On Wednesday afternoon I received the following email from UCU’s policy officer Angela Nartey:
From: Angela Nartey [mailto:ANartey@UCU.ORG.UK]
Sent: 20 May 2015 14:51
To: O’Leary, Matthew (Dr)
Subject: Ofsted graded lesson observations
I wanted to let you know that this morning at an Ofsted Standing Group of Teaching Associations we received some great news. The meeting included an overview of the new inspection framework.
In advance of the meeting we submitted the following questions:
· Will Ofsted make a judgement on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment using graded lesson observations?
· Will Ofsted use graded observations of lessons in any part of the inspection process?
The verbal response we received in relation to both questions was ‘no’. We asked again, adding ‘in the further education and skills sector’, and again we were given a definitive ‘no’ response.
There we have it! Although only verbal at this stage, this is an excellent step forward, and we can only thank you once again for your work which has been the only academic interrogation of the practice. The inspection handbook and instruments will be published in mid-June and so we hope to see written confirmation at that point.
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As I read the email out to a group of colleagues who I had been in an all-day meeting with, it was simultaneously met with a chorus of cheers and a collective sigh of relief. I got home that night and showed my wife the email. After congratulating me, she immediately said, ‘So what are you going to do now you’ve won this argument?’ She was, of course, referring to the fact that for the last decade much of my work and research has centred on exposing the shortcomings of reductionist practices like graded observations and highlighting the counterproductive effects that they have on the professional lives of teachers. The research that I carried out for UCU into the use and impact of observation on the FE workforce is the largest study that has ever been done on observation in the UK and has played an important role in influencing views and informing the wider debate. So given the fact that I have dedicated so much of my time writing and talking about this topic, it was a perfectly good question to ask. What now?
Make no mistake, the removal of graded lesson observations from the FE inspection process is a welcome and important step in the right direction. Lorna Fitzjohn and her colleagues at Ofsted are to be commended for listening and responding to the views and experiences of practitioners and the compelling evidence. Yet, without wanting to sound like a party pooper, this is only the beginning; a small victory in a much bigger battle that lies ahead.
I have argued for some time now that simply removing grades from the observation process is not a panacea in itself. Until wider issues relating to judgement and how we attempt to capture the complexities of teaching and learning in the context of teacher evaluation are confronted, then the removal of grades runs the risk of being little more than a superficial change.
When I met with Mike Cladingbowl (Ofsted’s previous National Director for Schools) last May and he told me in advance of the public announcement that Ofsted were planning to remove graded observations from school inspections, I asked him how he intended to prepare inspectors for the change in policy and what he thought the wider repercussions would be for Ofsted’s assessment framework. What I was getting at with these questions was: 1) a change in procedure does not equate to a change in practice and/or mindset. In other words, simply asking observers not to grade lessons any more does not deal with the wider issue of how they conceptualise their role; 2) the decision to remove individual lesson grades from the inspection process has more far reaching consequences for the way in which Ofsted seeks to assess the quality of educational provision. If, as Mike Cladingbowl argued in his position paper last June, attaching a grade to a one-off, episodic event like a lesson observation is no longer deemed fit for purpose, this inevitably raises the question of why stop at observations? Why not extend the removal of grades to the inspection process as a whole? There is a strong case for moving towards an assessment framework that simply operates on a ‘good enough/not good enough’ basis.
Despite Ofsted’s change in policy, there is a concern amongst some in the profession that this won’t necessarily lead to a change in the mindset and working practices of some senior managers/leaders in certain colleges and schools. Old habits die hard and the reliance of some on the grading of teachers on an annual basis has become engrained in the performance management systems of many institutions. From a management perspective, there is undoubtedly an allure about the quick and easy nature of attaching a number to a teacher’s performance that may prove a stubborn practice to change. But the real challenge that lies ahead concerns the way in which the profession conceptualises the use of a mechanism like observation. Grades or no grades, the next stage of the debate needs to confront the long standing issue of how the profession breaks free from the assessment straitjacket that has conceptually constrained the way in which it has engaged with observation for decades.