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Under inspection

the elephant in the room

the elephant in the room

I'd like to share a fable. It tells of six blind men who were invited to visit an elephant. The blind men were placed at different points around the elephant and they all felt different parts to see if they could put their findings together and work out what the elephant looked like.

One felt the tusk, one the ear, another the tail, and so on. But no matter how much the blind men debated, they could not agree on a definitive, complete picture.

The moral? Although one person's subjective experience may be valid, that does not mean that others' subjective experiences are not.

Let's assume that the elephant in this case is a further education provider and the blind men represent Ofsted inspectors. They will visit many parts of the provider over several days and form judgements on teaching, learning and assessment (TLA)that will relate to what they believe they have seen. In some cases they will see the same things but may view them entirely differently and form disparate judgements. So are they right to be forming graded judgements based on such subjectivity?

Robert Coe's synthesis of lesson observation research has raised questions about the reliability of the process. It suggests that, in the best-case scenario, lesson observation grades will be agreed upon a mere 61 per cent of the time between two observers. That means one in every three grades will be unreliable.

This brings me back to the blind men and the elephant. With such subjectivity, FE and skills providers are effectively being judged incorrectly on their TLA.

In my experience of inspection, too much emphasis is placed on a select number of very short observations over a fleeting visit (four days).

Inspectors spend less than 25 minutes carrying out observations before leaving a lesson, already certain about their judgement.

When joint observations are conducted with the internal lesson observation team, it is clear that, despite any difference of opinion, the inspectors' views stand. It would seem that the inspectors know best.

My advice? Next time the inspectors visit, ask them which part of the elephant they'll be standing at.

The writer is a FE practitioner in the North of England

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