested in the successes we wanted to share but the ones that hopefully lay dormant under the surface. Despite his fierce questioning, he wasn’t seeking to catch us out but hunting for the goodness he wanted. I don’t believe they’re evil. I don’t believe they’re dementors or grim reapers. Such comparisons are unhelpful and only cause teachers to demonise them even more. I don’t believe they’re in our beloved College to rip it to shreds, although it might have felt that way at times today. I genuinely feel that their main intention is to get to the truth of the organisation and figure it all out. I hope beyond all hope that the hard work the College has done over the last couple of years is recognised in some form; grade or feedback, I’m actually past caring. I just want to be assured that they’ve seen it.

As for reform, here’s hoping that some of my more esteemed colleagues out there will fathom a solution that sees us trust and value the people who judge us far more.

My writing commitment: I’m learning to honour my thoughts. I’m learning that my words can be shared before I’ve connected all the dots or learned everything there is to know. My writing can be a snapshot of a single moment in continually-evolving time.

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