Exclusive: Ofsted's approach to lesson observation 'is from the dark ages'

A leading educational psychologist argues that, unless every inspector goes into lessons with the same checklist, they are open to 'prejudices and partialities'

Adi Bloom

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Ofsted’s approach to lesson observation is open to “prejudices and partialities”, a leading educational psychologist has concluded.

Brian Apter believes that the fact that Ofsted does not issue its inspectors with a checklist of behaviours to track during lessons leaves the watchdog's inspections in “the dark ages”.

"There’s a place for systemised structure in observation of classrooms,” Dr Apter, a Cardiff University researcher, said. “If you don’t have that, then you’re open to masses of prejudices and partialities.

“The only way you can protect a school from an inexperienced Ofsted team is by giving them a very robust method.”

He believes that to avoid inaccurate and partial inspections all inspectors must go through the same checklist of teacher and pupil behaviours, including teacher tone, teacher volume and the amount of time the teacher spends speaking.

'Human nature'

Stephen Gorard, professor of education and public policy at Durham University, agreed. “It’s clear that observations can be biased by the contexts in which they take place,” he said. “That’s just human nature, isn’t it?

“If there were a clear checklist, the advantage would be that you’re able to get an unbiased reading. The checklist would have to cope with variation, but be systematic enough to overcome bias.”

Rosamund McNeil, head of education at the NUT teaching union, said: “Because they’re so driven by data and numbers, sometimes inspectors do go into schools with fixed ideas in their heads.

“We need consistency in inspections. It’s important that inspectors are measuring the right things. At the moment, inspectors are too narrowly focused on the numbers.”

Dr Apter is chairman of the British Psychological Society’s division of educational and child psychology, but conducted his research into lesson observation in an independent capacity.

“Without looking at actual behaviour in an actual classroom in a measurable way, I think all Ofsted is going on is a mixture of second-hand opinion and the school’s best guess," he said. "It’s not accurate. It’s just not accurate.

“To me, it’s the dark ages of school observation and lesson observation.”

'Firmly based on evidence'

Ofsted confirmed that it has no checklist for lessons. It said that all guidance on observation is contained in its school-inspection handbook. But the handbook’s only advice on how lesson observations should be conducted is: “Inspectors may engage in…observing learning in lessons, during which they may observe activities, talk with pupils about their work and scrutinise pupils’ work.”

A spokesperson for the watchdog pointed out that all its inspectors undergo rigorous training programmes to ensure that they understand the inspection framework, and are able to make consistent and reliable decisions.

“Inspectors will collect information about the quality of teaching, learning and assessment in lessons and from other learning activities,” she said. “They will also look at workbooks and talk to pupils to gauge their level of understanding and learning.

“All inspection findings and ratings are quality-insured by other inspectors before they are finalised, to make sure that they are firmly based on evidence.”

This is an edited article from the 7 July edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. This week's Tes magazine is available in all good newsagents. 

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