Even for teachers used to being watched by a constant stream of colleagues, senior leaders and local authority advisers, there can be nothing as stressful as a classroom observation by Ofsted. A good performance at the whiteboard is vital if a school is to achieve the top grades, and this will become more crucial still when the new Ofsted framework begins next January. Even greater attention will be paid to teaching, and classroom observation "will be at the heart" of the process.
So what exactly makes a lesson outstanding? Do those hours spent preparing for Ofsted's visit by creating shiny new displays and finding endless new resources impress the inspector? Is it essential to follow National Strategies guidance and always divide a lesson into three or four parts?
The answer, according to experienced inspectors, is to teach as usual. This is easier said than done when a stranger with a clipboard is sitting at one of your desks. But inspectors insist there are no set rules for how to deliver an outstanding lesson - apart from the fact that they must see outstanding learning from pupils.
Does style matter?
There are many assumptions about what or how to teach when Ofsted arrives - and many are incorrect, according to inspectors, who insist they don't favour any particular teaching style.
"I'm not looking to see if the teacher has used a particular approach, method or strategy, only how much the children are learning," says Linda McGill, who inspects schools in the south of England. "You can have teachers doing all sorts of wonderful things, but if the children are not learning it's not as good as the teacher wants it to be."
John Coleman, another Ofsted inspector and a former head, also stresses that he does not want to judge the style or method used. "We don't want to say one approach is better than another. It's only wrong or right as a testbed of what children learn from it. But of course some subjects lend themselves to more 'doing' lessons," he says.
Using an individual approach, rather than slavishly following National Strategies advice, will not stop teachers from being graded as outstanding, according to Mr Coleman. "People talk about inspectors ticking boxes. Clearly we've got to work with criteria and that's important for consistency. But the things which work most effectively vary from teacher to teacher, and quite rightly so," he says.
"Some teachers are adept at forming really engaging relationships with young people. Their teaching style inspires people to learn. Other teachers are expert in their field and really know their subject. As a result they can put that over effectively.
"There's no one secret to what makes the perfect lesson. It doesn't have to be complicated to be effective. Teachers have to engage children to make sure they are really interested. There is a place for just learning facts or simply being told about something."
The use of resources impresses inspectors, but only if they are appropriate. "I do sometimes go into lessons where the teacher has gone to town," says Ms McGill. "That can really get the children excited and enthused, but that's got to be built on during the rest of the lesson or it could all fall flat. If that's not the teacher's usual method they shouldn't do it when they are being inspected, as they won't be as comfortable with it."
An Ofsted visit usually also leads to teachers and teaching assistants desperately replacing displays and tidying up classrooms. Inspectors say this attempt to make classrooms more attractive is the right approach.
"I take a lot of notice of the classroom environment. The walls should be a reflection of what the children have achieved, and that they are learning," Ms McGill says. "I like a mixture of displays of work and what schools have started calling 'learning walls' - things like artefacts related to their work. Children spend an awful lot of time in the classroom and it should be warm, stimulating and an attractive place to be. I don't like classrooms with lots of clutter."
Inspectors won't visit every classroom in secondary and larger primary schools. When they do watch teachers they either observe an entire lesson or several at the same time if they want to track a group of children, check behaviour or special educational needs support.
Teachers already rated as outstanding by school leaders will almost always be observed by Ofsted. Inspectors will ask the headteacher to identify them. Teachers who have performed less well will also get a visitor in their classroom.
"I always ask the headteacher who their strongest teacher is and make a point of always observing that person," Ms McGill says. "Most would say, 'Yes, this person performs consistently well', and, 'Here are other teachers who need support'. We don't ask them how they would grade them, just who their stronger practitioner is.
"I usually ask to do two observations: firstly the strongest teacher, and then someone who has been given guidance and support. It's a way of judging the headteacher's effectiveness in helping teachers to improve, too."
Similarly, Mr Coleman says: "I would always ask the school to identify one or two lessons with teachers who are particularly good, and one or two with teachers who might have been supported to improve their performance."
If inspectors only observe for a short period they will only make a judgment about that part of the lesson, and not for the quality of teaching as a whole. To judge that, they will stay in the lesson for at least 30 minutes.
Much of their decision whether to rate the lesson as outstanding, good, satisfactory or unsatisfactory will come from conversations with pupils, even the youngest children.
"It's easy to see when things are not going as they should be because you can ask the children and they will give you an answer which is not correct," says Ms McGill, a former primary teacher who was a local authority inspector for 20 years before joining Ofsted in 1999.
"I watch, I listen, I ask questions and I look at the children's books. The key thing is to find out if the children are learning anything. So, as well as listening to what the teacher is saying and seeing what they are doing, I also watch the children's reactions. I want to find out if they understand; are the things they are being asked to do the right things?"
Deviating from the plan
But widespread misunderstanding among children will not in itself mean Ofsted has to judge the lesson as inadequate. Inspectors advise teachers to deviate from their original lesson plan if it is clear that children are confused.
"Those things are going to happen with the best teachers. The thing they have to do is to make sure they pick it up and work out what they can do to go back, reiterate and revisit," Ms McGill says.
"Teachers get afraid that, if they have written a plan and they don't stick to it, I am going to be critical. But I would be more critical if they stuck to it when the children weren't understanding. They should say something like, 'Look guys, I know you haven't got this. Let's have a little chat and we will try it again'."
Inspectors should not expect to see a detailed written plan for every lesson they observe, although they will look at lesson plans when they are offered by teachers.
Tony Thornley, a former head, school adviser, local authority director, school improvement partner and Ofsted inspector, says teachers should be well organised, but should not over- organise. "They need something to fall back on if the lesson doesn't go to plan; they need to be prepared enough to adapt," he says.
If a teacher didn't cover everything on their lesson plan, the inspector will ask why, and when they are likely to fit the rest of the work in. Ms McGill says: "Not covering all of your lesson plan wouldn't preclude you being judged to be an outstanding teacher if pupils have made outstanding progress in their learning."
So what should teachers be doing to ensure the inspector sees the holy grail - evidence of progress during the lesson? Ms McGill recommends constant activity, either by talking to children or drawing attention to something a pupil has done that is particularly effective.
"The teacher should be checking on progress throughout the course of the lesson. They will move from group to group, making sure that tasks are completed and that pupils understand them. The best teachers do this naturally because they will already know who needs more support and will check on them more regularly," she says.
"The best sort of tone, I find, is one where children can take risks and make mistakes, and that's not wrong. They are not worried about getting the right answer, because the teacher will say, 'Let's think about that'. There is a focus on developing knowledge and being enquiring. Mistakes are the best way of learning," Ms McGill says.
John Searl, a qualified inspector who now works as an interim head employed by local authorities to turn around schools given poor Ofsted ratings, says teachers need to make it "obvious" they are checking on children.
"Teachers know who they need to check on, but the inspector doesn't - they don't know what's going on in your head, so make it very clear what you are doing all the time," he says.
"I'm not saying this has to be a theatrical performance, but if an inspector is only with you for 20 minutes you need to put strong messages across. Teachers who are nervous tend to repeat themselves, and inspectors don't like that.
"Don't waste children's time by going over and over what the task involves - if most understand, let them start and explain it again only to those who don't. Talking too much means the plenary gets squashed and the lesson falls off the edge."
Teachers should always feel able to challenge inspectors' judgments if they feel they are unfair, according to Lesley Gannon, assistant secretary of heads' union the NAHT.
"If the teacher feels they have shown pupil progress, but this is not reflected in their judgment, they should raise this with school leaders," she says. "They must have faith in their own practice. Sometimes inspectors can be wrong because they have experience of a different sector."
Being "proud of what you do every day" is the best way to prepare for Ofsted, according to Mr Searl. "You shouldn't be preparing in this way only when inspection time comes around if you want to succeed," he says.
Having a consistent record of delivering good and outstanding lessons will be even more important when the new Ofsted framework comes into force. During the pilot inspections, pupils were asked about what their teaching was like, and ratings were based on this as well as evidence from individual lessons. Putting on a "performance" for Ofsted is of limited help to teachers now, and will be of even less assistance in the future.
The TES Resources site contains more than a dozen free resources relating to Ofsted inspections, including:
- Preparing for Inspections - a Teachers TV video
- Case study: raising Ofsted grades - how one secondary improved its ratings from Ofsted
Link at: www.tes.co.ukpro002 to download
- Be yourself: this is not the time to try something new
- Inspectors will probably not be with you for the entire lesson - make sure you refer to the aim in their earshot. Write it on the board
- Familiarise yourself with all school policies
- Be prepared, but have a plan B (or C) to fall back on if children don't understand
- Don't keep repeating yourself - it wastes children's time
- When talking to children individually, or to groups, lower your voice so as not to disturb others
- Be aware of time; don't let the end of your lesson fall off the edge
Where you see this icon, visit www.tes.co.ukpro002 for links to resources and research in the article
How they tell the best from the rest
"Excellent subject knowledge is applied consistently. Resources make a marked contribution to the quality of learning. Teachers are acutely aware of their pupils' capabilities and plan very effectively. Marking and dialogue are consistently of a very high quality. Pupils understand in detail how to improve their work and are consistently supported in doing so. Teachers systematically and effectively check pupils' understanding throughout lessons; their interventions have a striking impact on the quality of learning."
"Pupils show interest in their work and are making progress that is broadly in line with their capabilities. Teachers' subject knowledge is secure. Adequate use is made of a range of resources. Support provided by other adults is effectively deployed. Teaching ensures that pupils are generally engaged by their work and little time is wasted. Regular and accurate assessment informs planning. Pupils are informed about their progress and how to improve. Teachers monitor pupils' work during lessons."
Ofsted report at: http:bit.lyoDHyXg
What's on the clipboard
The official guidance for observing lessons:
- What are different groups and individual pupils actually learning and can pupils talk about it?
- Are pupils working independently? To what extent do pupils take responsibility for their own learning?
- How well do pupils collaborate with others? Are pupils creative? Do they show initiative?
- Are activities pitched at the right level to challenge pupils of different abilities?
- Are pupils interested in their work and in what they are learning? Are they happy and proud of their work?
- Are pupils engaged, working hard, making a good effort, applying themselves, concentrating and productive?
- How smooth is the transition from teacher input to group work?
- How well does marking identify strengths and diagnose next steps to improvement?
- How good is the dialogue and oral feedback? Are teachers alert to pupils' lack of understanding?
For Ofsted's guidance and resources for inspectors, visit http:tiny.ccypjt7.