4th April 2008 at 01:00
Q: I've been offered a job at a school that has recently been inspected. The feedback said that 35 per cent of lessons were unsatisfactory, 60 per cent satisfactory and 5 per cent good.

Am I right in believing that if more than 10 per cent of a school's lessons are "bad" it means automatic special measures? Does this mean the head will be fired or pushed to quit?

A: I am not sure whose assessment of percentages you are quoting. In earlier inspections, which were longer and involved larger teams, inspectors would see dozens of lessons - perhaps 50 in a primary and 100 or more in a typical secondary. Often they would be full lessons.

This would give quite a large sample from which it would be reasonable to cite percentages. Guidance in those days was that if 10 per cent of lessons were unsatisfactory it should raise the presumption that the school was not adequate.

Things have changed, however, and inspectors see a much smaller sample of lessons. To test out the school's view of the quality of teaching and learning, inspectors use a range of strategies, including direct lesson observations, discussions with managers and pupils, scrutiny of pupils' work, and an analysis of the outcomes for learners.

They tend to see only parts of lessons because they are there principally to gauge what teaching is typically like in the school. The samples now are too small to give statistical significance to the proportion of each grade.

If I am in a one-form entry primary, I may sample just seven lessons. If one happened to be ineffective, then mathematically 14 per cent of lessons could be said to be inadequate. Statistically, however, it would be wrong to extrapolate from this that 14 per cent of the teaching is inadequate and that therefore the school must be failing.

Judgements about the quality of teaching and learning are not arrived at by aggregating lesson grades. I would be more likely to reach a conclusion that teaching was inadequate if I saw similar weaknesses in several classes, and I had other evidence of shortcomings.

If a school is judged as failing, what distinguishes whether it is put in special measures or issued with a notice to improve is usually whether it has demonstrated that it has the capacity to improve (CTI).

If a school has weak leadership and management as well as inadequate teaching and learning, then it is unlikely to be able to show it has satisfactory CTI - so special measures would be the more likely outcome. In those circumstances, the local authority would work with the school to improve. This would usually involve supporting the headteacher, not showing them the door

Selwyn Ward draws on years of inspection experience. The views expressed here are his own. To ask him a question, contact him at

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