Lesson observation: Ofsted looks at international evidence

Reading time: 3 minutes.

Senior education lead Colin Logan highlights the key points that are emerging

At least some of you might remember Ofsted inspections before 2005, when a typical team of 12 or more inspectors would descend on a secondary school to spend four days poring over every detail of what went on. The general expectation was that around 60% of that time was spent on lesson observation. As teams were made up of inspectors selected according to their specialisms (plus a ’lay’ inspector who was not an educationist), both the feedback to individual teachers and the report itself were heavily subject-specific. Everything in lessons was graded and these were then passed on to the headteacher who ceremonially presented them from a brown envelope to teachers at the end of the day.

Until I found an inspection report from 2004, I had forgotten that there were also in those days four key judgements (standards, attitudes and values, quality of education and leadership and management) which were informed by 23 contributory judgements, all of which led to one for overall effectiveness. And each judgement was on a seven-point scale ranging from ‘excellent’ to ‘very poor’.

All that changed considerably in subsequent years. The notice provided, team size, inspection length, the number of and scale for judgements and the length of report have all reduced hugely. Although lesson observation has remained a key element of inspection, Ofsted has recognised that a teacher’s quality can no more be evaluated during a 25-minute observation than can the progress of the students in that lesson. As a result, neither of these is now graded during an inspection. Instead, the information gathered during a lesson contributes to overall school judgements alongside the results of other inspection activity such as work scrutinies and discussions with staff and students.

Information gathered during a lesson contributes to overall school judgements alongside the results of other inspection activity such as work scrutinies and discussions with staff and students

The arrival of Amanda Spielman as HMCI has produced significant change. This is demonstrated not only in terms of Ofsted’s relationship with schools and an aversion to hasty large-scale amendments to the inspection framework, but also in how decisions are made. These are now based much more on research (rather than on experience as a headteacher, as was the case with her predecessor) and in a much greater focus on what she believes is important, notably the curriculum and the quality of teaching.

As a result, she has taken her time before producing a new Ofsted framework, which everyone is expecting to be much more in her own image. A key element in the development of the new handbook is Ofsted’s current review of the curriculum, which we have already discussed here. The inspectorate has also just published a report on six models of lesson observation as part of their current research into what classroom observation might look like when the new framework appears next spring, in time for implementation from September 2019. What makes this particularly notable is that Ofsted hosted a two-day seminar at which 14 international experts presented their research to help inform developments, something which would have been unheard of in the days of Sir Michael Wilshaw.

What is currently being debated

The detail of each model is in the report but there are several pointers throughout which give an indication of what is currently being debated:

  • Lesson observation will remain ‘a fundamental part of inspection that deserves focused attention’. It’s probably not wildly off the mark, however, to infer that there is considerable dissatisfaction with the current model amid concerns of subjectivity and of whether the focus should be on teacher activity, student learning, attitudes and engagement or the context of the lesson.
  • All the models presented had systematic observation criteria producing predominantly qualitative data that provides detailed feedback to teachers.
  • None of the models explicitly attempted to measure learning. ‘Learning is not something that can be directly observed, while the quality of teaching can.’
  • The correlation between observation ratings and pupil attainment measures is ‘typically modest’, reinforcing the view that lesson observation can only be one of several factors contributing to an overall judgement.
  • Most of the models are ‘high inference’. That is, they require the observer to make subjective inferences beyond what is observed. Not only does this mean that substantial training for observers is needed but ‘the experts all accepted that their models could never be 100% reliable’.
  • There was some discussion about the relative merits of live and video observation, although how this would work during an inspection remains to be seen.
  • There is no consensus on the ideal observation length or number. All the models focus observation at the level of the individual teacher with a clear link between the purpose of the observation and the items measured. For Ofsted, ‘lesson observation needs to be done with this whole-school context in mind’. This suggests that we shall not be seeing a return to graded lessons next year!
  • It was acknowledged that few of the models went beyond mathematics, language and literacy. If the planning and effectiveness of the curriculum is to be a key driver for the new framework, will more importance need to be attached to the subject-specialisms of inspectors?

There is no suggestion that any of the models could be taken off-the-shelf and used for inspection purposes, which throws up a pertinent question for both Ofsted and schools themselves: what is the purpose of lesson observation? For schools, there are clearly several purposes, ranging from a relatively narrow focus on teacher performance and accountability, through policy compliance checking, to a much broader evaluation of the effectiveness of teaching and learning. Ofsted seems clear that inspectors will continue to use observation ‘as part of an overall judgement of the quality of teaching and learning across the school.’

During this and the autumn term, Ofsted will be conducting further research to test out potential changes to the way inspectors currently observe lessons. It’s highly likely that schools will be approached to take part in their research. SSAT would be keen to hear from you if you would like (and are permitted) to share your experiences. We’ll also do our bit to keep you informed of developments.

Read more on the SSAT blog: A glimpse into Ofsted’s thinking on the curriculum and its implications for schools in 2019

Colin Logan, Senior Education Lead, SSAT

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