How many pupils does it take to get inadequate?


I’ve just had an HMI visit. It wasn’t an official 6 weeks after Ofsted visit; it was one out of the three support visits that any requires improvement school is entitled to before the next full inspection.

I dictated the day and had telephone conversations and emails with my inspector who just asked me to make sure that the day was useful to me. ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘nothing that I see will trigger an inspection’ (except safeguarding issues such as, oh I don’t know, a child leaving your premises and being missing for an hour) ‘and nothing that I recommend needs to be obeyed-it’s just some extra help’.

Now, I could have sent him to areas of the school that I know we’ve improved with the aim of getting some validation. But in all seriousness: why waste an opportunity! No, I welcome the challenge and advice. Plus I genuinely, one hundred percent respect this particular inspector- he is painfully astute at times and his approach is purely supportive to the point that I  may be developing a serious man-crush.

It was a tough old day. He did see some ropey lessons and worse he saw them with me meaning I had to say it as I saw it (or at least how I knew he saw it) in order to make sure he didn’t back out of his agreement not to trigger a full section 5. But by the end of the day he was left assured that we were ‘on the right track’.

Lesson observations: they got more abuse on twitter than Michael Gove at an NUT rally. The main grudge seems to be: don’t judge me as a teacher based on one lesson – and if you’re talking purely ofsted that one lesson becomes 20 minutes of a lesson. I understand the frustrations felt by teachers and have written about it before with the main thrust of my argument being a good SLT should not judge the quality of teaching on an observation but through a variety of evidence.

Take my handsome challenging HMI inspector. He saw lessons that could be judged inadequate but after looking at books and planning and talking to my middle leaders he was satisfied that the lesson did not reflect the day to day quality of teaching. So I was pleased because overall he was satisfied that my claims of school improvement were not just hot air and he was pleased because I was able to come out and say a lesson was inadequate.

Inadequate. It is such a horribly loaded word that has no supporting features whatsoever. When uttered all it does is break people. But we are all going to have to grit our teeth and accept the fact that it is part of the fabric of school improvement. It hurts – no, in fact it stings. It smarts more than the public humiliation of defecating into your swimming trunks after belly-flopping off the top diving board (er…I imagine). And the immediate response is denial or trying to nonchalantly shrug it off as unimportant but you can’t accept the fact that everyone can see poo dripping down your leg as you get out of the pool someone believes that you just taught really badly.

20 minutes. That really gets on people’s nerves. Can you really judge a lesson to be inadequate after only 20 minutes? Look at it from a different perspective: in 20 minutes worth of a lesson, learning didn’t occur. Does that still sound harsh? Probably. Well get a load of this: it may be because in 20 minutes worth of lesson, learning didn’t occur for some pupils. What? I know. It’s tough. But I watched three children on the carpet (subtly) do nothing for ten minutes. They didn’t engage, they didn’t really answer any questions and then when they went off to do their work they didn’t really know what to do. I looked in their book and they were doing the same work as everyone else. Plus, the teacher didn’t go near them-they stayed with the SEN group-it’s as if those three children had gone unnoticed under the radar. But it’s only three pupils! How many pupils does it take to get inadequate? (In other words: how low are your expectations?)

In 20 minutes, that will get you an inadequate. Why? Not because three children in 20 minutes didn’t make progress at a significant rate; but because the teacher did nothing about it. Now, this is why a lesson observation should only be part of the process. Planning over time, work in books over time might show great learning over time for those pupils and all the others. If it does: great you are a good+ teacher. However, if planning over time shows you don’t cater for those pupils’ needs, if work in books show no progress or clear differentiation and assessment is either static or inaccurate then what I saw in those 20 minutes starts to take on more serious connotations.

As a school leader I try really, really hard to make sure my staff understand that lesson observations offer a snapshot: give me a way in. If they tally with planning, work in books, assessments and progress then it gives me an overall assessment of the value for money of your teaching over time. If it doesn’t tally (lesson was awful:  everything else fine; lesson was great: everything else ain’t) then it gives me somewhere to start supporting you. HMI saw that this was the case and left saying, ok I saw some not great stuff in lessons but I think those lessons were anomalies and all other evidence suggests that teaching and achievement is improving.

However this still leaves us with a conundrum: could a school get ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’ if ofsted only saw requires improvement or inadequate lessons? Truly good and better schools will have all the other evidence to suggest that they are indeed good or better. And even the best teachers can mess up a lesson or even lessons (because remember, how many pupils have to not make progress to form a poor judgement). It is also possible (in terms of probability) that in one school at one given point in time, every teacher in the school will deliver inadequate lessons (one or more pupils not making visible progress in a twenty minutes time frame) throughout the day. But if EVERYTHING else indicates the contrary, will ofsted’s overall judgement overrule this fact? Will we ever read an outstanding ofsted report that reads: ‘the inspectors observed 15 lessons over one day and all were judged to be inadequate: the quality of teaching and achievement in this school is outstanding’?

I don’t know..but it sounds like a bloody good challenge!

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