Ofsted watch - In special cases, the inspectors must listen

23rd January 2015 at 00:00
Ofsted should engage with the knowledge and experience of special school staff to get a true picture of teaching and learning

Inspecting special schools is a tough job. Students vary wildly and outcomes can't always be superficially assessed. Ofsted needs to understand our students and our teaching so that its judgements go beyond the data and beyond preset expectations about what children can achieve. But unfortunately, in my experience, many inspectors fail to grasp what we do.

Here's a scenario. A Year 9 student with complex autism, curled up on the sofa with an iPad on his lap, listens selectively to the teacher. The teacher, leading a shared reading session of Michael Morpurgo's War Horse, reads aloud from the text as an iPad app created by Morpurgo highlights the spoken words for the student to follow.

The student stares at the iPad in his lap. Occasionally he lifts his head infinitesimally, usually in response to an emotive vocabulary choice or a significant event. When the teacher describes a distraught Albert arriving at the auction to find his beloved horse, Joey, sold to Captain Nicholls, the student lifts his head completely, the iPad forgotten.

To the uninitiated, the student's engagement with learning seems minimal and the level of challenge non-existent. The context, including the student's history and environment, could easily be overlooked by an inspector. The strategies used to minimise the student's anxiety and enable him to cope with the demands of his additional sensory needs could be misunderstood (dismissed, even) by someone whose understanding of children with multiple learning needs is vague.

Here's another scenario. A small class of students on the autistic spectrum with additional specific learning difficulties are taking part in a weekly spelling test. It is a relatively new routine for them, which requires listening and handwriting skills, language processing, recalling spelling strategies and referring to previous learning. Three differentiated groups are attempting four words each. The students sustain a high level of concentration and fulfil the objective.

As soon as the students finish, they hand over their spelling books for marking, hoping to meet their individual targets. The teacher praises them and comments realistically on their achievements. She tells them clearly how they can improve and takes every opportunity to encourage them to self-assess and identify self-help strategies.

An inspector who does not circulate around the room during the lesson would miss all this. They would be unable to see the process of writing and the degree of concentration on the students' faces. By not engaging with the students, the inspector would be unable to grasp the learning aims of this session and see the progress achieved.

`Freeze-frame' dilemma

Even if an inspector does begin to understand the complex needs of each child, the differences in their cognitive processing and level of understanding cannot be comprehended in a short observation that by its nature will be little more than a freeze-frame of learning. This is an issue that teachers in mainstream education have, too, but in special schools the problem is more acute. How can an inspector truly know if the learning objectives of each individual child are being met simply by watching an isolated lesson, or even a set of lessons?

Perhaps by relying on the data, you might argue. But no amount of data can alter the fact that all children, and especially those with cognitive difficulties, learn and progress at different rates and at different times. Data cannot reveal the full scope of challenges for each child.

The answer is for inspections to use the specialist knowledge of the teachers. When an inspector is willing to listen to - and accept - a teacher's input, this allows them to re-evaluate their perception of the school and reinterpret the data in a way that reveals clear progress.

When students have complex needs, inspection needs to be different. Inspections are meant to ensure a high standard of education. Evidence of this is usually drawn from observing teaching and learning, but in a special school an alternative approach is required - for example, listening for an autistic child's emotive responses and the connections they make between fiction and experience.

Inspectors need to anchor their understanding of learning and appreciate that it does not necessarily take place at a table or on an interactive whiteboard. Why can't a student with complex multiple needs learn just as well curled up on a bean bag, seated on the grass or even hidden under the table if it is safe for them to do so? It's up to us to show inspectors that these approaches can work.

Sometimes inspections are conducted by fantastic inspectors with up-to-date knowledge and a keen ear for teachers' expertise; we need to ensure that this is the case every time.

Edward Nelson works at a special school in Berkshire

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