I do try to look on the bright side of life, but events recently have had steam pouring out of my ears. What are we doing to ourselves? This post is about the reality of observation and inspection.
I’m writing this in advance of observation so that I can’t be accused of sour grapes, but I find myself sliding from having a mild, bemused interest in the grade I am given, to having none at all. And I think this is a pretty healthy state of mind to be in, given the myriad of melt downs happening all around me at the moment. Here are a couple of examples:-
Last week, my husband’s workplace was ‘Ofsteded’. The results are not yet a matter for public record, but it went quite well. On paper. In reality, this is what happened. The call came in on the Friday of half term. Immediately, staff cut short their holidays and rushed into work. Those who didn’t, were treated reproachfully by those who did. People rushed in to stick schemes of work on walls (they were already in pupil’s books, but what else can you do on a Sunday afternoon?). The photocopier had a nervous breakdown. One woman flew back from a school trip in Berlin, so indispensable was she deemed to be. Almost immediately, the conversations among staff flew into who was outstanding, who was good, who was not? Who could be trusted? Could the inspectors be guided to some rather than others? Were some inspectors more fair than others? What did you get, what did you get, what did you get?
My husband was observed first. The inspector liked the 5 minute lesson plan. He stayed for an hour. There were no weaknesses he said – it was probably outstanding, but he wouldn’t know for sure until he’d seen all the other lessons. Eh? I married an unusual human being. He came home and told me this without rancour or concern. He still hasn’t asked whether it turned out to be one or the other. He says it doesn’t matter – the lesson went well, the kids learned what they needed to, it was what he would have taught anyway…what does it matter if it was good or outstanding? You can see why I married him. Elsewhere, however, panic set in. One teacher taught children scripts with lines to tell the inspector when he came in. All over, people asked, what did you get? What did you get? One of my dearest friends, working in the same place, spent most of the week in exhausted tears. One member of staff broke down and had to be sent home. Now it’s all over, no-one seems to have the energy to teach. But hello – the kids are still there…
Next week, our school is having its internal observation week. My colleagues were depressed and downhearted all last week. Every request for information or meetings was met with ‘can we wait until next week is over?’ As an AST (Albatross Strangling Teacher), I’ve been innundated with requests from staff to help them plan an outstanding lesson. Where do I start with that one? You can’t plan a guaranteed outstanding lesson. Outstanding in which respect? Which of the shifting priorities will the observers be tuned to? So much depends on what they’re looking for at a particular time. Not so much ‘outstanding’ as ‘opportune’. But I’ve done my best to help. So much so, I haven’t had time to plan my own or to do the marking that needs to be in place for me to be graded good or outstanding. But I don’t care. Next week I will teach as I always teach. It might be great, it might go wrong. That’s what usually happens – some lessons are better than others. My marking will be complete not because I’m being observed, but because I ALWAYS mark and hand back within a week. Not to be outstanding, but because I promised them – that’s the children, by the way, not someone else. And when the lesson is over, I’ll do what I usually do too – say politely ‘thank you for joining in our lesson today’ and then turn down the opportunity for feedback. Not because I’m afraid, but because I will know, without being told, whether it was good or not. I will know what I might have done better and will work on improving my next lesson in response. Because I know, not because I am told. Don’t get me wrong – I like feedback. I often ask teachers to come in and watch me and ask their advice on what I could do to differentiate better or to manage a difficult child better. I tap into my teacher network for ideas for good lessons, am addicted to the advice available on twitter and am in the process of completing a doctorate in education. No-one could accuse me of being unwilling to improve. But I don’t care if I’m outstanding or not. I’m not interested in standing between shifting goal posts, watching them instead of the game in front of me. And this is why I don’t want to know:-
1. Nothing has been more divisive in the teaching profession than the notion that some are outstanding and some are not. It is not in the children’s best interests to divide the profession into those who can and those who cannot. Education for all will only be improved when we as professionals stand together and work towards a collective improvement. When we recognise that EVERYONE has something to offer and that we’re best together. Ofsted and successive governments stand to benefit from a divided professional body – when we point the finger of blame at the Maths department for getting a 3 when the rest of us got 2s. To whisper in the staff room that such and such a body was inadequate and isn’t it time they were dismissed? Tut tut, letting the rest of us down. Too often, the outstanding teachers stand on the shoulders of other colleagues. Colleagues who stay behind after school to help children with their work, who spend hours helping them with college applications, who run intervention classes, after school clubs, or who just sit and chat one break time with the kid whose parents just broke up. None of those skills are assessed in an inspection – but they make a big difference to the life of a child.
2. The things we measure are not really very outstanding in terms of their contribution to human growth. My Year 7s this year, following their new curriculum, have explored the notion of democracy; the economic conditions that lead to inflation and hyperinflation; have considered the differences between relative and absolute poverty; have read four novels – whole novels, not extracts – and understood them; have raised in excess of £3000 for charity; have grown exponentially in confidence; have increased their vocabulary and cultural capital, not to mention their general knowledge and have navigated one of the most difficult transitions of their loves – from primary to secondary school – safely and happily. Not one little bit of that will count for anything when I am observed. What matters is whether or not their Level 4 in reading and writing at KS2 has risen to a Level 5. The complexity of this is largely ignored too. Some have hit Level 6 in terms of vocabulary and content, but are still at level 4 in structure and SPAG. Speaking and listening grades are supposed to count. But they don’t really. Inspectors will pour over their errors and not know or realise that this child didn’t know what a vote was before they came to school. How do you measure vocabulary? Confidence? Tolerance? How do you evidence progress? It makes you want to swear…
An outstanding teacher is a teacher who presses ahead with an agenda that hopes to better equip children with the knowledge, skills and attitudes that will make for a happy and successful life. Yes, of course, punctuation and grammar matter, but they are things that can be worked on when the foundations are in place – the foundations of having something important, thoughtful and valid to say and the words with which to say it. The world is full of people who speak well, write well and who inflict untold damage with dangerously ill informed thinking – many of them sit in Westminster. These children are starting to weigh up information; consider how their own beliefs and values are formed; are starting to articulate these ideas verbally (not yet, fully in writing); are learning to listen and consider other’s opinions; are beginning to really, really enjoy reading and are still playful, excited and engaged. They are on their way to being outstanding, so forgive me if I think that in that case, it really doesn’t matter a jot, whether I am, or whether I’m not.