Outstanding? Who cares?

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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.

23 thoughts on “Outstanding? Who cares?

  1. This is brilliant! Thanks for writing it. Ofsted grade teaching and learning at an institutional level and that judgment, IMHO, matters a lot. Of course each observed lesson contributes to that overall judgement but your student-centred approach is to be applauded.

    1. Thanks Chris. To be honest I’m really starting to worry that the whole system has moved into self destruct mode. Wouldn’t it be interesting if every teacher in the country suddenly said ‘you’re welcome to look, but I don’t want to discuss it…’ If no-one could say to another teacher ‘I got outstanding (or not)’ I wonder if we’d all start focusing on what we do rather than what we ‘are’!

  2. Thank you! There are moments when you feel so brow beaten as a teacher but this just reinforces what most people know.

  3. What a great post! I too have decided not to have feedback from inspection. I’m sick of being judged, of trying to jump through artificial hoops and to second guess people whose credentials are often suspect. The whole system stinks and we should stop colluding with it.

  4. Really important to maintain standards across the board but Ofsted, on behalf of a cynical and incompetent government, do nothing to contribute to that. It’s people like you and your husband who make a real difference for children.

  5. I’m a parent and I wish there were more teachers like you… and a heck of a lot less Ofsted Inspectors stressing teachers out and diverting attention away from what you are really there to do. Send a copy to Messrs Gove and Wilshaw.

  6. Hmm, the thing about this piece is all I see is that the problem is caused by paranoia and insecurity NOT OFSTED. They don’t even grade your lesson anymore, they use it as a starting point to make a judgement on your overall teaching. Teach well, and they’ll look no further, teach badly and expect work scrutiny, planning scrutiny etc so that can work out if you’re generally crap, or just had a bad day. The issue hasn’t been OFSTED since the days of Woodhead, and no matter how much the press are determined to make him look like he is, Wilshaw really isn’t like that. The problem is the profession itself and often leaders in schools worrying too much about inspection and not enough about the children. The husband at the start the piece has it right. Worry about being a good teacher, not because of OFSTED, but because you damn well should be!

    1. They do grade any lesson that they see for more than 25 minutes though, Peter. In all three local schools recently done, lessons were graded. All lessons are now subject to work scrutiny and the like too – this is how inspectors assess progress over time. But you are right, and the point of the piece was, as you say, the futility of becoming paranoid in the face of a meaningless process. ‘The’ husband did what any sensible person should – simply get on with the job – like I said, that’s what makes him special in my eyes at least. Since his inspection, the place has erupted into a gossip house of who did well and who did not. We don’t do ourselves any favours as leaders or teachers when we act like this. But let’s not pretend that Ofsted is not blameless in all of this.

    2. They do grade individual lessons – not only that but when we were observed recently and the head pointed out that there was a 10% disparity between the teaching grades the inspectors were quoting and those staff had told him. They explained that they had given a grade to every lesson they had walked into on a learning walk. The inspector was in my room for 30 seconds and the grade she applied was used as evidence for our overall grade as a school, though I was never privy to it.

  7. As you know Debra I am not a teacher but I think about teaching a lot. Today I read the first chapter of Thinking Allowed and it blew me away with the difference between education and schooling. As a former Ofsted inspector I would say there is no need for the teaching profession to care one jot whether they get Outstanding or Good; it is the richness, such as you describe, that they bring to their classroom that will count in the end, and be remembered by inspired children. Brilliant as always…

  8. Well said. I particularly like your comments reminding us that it is about the children. I particularly like your remarks about marking; I am so glad you mark for them and not SLT/governors etc.

    I find that the most useful tenet for the week is to think ‘if they were my kids would I have been happy for them to be in that classroom’. If my answer is an honest yes then I go home happy, if it is no I go home and replan.

    A big bravo to your husband too..

  9. Do you know I think you have been in our resource room! Observations and ofsted cause fear and panic, excellent teachers worrying about such things as have they marked books in the last five minutes and can we fit in accelerated learning cycle. What a load of tosh! And as you say colleague against colleague snide comments and tears. Pointless. I agree teach as you always teach does it really matter? As long as the pupils learn and enjoy? I was observed doing P4C and our VP gave me a 2 because of progress. She meant progress which you could see in books not progression of thinking and listening. Terrible! Phew am glad you have written this blog Debs it is what I have been thinking!!!!!

    1. Yes, it’s not that you stop caring – but that you stop playing their game and focus on what you know works for your kids in your classroom. That’s it really.

  10. Brilliant?? Really?? Get over it. All professions are subject to some type of inspection be it formal or informal. All inspection is subjective, there’s not a lot can be done on that front! The more we rant and rave and panic about OFSTED the more power we give to these ‘others’. And frankly the most divisive thing I have seen happen in my 15 years or so of teaching was the advent of ASTs.

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