The chief inspector argued at last weekend’s ResearchEd annual conference that "Ofsted is absolutely right not to grade individual lessons now, and it would be great if all schools would stop doing it as well". Welcome news to that audience, I don’t doubt, but also, I suspect, greeted in some quarters with a degree of scepticism.
There’s a lot of nonsense being talked about lesson grading. Inspectors claim that they no longer grade lessons; many teachers claim they still do. Both are right...in a way. Many headteachers claim that their leadership teams do not use lesson grades for judging performance and performance-related pay; many of their staff claim it’s still happening. Both are right…in a way. It all depends on what is meant by "grading”.
Let’s be clear. Observing a lesson without making any qualitative judgements is virtually impossible if the observer is a human being rather than a robot. Actions observed inevitably elicit a response in the mind of the observer and that response includes effective elements and cognitive ones. An overall judgement or appreciation is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid. ("That was a good lesson." "It was a reasonable lesson but no more than that." "What an amazing lesson." "Poor" – are four out of a myriad of possible responses.) Teachers themselves reflecting on their last lesson also employ such overall judgments.
It’s one thing to make such an overall judgement; it’s a very different matter if that is converted into a numerical grade, which is then attached to that lesson, and, in the worst cases, attached to that particular teacher and his/her teaching. It’s another yet to convey that to the person observed, especially in a stressful situation where that judgement is likely to be remembered forever by the adjudged party. But pretending that a judgement is not being made and will not be used in some way does a disservice to both parties.
Chief inspector Amanda Spielman also stated that lesson observations were a valuable tool, if they were properly designed around aggregations of well-made observations and if you knew what inferences could be drawn. In my judgement, she is right; many years of sensitive inspection by HM Inspectorate before the onset of standardised practice by Ofsted bear that out.
The heart of inspection is a professional judgement about the quality of teaching experienced by pupils in a school. As the chief inspector pointed out, that has to be compounded by a number of well-made observations centred around the learning observed or, more often inferred, by experienced inspectors alert as far as possible to the peculiarities of every situation.
Arriving at that overall judgement of a lesson or a school should not involve looking for particular teaching methods or forms of organisation and then gauging their effectiveness in terms of promoting learning, rather the reverse. Inspectors should be looking for evidence of pupils’ learning in terms of their observable responses to teaching and then work back to those factors that have promoted or hindered their learning. There should be no automatically approved teaching methodology.
"The unanticipated success of the wrong method" needs to be recognised and celebrated.
Judgements about the quality of teaching in lessons and in the school as a whole should be properly tentative and, consequently, should be offered as such in any feedback to those who have been observed. There’s bound to be an overall judgement but that does not necessarily have to be communicated or placed on a numerical scale.
There is, inevitably, a considerable degree of inference involved in the judgements, especially those relating to the extent to which learning has taken place and an element of professional judgement as to which features of the lesson have contributed to, or inhibited, whatever learning is inferred as having taken place. That tentativeness is crucial to the context in which any feedback is being given. It offers the opportunity for dialogue for other tentative, evidence-based, interpretations to be offered by the person being observed.
So let’s welcome the end of the practice of giving a numerical grade to lessons. Let’s end the absurd notion of characterising the teaching quality of a whole school by an overall published grade, a point not yet conceded by Ofsted. But let’s not pretend overall judgements are not being made. They are and rightly and inevitably, too.
Colin Richards is a former primary school teacher, university professor and HMI