Wednesday 5 March 2014

Ofsted & Lesson grades Considering judgements and moving to action

First published in Schools Improvement NET

When is a lesson grade not a grade?
Many of us enjoyed the kick and BLOGrush of last week and the heady debates when Ofsted stopped grading lessons.  See Schools Improve most read  It has been difficult doing the day job and keeping track of developments but make no mistake, this is very, very important stuff.  So, l want to take a longer view of what is happening in our profession,

We are, at last, relinquishing the proven bad practice of lesson grading. So how will we make judgements about teaching and learning? A number of wise colleagues are offering their thoughts.  I liked, in particular, Tom Sherrington’s practical advice about triangulating evidence in his BLOG "What SLTs should do"  Tom was one of the Famous Five who argued for removal of lesson grading.  He is sensibly suggesting SLTs remove references to lesson grades in all Performance Management Protocols and Performance Related Pay Policies. Others are arguing it is still possible, even advisable, to grade lessons - see Mike Bostock’s  Lesson observation - observing the art of teaching.  I’m not convinced that any use of lesson grades from this point is wise, especially those lurking in School Administration systems.  Some are demanding they are removed completely and using freedom of information requests under data protection law to do so. 

All seem to be agreeing that any judgement about teaching and learning must be a careful blend of observations, work scrutiny, student and teacher voice and performance data. So, I’m assuming all agree we can no longer perpetuate the simplistic and broken approach of 20 minute observations stacked up to equal an overall judgement of teaching and learning, or worse, an individual teacher? Unless, there is panic somewhere around Ofsted, the debate is over – the lesson grade parrot is no more.  There are far more important issues, one of which is how best to provide evidence of effectiveness, in order that a fair judgment is made.

Considering judgements
But the grade debate goes on.  I say, I say, “When is a grade not a grade?”, “When it’s a judgement… bum, bum!”.  We must stop music hall word juggling.  Awarding a grade is, for most intents and purposes, awarding a judgement.  My intent and purpose is School Improvement, what’s yours?  So, better questions are: When is a judgement secure?  And, more importantly, how will we use our judgements to move on, to make progress?

To recap and refine - we are rediscovering a truth that grading one event is not the same as judging an area of work that event is part of.  It follows that we should apply the same logic when making other judgements.  We cannot for example use one observation, one case study, one interview or one activity, to judge Performance Management and Performance Related Pay for teachers, teaching assistants, head teachers and admin staff.  We must also question the practice of computing averages of multiple insecure grades from similar events, or activities. 

So, how do we make secure judgments when evaluating the areas of our work: behaviour & safety, leadership, achievement, SMSC, SEN, or indeed any focus where judgements might be required? And, once made, what do we DO with that judgement?

Research methodology helps, in terms of triangulation, and we can learn from our justice system. The wisest judges and juries require a wide range of compelling evidence.  They, literally, interrogate evidence and data, from contributory events and activities, together with statements from reliable witnesses to ensure their eventual and considered judgement, is beyond doubt.   We can do the same by commissioning, collecting, researching and analysing the fullest and most telling range of evidence before coming to our judgement.  And we should make our judgement in order to decide how best to move on and, later, measure any change.

Moving on from judgement
I have long argued that our professional effectiveness is in direct proportion to our ability to, “look at what we do with a view to doing it better next time”.  In other words to make judgements and move on to analyse the evidence in order to decide how best to maintain, sustain, or progress.  Research from Fullen, through Senge, to Harris and Hattie, and many more, shows that this is the most effective way to sustain improvement.  But too often discussion about school improvement has been diverted into false polarities including: traditional v progressive, or, quality assurance v quality control, academy v school, SAT or TA, name your protagonist.

Whilst school improvers have been working alongside colleagues helping, challenging and supporting them through, action research, collaborative inquiry, coaching and lesson study, they have often been criticised as left wing theorists. On the other hand (beware of one handed school improvers) Well intentioned Ofsted inspectors have been pilloried as some kind of fascist government control organisation, perpetuating political dogma.  The truth is somewhere in the middle of the mess but as an ex inspector, of little enthusiasm and a passionate school improver you may glean a bias in the next paragraph – all I ask is that you read on.

There is little doubt that many in our profession have obsessed about obtaining a good or better judgement from Ofsted, to the exclusion of their own analysis.  Some have rested on their badges of “goods and outstanding”, just read those awful, tatty plastic banners strung up on school railings.  Others have been debilitated by their “inadequate” and “requires improvements”.  Many have become afraid, or lost confidence, in making their own judgements.  Some even claim they are non judgemental!  The latter is nonsense.  We all make judgements all of the time – it’s just that some are better holding on to them until it is appropriate to use them.  I am more concerned about colleagues who have been rendered mute in a belief that only more powerful, or experienced others, are equipped to make secure judgements and offer suggestions about ways forward.  I have worked with many in Special Measures and “Failing Schools” and tried to rebuild their professionalism.

In short, we have witnessed a dominant, quality control system in which inspectors, visit, leave and send a report listing issues to be sorted, to return later to check for improvement.  If a teacher did this in a classroom and was judged using Ofsted’s own criteria they would be an immediate and definite inadequate.  We are all learners aren’t we?  No wonder teachers, heads and others, feel treated in a shoddy, educationally counterintuitive way.  We have disempowered a large slice of several generations of heads and teachers.  But I do see a hopeful way forward and refuse to become cynical. Why?

Moving on to action
Last week I was openly truly joyful about an Ofsted regime that is, “looking at what they do with a view to doing it better”. If you still need convincing listen to Mike Cladingbowl interviewed by the TES here Podcast. Be honest, we have all worked with excellent inspectors, so let’s, give them the benefit of any doubt whilst being watchful for the minority of rogues who will, no doubt, perpetuate poor practice.

I want my profession to grasp this moment and do what we know best – teach and learn.  If we apply learning theory to ourselves we can reignite our professional capacity to: judge; analyse; act and evaluate progress.  After 40 odd years, in a range of roles from teacher to head, adviser, inspector, and consultant and back, I have simplified my thinking about School Improvement to four sets of questions and The iAbacus Model for self-evaluation and improvement - it’s my legacy I suppose. 

Unfortunately, these questions are answered, far too often, by school leaders, advisers and inspectors, on behalf of teachers and teams, to the detriment of school improvement.  Why do they do this, when it takes such a long time to collect the evidence first, in order to sift through it and make their judgement?  Why waste time doing this when those being judged already have their evidence?  Why not ask the head, the middle leaders and teachers to say what they think first?  School Improvers know that most colleagues make excellent, accurate and often hard hitting judgements about their practice when asked. And to be honest, those that can’t should be supported in their responsibility to do so.

 A good friend of mine, a proper judge, finds all this inspecting amusing.  He arrives at court, for each case, with a fresh and uncluttered mind. He sits as the evidence is placed before him, by those involved, who then plead, interrogate and argue their case.  He then makes his judgement knowing there are the checks and balances of appeals and retrials.  I’m not saying we should hold court but it saddens me that many judgements applied in schools have used a lower threshold of proof than for common criminals. We should have allowed the professionals to present their cases more often. 

School Improvers have learnt that when the teacher, team or staff, is involved, understands and agrees with the judgement, what flows from later questions is more meaningful and better applied.  I have found the questions below far more challenging, or exhilarating, when asked directly of a teacher, or senior leader, because their responses expose a capacity to self-evaluate and plan for improvement.  Most importantly, any lack of confidence, or quality in answering indicates, precisely, where training and support is needed.  Indeed, research about school improvement, professional development and learning indicates that helping students and colleagues to answer these questions is the foundation for all our work and please note that making a judgement is only the first stage.  

The iAbacus school improvement software takes the user through the same questions in stages here and produces reports but these questions can be used as a paper exercise.  Crucially, they organise the careful accumulation of compelling evidence, over time, which cuts down those desperate scrabbles for illusive pieces of paper around inspection time.

Questions from judgement to action and back

1.      How do you judge performance?  What criteria are you using?
2.      What evidence do you have to support your judgement?
3.      What has helped and hindered progress? What might help and hinder progress?
4.      What action needs to be taken to progress the priorities?

So, we use these questions as the content of “Professional Development Porfolios” and “Self Evaluation and Improvement Plans”.  When last a head I insisted all Middle Leaders had these files and made sure SLT had copies for reference.  The questions reinforce the cycle of school improvement and stop us being obsessed with just the judgement.  Many spent years completing Self-Evaluation Forms, separate School Improvement Plans and even a third Ofsted Improvement Plan.  The four questions ensure one seamless process and the sooner we own it, make it our own the better.  I am pretty convinced there is a willingness within Ofsted to move forward on this, faster than many in schools. See new Ofsted guidance on “Preparing a School Self-Evaluation Summary” Jan 2014 Ref 120203

We now know that making judgements about teaching and learning is far more than applying grades to lessons.  More importantly, School Improvement is more than making judgements about how well we are doing. 

Research shows that the best leaders, teachers and school staff have a capacity to self-evaluate and plan for improvement.  They look at what they do, make finessed judgements with a view to analysing how they might do better next time.  They prioritise with rigour and plan in sufficient, but not obsessive detail, and they can re-evaluate in further cycles of improvement.  When encouraged to do these things they become self reliant, empowered and confident in an aspiration to know more about their effectiveness and efficiency and how to sustain progress.  The best remain vigilant, open to ideas, suggestions, help and advice from well meaning colleagues and experts.

The best of the well meaning colleagues, experts understand their prime purpose is to validate the insiders’ capacity to self-evaluate and plan for improvement and, where necessary, provide support and challenge.  Consequently, they willingly suspend their judgement; resist any tendency to take over, preferring to listen and watch in order to judge the timing and nature of any intervention. They do this because they want their interventions to be respected and welcomed as genuine and well worth consideration.


* The iAbacus self-evaluation and improvement model is unique in beginning with the user’s intuitive judgement and comes prepopulated with over 20 templates including Ofsted, Estyn and many other sets of criteria (which can be added to and amended)   For more information go to