The fast way to chalk up an inspection failure

22nd June 2001 at 01:00
My workmates and I have just emerged from the second of the Office for Standards in Education's outings as FE college inspectors.

The good news is that, while the poor college that went before us was branded a failure, we at least passed. OFSTED begrudgingly admitted that although our weakest weaknesses sent their appalled inspectors into choking fits, our strongest strengths were sufficient to bring about their recovery.

Our mere survival brings its own reward. And after all was said and done, we do tend to agree with our college-wide grade of 3 - we're not that great, but we're not that bad either. Nevertheless, weeks after the event we still find ourselves in a perplexing state of post-inspection stupor. Psychiatry sessions with the psychology teacher and spontaneous bouts of group therapy have done little to jolt us from our professional trauma.

The cause of the pervading numbness - despite the fact that we are confident, experienced teachers with good achievement and retention records - is that we were totally unprepared for the OFSTED classroom observation.

Naturally each of us had been observed before. I, for example, have had PGCE tutors, student-teacher mentors, peer-reviewers, line managers, external verifiers, external moderators, practical examination invigilators, internal inspectors, teacher trainer students and Further Education Funding Council inspectors cluttering up my classroom for years. But, like anyone else who has taught only in FE, I've never practised my art in front of an OFSTED inspector.

It's not that the inspector has a more devilish gleam in his or her (I couldn't tell) eye. It's not that the timing of their note taking is more unnerving or that their questions are more demanding. It's not that their inspection routine is more rigorous; indeed, my inspector seemed positively uninterested in my still-warm lesson plan and scheme of work.

What made the OFSTED inspectors different was their utter rejection of a teaching method that we all use a great deal - namely, the one where we tell the students about the subject.

Take my experience, for example. Picture the scene - I had four weeks to finish the A-level syllabus. I had three hours to cover the structure and function of the heart. My approach was to chalk and talk my way through structure, wit the help of models; get them dissecting their own heart (well not their own, obviously); then set them the task of working out the operation of the heartbeat with the help of some materials.

The inspector arrived at the end of the chalk and talk, and then witnessed 30 minutes of eager students up to their wrists in lamb offal. In the subsequent feedback I was told in no uncertain terms that this was an entirely unsuitable approach when teaching this subject matter, and that I clearly had no idea of the subtleties of the learning process.

It materialised that the complaint concerned my habit of standing at the front and telling the students what I knew about the subject, asking them to take notes on the things that I was saying, and occasionally dictating a few lines of key text.

I must be naive. I knew that chalk and talk was unfashionable, but I didn't realise that it was forbidden. I'm sympathetic with the arguments for 'fire starting' as opposed to 'pot filling', but I didn't appreciate that anything but arson was deemed criminal.

If OFSTED has research that demonstrates conclusively that when teachers use my approach students fail to learn, leave in droves and underachieve at exam time, then I would be stunned since it would imply that all the research anomalies are in my class. My students do learn, they do stay and they do achieve above average grades.

My colleagues suffered similarly. We asked our inspectors how they could explain our good results. They replied that good results could arise due to other factors, such as demographics and selective entry. The implication was that it couldn't be anything to do with our teaching because, as they had said before, that was abysmal.

The reason I'm putting this down is to warn others. If, during inspection week, you're tempted to include 15 minutes of chalk and talk within a diverse and entertaining lesson, simply because it is the method of your choice, then don't.

The plain fact is that OFSTED inspectors despise the sight of teachers telling anyone anything. So if you're being inspected prepare lots of self-discovery materials for your students, preferably with ICT. Don't even think of standing at the front to teach. Well, not that week anyway.

Jon Hughes is a freelance writer and former lecturer

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