Wednesday, 1 January 2014

A Tale of Two Ofsteds

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way –

Yes, I am going to horribly abuse Dickens in this post... Sorry!

It has taken a while to collect my thoughts before writing this and, before I go any further, I have to say this is a very personal account of both the positive and crushingly negative effects of Ofsted on teachers. I knew I wanted to start with this quotation, but didn't realise until I read it again in its entirety, just how apt it is.

In 2012, our school got a 'Good', with 97% of lessons observed graded 'Good' or better. Less than a year later, we got visited again. This time we got a 4 in every category.

Now I'm not party to all the relevant information, but this is an account of how it affected me personally.

First time around, the inspection team was very keen to hear everything we were proud of about our school. I remember being invited to speak about my professional development in the Head's office with other colleagues. The lead inspector was eager to hear how we used our Wednesday afternoon CPD, how we had taken on the idea of Dylan William's TLCs to trial new initiatives, and asked for anything else positive that we wanted to say that we thought he should know about. There was a really positive, confident buzz around the place.

Personally, I was observed teaching Y13. It wasn't a 'showy' lesson (although, believe me, I'm capable of those too!). The observation was relaxed, unobtrusive and the lesson was graded Outstanding. The Inspector looked in folders, talked to the students (but not in a way that disrupted the learning) and the feedback was pleasant, positive and useful for my professional development.

As an English Department, we'd been hit hard by the GCSE fiasco, but they understood that wasn't our fault. They asked for our estimated grades and judged us accordingly. They smiled.

They didn't crack a smile once, second time around.

Those of you living in fear of Ofsted, probably should stop reading now.

If you decided to continue, I'll say again, this is a personal account and I don't have all the relevant information. I don't know what triggered the visit only 10 months after the last one, but I believe it was parental complaints. Regardless, they arrived 3 weeks in to term and caught us, as more than one person put it, 'with our pants down'. If you don't know, for a normal Ofsted, they ring you the day before they come in. This lot turned up at 8 am on the first day. A real 'no notice' inspection.

On day one, they complained books were not marked, lessons were boring and came in to classrooms like a plague of locusts. I was teaching Y11 English with a very challenging D/C group. They interrupted the Q&A by talking to students, glanced at books and left. It was very disruptive. Naturally, their instinct took them straight to one of the most difficult students in the year / school. Is that representative? My books were clearly self / peer marked, but was that enough 3 weeks in to the academic year? (I was just about to set them their first summative assessment, but I figured I better teach them how to do it first!) I was modelling how to write an exam answer with suggestions how to improve from the students. Is that boring? Possibly, but would I defend it as good practice? Absolutely!

I have no way of knowing if what they saw contributed to the comments at the end of day one, but you can't help feeling that it must have done. It's like when the whole class is kept back because one person did something naughty. The guilt is infectious.

Day 2 we had more of a chance as there was time to fully plan lessons. Unfortunately, the timetable went against us. It seemed that very few of the strongest teachers were on during the observation times. They also wanted to observe teachers who had been on the ITP course and, as a result, got an unrepresentative slice of lessons to observe.

Then the feedback started. Teacher after teacher came back in floods of tears. Not only was the feedback focused on the negative, but the delivery of it by all accounts was really cutting. This was by far the most destructive element of the visit. Some staff have not recovered 3 months later. Some won't at all. No matter what the quality of a lesson, nobody deliberately sets out to be inadequate. All feedback should therefore be constructive, not destructive, especially from Ofsted. But I guess we all know the impact of formative vs summative judgements.

At that point it turned in to a full inspection. I pretty much knew I was going to be observed as they had to see some 6th Form to do a full report, and I had Y13 the next day. I have already mentioned some of what happened in the lesson in tweets, but this is what happened in all its horrible detail. I can already feel my blood pressure rising...

I knew the lesson plan was outstanding. I'm not stupid (or arrogant), I did a version of a lesson I had originally planned for my AST assessment day. Why wouldn't you?

Unfortunately, the inspector wasn't really interested in my lesson. She did not talk to the students, or look in any of their folders. She came in with a face like thunder.

Part way into the lesson, the students were working independently, so I went over and asked if there were any questions she had about the lesson. BIG mistake. There followed a tirade of questions about KS3 English. Unimpressed about what she had just seen in other classrooms, she questioned me about the curriculum, SOWs, assessments and progress. In the middle of an observation. Now I'm a firm believer in the Hawthorne Effect, but the impact of this observer took it to a whole new level!

But it didn't end there. She made a snidey comment about how clearly Sixth Form teaching was my 'raison d'ĂȘtre' and implied that I didn't care about KS3. Interesting she should jump to that conclusion. I actually love teaching all levels and abilities. I had just rewritten the LTP for KS3 even though I didn't teach it! She wasn't interested in plans for improvement that were in place though. Then she said, 'You're the Head of Department aren't you?!' In a very confrontational manner. It caught her on the back foot for a moment when I told her I wasn't, but only momentarily. Even if I had been, surely it still does not give her the right to an interrogation during a lesson?

She then actually turned her attention to my lesson. It was on Text Transformation, which is English Language and Literature coursework. The main focus was to get the students to understand the sometimes very subtle differences between a transformation of a text and creative writing (or what AQA call 'spring boarding'). She said they should know that already, and then came out with her classic (and soul-destroying): 'There should be nothing new by the time they get to Sixth Form'.

Not only is this utter crap, but the lesson was based on feedback from the examiner's report (and years of experience teaching the course). This distinction is something even the most able students can struggle with.

Then she came out with her clincher, 'Well, you can't get an Outstanding when the teaching we've seen at KS3 is so poor'.

Teaching by other teachers?

I would have thought it was more relevant that it was impossible to get an Outstanding judgement whilst being interrogated, but hey!

So, I was really looking forward to the feedback...

Firstly, it took a large chunk of my lunch to hunt her down. She wasn't where she was supposed to be, clearly not respecting how stressful the process is for teachers. When she did start, she began with that awful question: 'How would you rate it?'

I said, 'Good.'

She replied, 'Yes, very good, but that's not the point'.

She turned it straight to another inquisition about KS3. I fielded all of her questions, but she wasn't listening, and despite repeatedly asking for feedback about my lesson, she wouldn't give any. Finally, I got really annoyed and said, 'Please can I have some developmental feedback about my lesson?'

She opened her clipboard, flicked through a few pages, said, 'Differentiation' and snapped it shut.

I replied, 'Well, you'll have noticed that the questioning was differentiated.'

'But they were all doing the same task.'

'Yes, it was new to all of them. You'll have seen from the lesson plan, though, that the next stage of the lesson was grouped by text and ability.'

'We didn't see that part of the lesson though.'

It later turns out she also had an issue with my data, but in a particularly surprising way. I had raised the level of challenge for several students beyond their ALPs. She said that I shouldn't have had to do that if their progress had been better lower down the school. Damned if you do, damned if you don't. Turns out it is irrelevant what progress those actual students made (one exceeded her KS3 target by 5 fine levels; one didn't even come to our school). It is also irrelevant that I have done it every year as I believe challenging expectations are crucial to success. I am normally right. Last year we had two students who got an A* at A2, neither of whom had that as a target and neither of whom under-performed at KS3 or GCSE.

Even a good lesson needs to be ripped to shreds in a bad Ofsted it seems.

I can't underplay the impact of this Ofsted. I have worked at the same school for 14 years, and we have never been rated as anything other than 'Good'. It was the same school as 10 months previously when it got a 'Good'. It felt like a bereavement, and just like a bereavement, you go through the 5 stages:


But let's face it, none of them are useful when it comes to moving forward except acceptance. I'm not going to say that the judgement was right or wrong. We have to live with it either way. The only thing I cannot come to terms with is how a school rated 'Good' in one inspection can go from that to 'Special Measures' in just 10 months. The way schools are graded has not changed that much.

I'll leave that one with you to ponder.

Anyway, there are positives. Despite apparently only caring about A level teaching, it has given me the opportunity and drive to rewrite the LTP, restructure the MTPs and write 60 individual lesson plans for Y7, 8 and 9 in the last month. And, in a cheesy cyclical structure only appreciated by English teachers (and probably not many of them) I will inappropriately quote Dickens again:

It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done

More of that to follow.


  1. I had exactly the same. When I finally found the inspector for feedback it took him an age to get round to the actual grade and he wittered in phrases before hand. I found that they nit-picked rather than looked at the larger scheme and kept saying "no we only see a snapshot" as soon as anyone tried to put what they had seen into context. They didn't call staff by name when we were all wearing our badges and didn't know when lessons and breaks were, despite being given all the bumf. By lunchtime I was in full belligerent mode and treated them with the indifference I think they deserve. No respect for the school, no respect for staff when they were talking to them and they did not speak to the children. I've chalked it up to life experience and told myself that it was character building!

  2. Thank you that you have taken the time to write this. I hope the process (of writing the blog) was useful for you.

    I am just going through the new Subsidiary Guidance for Ofsted - there are some pleasing changes in it. Have a read. No good to you now, as it does not change things, but for when they come back.

    The Team that walks through the door holds a disproportionate level of power. I have experienced a lead inspector that is still known as 'Horrid Henry' in my school. My Chair of Governors described him as 'vile'. He is known for being a good judge of character. The next was a totally different kettle of fish. No push over - still did not get the outcome we were striving for. The new guidance has come 2 months to late for me (5. do not insist on three years worth of data), but it gives me new armory for next time.

    You sound as if you have got through the worst of it for now. Keep going - do what you do best.

    Like you - I am concerned for those that will never recover.

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