Sunday, 31 August 2014

Stepping into the Death-Star (Ofsted HQ)

Now, I see myself as very much an 'ordinary classroom teacher' - note the avoidance of the phrase 'bog standard' - as I've been told off for that before. I have been through, and survived with varying degrees of success, at least 6 Ofsted inspections in 3 very different secondary schools, and that does not include 'mini-inspections' e.g. for  subject specific ones or SEND or HMI visits. As a coping mechanism (along with chocolate, ready-meals and binging on vegetables and fruit once an inspection is over) I have taken to nicknaming Ofsted inspectors 'Death-eaters', because by the end of the inspection visit, your very soul, your essence, your being is sucked out of you leaving you dribbled, exhausted and questioning why you ever went into teaching in the first place. 

So, to find myself  within the company of Ofsted GRANDE FROMAGES - Sean Harford in June (I gate-crashed a meeting set up by @oldandrewuk and @LearningSpy) and having the cheek to ask to attend meetings set up the the GRANDEST of GRANDE FROMAGES (bar Mr. Wilshaw himself) Mike Cladingbowl it seemed my world had taken a rather surreal turn.  

To give you some further context (or a re-cap for those who know me) - I have not long left my school due to stress, depression and things that occurred within that school and in my department that I can't really comment on here. Nevertheless, over the previous months of stress and anguish over my future as a teacher, I felt that I had lost my voice. I had become frightened to express an opinion or even show a facial expression that was not in-keeping with someone else's point-of-view. Yet here I was, about to attend a meeting with Ofsted big-wigs and mostly people I didn't know. I've bolted out of a friend's Christening after party thing due to not knowing people there, and wimped out of wedding receptions for fear of turning up on my own, which gives you some clue as to where I was about 10 months ago. 

So, back to the matter in hand. The meeting, which was at 11am at Ofsted HQ, Aviation House in London. My train arrived from Middle Earth, into Euston at 10.50am meaning a serious squaddie like route-march down to the venue, whilst making sure I didn't get knocked over by a London black-cab, or provoke whithering sarcasm from a savvy London cyclist on my way.  It all got a bit John Cleese from 'Clockwork'. I arrived at Aviation House about 11.20 cursing my tardiness, and wishing I had some emergency deodorant in my rucksack as I had got a bit warm and sticky. Fear of 'teachers arm-pit'  never leaves you. 

After an all too long wait in reception, and once again being briefly in the vicinity of Mr. Wilshaw (Count Doku?), I was collected and taken into the 'Death-Star'. 

To continue the Star Wars theme, I arrived warm, sweaty and a bit flustered, in jeans and and a reasonably smart top, while everyone else looked considerably smarter than I. I was the rebel alliance. After clumsily pouring myself a coffee and making a mess, I was introduced to people and we cracked on with the meeting. 

Mike Cladingbowl
Another Ofsted chap whose name I forget
Chris Andrew (@kitandrew1)
@kingston314 (Maths teacher from Portsmouth)
Laura Ellenor (VP in a school in London)
Jo and Steve - Governers
and erm, me. 
Plus Graham Spicer who  is  Ofsted's Social Media Yoda

Thanks are due here to @kingston314 for the extensive notes he has emailed me today. Most of this next section is based on his notes, which are far more legible than my own hand-written scrawl. There will also be some cross-over and duplication with blogs people have already written about their meetings so do forgive me for that. 

1. Mike opened with discussions about Ofsted and issues over the reliability of  inspections. For  those of us on Twitter we have known that this has been an issue for some time, whilst teacher bloggers @oldandrewuk, @StuartLock and @HFletcherWood have written about this issue at some length.   Here he stated that his point of view was that inspections must have some element of flexibility, because not every school is the same. It is a simple point and hard to disagree with. However, this brings to mind a discussion @oldandrewuk had with @HarfordSean back in June, where reliability of inspection teams took up a large chunk of the discussion. Andrew suggested that, for the purposes of standardisation of Ofsted's assessment of a school, two parallel teams should inspect the same school so that the reliability and validity of the judgements of  inspections teams AND the new framework can be tested. Sean was very interested by this idea and reacted in a way that suggested this had not occurred to him before. Teachers, exam boards and departments are expected to standardise their marking so as to ensure reliability of results, therefore shouldn't the same kind of process be used to standardise the 'marking' of Ofsted inspectors? 
  Here I eventually butted in with a none-too friendly question about how Ofsted judges SLT - how is that SLT teams can be judged 'Good'  or better when: they spend 99% of  their time in their office, except when Ofsted are in; there is a high staff turn-over; there area succession of staff absent due to long-term sickness with stress etc, or that work-place bullying is evident?  There wasn't time to really answer this in the meeting, but I have emailed Graham in the hope of a response at a later date. 

2. The school's curriculum is also going to be a more prominent feature of Ofsted inspections - more specifically: curriculum design, accessibility, depth and breadth, SMSC, assessments and through reviewing the work of the students. If the curriculum is too narrow, Ofsted will be concerned. I can't help but wonder if this is a direct response to the recent Trojan Horse scandal in Birmingham schools, or concerns that have been raised over how Free Schools operate. I think it is here that Mike also suggested that personal development - of staff and pupils - should be a focus for schools, curriculum development and CPD.

3. Lesson Observations, key points discussed were that: Work does not always reflect ability, especially at the beginning of a topic or a unit of work, and this cannot be assessed in short lesson observations. Therefore, Inspectors will be looking at a wide range of evidence to form judgements about teaching. Mike was keen to dispel myths about that there should be: progress every 20 minutes; there must be an 80/20 % Student/teacher split regarding 'who does the most' in lessons; that Ofsted DO NOT HAVE A PRESCRIBED TEACHING METHOD; if pupils need to do 'XYZ' then they do 'XYZ'; that 'didactic teaching' doesn't mean boring learning; that VAK is nonesense, and personalised learning is not necessarily feasible every lesson.  Here I think I butted in to make the point that is feasible to hit the 'Good' and 'Outstanding' criteria over a series of lessons, but to do so in one lesson rarely is. Progress IS over time so show the inspectors that using your data. 

4. SLT and lesson grading: Mike was very forthright here, stating that SLT should not be using 'Ofsted' as a stick to beat teachers with; that they shouldn't be conducting 'Mocksteds', or learning walks to make judgements about teaching and learning, or to  justify grading individual teachers.
     I think I butted in again here as a recent defector to the FE sector, and having just been through 2 days staff training, one of which was about teaching and learning. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I will have a formative observation and a graded one in my 9 month probation period, and the emphasis here was that to get 'Good' or better was on 'active learning'. I've signed my contract, this is what I have agreed to, I'm not going to launch into a barrage of criticism.
   However, I did point out that I was coming out of a sector that is now, slowly getting rid of graded lesson observations, and where didactic teaching methods doesn't necessarily mean career suicide, into one where lesson grading is still very much a 'thing' and that 'Outstanding' appeared to mean 'bells and whistles' lessons. My question was, 'Shouldn't there be parity across sectors for Ofsted inspections?' 
  Pleasingly, Mike told me that non-graded lesson observations in FE inspections are now being piloted with the hope that this will be sector-wide later on.  Fortunately, my mentor at college is also the UCU rep, so  I made sure I told her of this as soon as I could Friday morning. 

5. IGCSE/GCSE/Early entry.  This discussion was quite brief and Mike would not be drawn on school league table performance measures. However, it was a agreed that schools gaming the exam system via multiple and early entry was a bad thing and needed to stop. Often these decisions are made on the basis of the league table results desired, not what is necessarily best for the pupils. IF a school does decide to continue with early entry, this must be justified to the inspector.  I have never understood the logic of  early entry for my subject, English, for it seems a nonsense to enter pupils for an exam when they are minus another 9 months exposure to more vocabulary.  Vocabulary is KING for English exams. I also think it is ludicrously expensive - where else could that money be spent I wonder?

6. Inspectors and inspector training. Here Chris Andrew had much to contribute as a recently trained Ofsted Inspector (with Tribal). In short he thought his trainer was great, but the materials appalling. Chris asked Mike if, 'Two days was really enough to get a fully rounded picture of a school?' Here he spoke about the high stakes and the pressure from an Inspector's point of view, stating that he would prefer more time to do a better job.  Mike also spoke about how inspections of 'Good' or better schools would be more 'light touch' more akin to a HMI visit, in order to see that the schools' trajectory is still upwards. Here Laura also spoke about the intense pressure of being in a Category 3 or 4 school and that in reality, it can take about 5 years to turn such a school around, and that frequent interference from Ofsted wasn't necessarily a help.  Here I asked if 'normal' teachers (non-managers) could be seconded to Ofsted for CPD - why only the proviso of leaders? 

7. The school Governors both brought up the demise of the standardised SEF - as they seemed to give schools a focus and mechanism for self-improvement and voiced concerns over the standard of Governor training (a 'free for all' according to Jo) and if Governors would receive a separate judgement. Mike noted down the concerns over training and stated that Governors are an integral part of a school so should not receive a separate judgement. 

8. Inform Ofsted - if you are unhappy with the how an inspection in conducted, or you cannot fathom how a judgement has been reached. Although, ultimately, it IS the Head-teacher's and SLTs' responsibility to get on with the Lead Inspector. Also there needs to be greater communication between teaching unions, Ofsted and SLT. 

9. Mike seems to get frustrated how Ofsted inspections or schools over complicate the process, so thought that the following should keep people focused:

  • Does the school promote improvement?
  • Is the school value for money?
  • Are state funds being used properly? 
  • Pupil Premium - do you have a clear breakdown? There is Ofsted guidance online for this.
  • Does the school listen to teachers, student, parents and Governors? 

10. Lastly, the biscuits we all wish we had in the meeting. I give you, McVities Chocolate HobNob - which should be the minimum standard of biscuit for future Ofsted meetings. (Bourbons are also acceptable). 

Finally, huge thanks to Mike Cladingbowl for having us all there, for being welcoming, listening, for having a sense of humour, for being an English teacher, and for wanting the best for teachers as well as pupils in schools. As I thought about the meeting on the train home, I thought that I'd have enjoyed working for Mike Cladingbowl when he was a head teacher. Sir, I can give you no better compliment than that.