Is FE `mature enough' to scrap lesson grades?

19th December 2014 at 00:00
Principals tell Ofsted they fear the sector has some growing up to do

Ofsted is undecided about whether the further education sector is "mature enough" to cope without graded lesson observations, it has emerged.

Despite putting an end to the controversial practice in school inspections, the watchdog has stalled over making a decision for FE providers because of what it calls a "split" in the profession: many teachers want the grades to be scrapped but the majority of principals support them.

Lorna Fitzjohn, Ofsted's national director for learning and skills, told TES that further pilots of ungraded observations would be carried out next year in order to help Ofsted reach a final decision. Responses to the consultation on reforms to the inspection framework, which closed this month, confirmed that the profession had "mixed" views on observation grades, she said.

Ms Fitzjohn added: "There is a split. At one end are practitioners. Some of them say: `We don't want a grade.' Others say: `How dare you come to my class and not tell me the grade?' At the other end, you've got senior managers who find the grading systems useful. They are able to measure year-on-year whether things are improving.

"The big question that we've had from some leaders in the sector is: is the sector mature enough at this point in time not to have us grading lesson observations?"

The issue of whether the sector has come of age was first raised last month by FE commissioner David Collins, who told TES that he believed it was "mature enough not to require an Ofsted approach to inspection" and would be better served by a system of peer review.

Matt O'Leary, a research fellow in post-compulsory education at the University of Wolverhampton, said that questioning the sector's maturity was "incredibly patronising". "Some senior [college] managers want to continue with the use of graded observations because they are a convenient means of controlling and disciplining teaching staff," he said. "I would argue that it is these senior managers who are not intellectually mature enough to cope without them."

Dr O'Leary added: "The fact that an overwhelming majority of teachers are opposed to them and find them a completely pointless exercise is ignored by such managers and reveals the contempt with which they treat the views and needs of their staff."

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU), said graded lesson observations were "based on a non-representative snapshot observation of a lecturer's time".

"Alternatives which focus less on crude numbers and more on meaningful dialogue and staff development would be much more constructive and very welcome," she added.

Exeter College's submission to the consultation calls for graded lesson observations to be retained. Principal Richard Atkins said that grades helped large FE colleges to understand their overall quality of teaching and learning.

"In my experience, the overwhelming majority of teachers like to receive a grade," he said. "They want to know how they've done; if you don't tell them their grade, they will just try and guess.

"Another reason is that, if lessons are not graded, it will be very difficult for colleges to understand and even challenge their overall grade. If there is no grade, how are we going to understand Ofsted's decision?"

Ofsted's annual report, published last week, reveals that the proportion of FE providers rated good or outstanding has increased to 81 per cent from 72 per cent in 2012-13.

"I think the sector needs to be congratulated on improving teaching and learning, which is the main reason why we've seen such an increase," Ms Fitzjohn told TES. However, she expressed concerns about the teaching of English and maths in the sector.

Research published in September by professional standards body the Education and Training Foundation (ETF) shows that 17.1 per cent of FE teachers do not themselves have a good GCSE pass in the subject, and almost half "lack confidence" in teaching it.

Ms Fitzjohn said: "A fundamental problem is recruiting people with not only the right English and maths skills, but the ability to teach those subjects as well as they need to. We have seen examples of people teaching maths who perhaps haven't got GCSE maths themselves. That can't be right.We do need some really skilled teachers to work with young people and re-engage them."

The ETF report also expresses concerns about the "slow start" to the traineeships programme, designed to prepare people with low levels of qualification for apprenticeships.

Ms Fitzjohn said that although the "ones we have seen are largely good", very few young people had heard of the traineeships and knew what they had to offer. "That goes back to problems with careers advice and guidance," she added.

`It's a classic case of sitting on the fence'

Matt O'Leary, a research fellow in post-compulsory education at the University of Wolverhampton's Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education, has carried out extensive research on lesson observations in the sector, including a report for the University and College Union.

He is calling on Ofsted to release details of the responses to its public consultation. "By not doing so, the whole credibility of the consultation is undermined. Who's to say that comments such as `mixed views' are not just based on anecdotal evidence?" he says.

"Such comments are a classic case of sitting on the fence to avoid having to make a decision. Almost every survey or consultation generates a range of different views. But does that warrant sticking with a system that is clearly no longer fit for purpose and is the cause of unprecedented levels of stress and discontent among further education teachers?

"Why should FE be treated differently from schools?"

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