Monday, 6 April 2015

An FE Inspector (of dubious competence) Calls: Part 2

Before I document the lesson observation, the interrogation (yes, really) and the questionable feedback, I do not want this to be a 'tar the whole of Ofsted with the same brush' kind of post. 

I may have mentioned this before, but what the heck, I'll mention it again:

I've been in the same room as Sir. Michael Wilshaw at Wellington Education Festival (terrifying); I've gate-crashed a meeting with Sean Harford, Andrew Old and David Didau in Ofsted Towers, Birmingham; got myself an invite to a meeting with 'Sir Michael of Cladingbowl' and several other teacher-bloggers in the Death Star, London and managed to compliment Mike Cladingbowl and insult Sean Harford (Mike nearly choked on his tea) while introducing them at Research Ed September last year in London, AND on Twitter publicly critiqued both their biscuit provision at said meetings, which I'm pleased to say, has resulted in Marks and Spencer biscuits being provided at said Ofsted and teacher-blogger meetings henceforth. That was a long winded way of saying - I have a great deal of respect for the Ofsted Grande Fromages I have met, and one Inspector of Dubious Competence does not mean the whole barrel of Ofsted apples are rotten. 

On with the Lesson Obs:

The Class: GCSE re-sitters

Time of Day: Wednesday afternoon

Duration: 1.15 - 4.00 pm (it's a LONG afternoon)

Class size: should be 20 at least, not all 20 always turn up every week (typical in FE I think)

Gender mix: fairly even Stevens between male and female

Ability based on CA's marked so far: D to B. The majority of students get a Band 3 or 4 in controlled assessments I have marked so far. Those who got below a Band 3/C is down to poor attendance. 

Behaviour: Now - good, when I started, 'feral' wouldn't be fair, but sometimes I thought I couldn't teach and they really weren't learning. 

The lesson: 3 hrs of Preparation for the Controlled Assessment for Creative Writing 2 task (based on the title of a poem from the AQA Anthology) - aiming to teach them after their writing-warm-up;  specific grammar skills e.g. How to use a semi-colon to join two 'linked' simple sentences; to provide them with two poems as a stimulus ('The Blackbird of Glanmore' by Seamus Heaney and 'Cold Knap Lake' by Gillian Clarke) which were initially in a Word Cloud (don't shoot me Andrew Old and Tom Bennett!) then in their original form; ideas for how to respond and how to structure responses; how to use their planning sheets etc. So you see, it couldn't be, nor was it a 'jazz hands' kind of lesson. It was about them knowing precisely what they had to do in the Controlled Assessment the following week. 

So here, here was perhaps my Achilles heel, or Catch 22 or what other literary, or mythical analogy you can attach to it, because I had to do what I had to do that lesson, as the pupils had to write their controlled assessments the following week. It is a routine and kind of lesson the class are used to prior to a Controlled Assessment. If I were to deviate and do a 'special lesson' for the inspector, I'd be criticised (in my view, correctly) for not preparing them for their Controlled Assessment. 

The Inspector of Dubious Competence Calls

The Inspector came in after the writing warm-up part of the lesson (words taken from a narrative we have read, or are going to read, they look them up in the dictionary, use them to write about something specific e.g. describe a room they know well, an opening to a horror story and so on - I participate in the writing task on the whiteboard) and part-way through the 'semi-colon' section - where I used a 'comic strip' from the Oatmeal to help explain how to use it as I find it fiendishly difficult - the examples given in there are quirky and memorable and the explanations very clear.  I DID ask to see her identification lanyard as the female inspectors has a knack of hiding them under neck scarves. 

The class were golden from the start of the lesson, and more so when she walked in. Despite the fact they clearly struggled with the whole topic of semi-colons, they did ask  a lot of questions about how to use them in different ways, such as: Can you use them to join X and Y together? (I wrote their example on the board, tried it out, explained if it worked or not) and developed onto questions about using dashes and hyphens in words and sentences (not part of the lesson I'd planned so looked it up in front of the class and gave them examples). Although it was very difficult for them, they were clearly trying really hard to grasp it, and because they found it difficult, it told me that not a one of them had been taught how to use a semi-colon before; or there is the possibility that they had been taught semi-colons, but had not remembered a jot. 

The Inspector remained for the introduction of the poems in Wordle form - where I had a few tricky moments of pupils asking me to define words for them. The first time got nervous and didn't explain one well (criticised in the 'feedback'), but when The Cheeky Lad asked me what 'frolic' meant I got him to look it up and later on asked him for the definition.   In response confidently told the class and I, and then I asked him, "So, when was the last time you frolicked?" 
Student, "In my bedroom Gwen." 
Me, "You can stop there, I don't need to know any more." 
The class guffawed in unison. Literacy job done....or so I thought. 

During the word-cloud task (they had to put the words from a word-cloud into categories of their own choosing - thanks Jamie Warner-Lynne - I still use this!) we discussed their choice of categories; the words they had put in them and why; the assumptions and conclusions they had drawn about what the poems were about; the possible themes of the poems before we read the poems in their original forms; what kind of story is being told by the poet and so on. We then went back to what they originally thought, and what the poems could actually be about. We discussed them as best we could despite the fact the class were clearly flagging from the presence of the Inspector. 

All the time she was in the room, she did not move from her seat.  She spent a lot of  time thumbing through the paper-work, and showed complete dis-interest or indifference to the students. 

It was time for break so I let the students go for break, some of whom wanted to stay. She asked if I wanted feedback, so I said, "OK" (although, as you'll find out later, l should not have bothered) to get it over with even though I was:
a) desperate for the toilet
b) desperate for a cup of tea and.
c) desperate to get away from her and for it to be over. 

We walked down the corridor to an empty space near the 'posh bit' of the college where they have a conference centre. But, the feedback, didn't begin with feedback, but an interrogation (I can feel my blood boiling just thinking about it).

The Interrogation:

The first question, which she asked after having spent half an hour in my classroom with my students is what makes my blood boil, then evaporate a bit and I SO wish I was joking but here it is and it deserves making BIG and highlighting:

"Are you qualified to teach?" and I did explain, "Yes." without using rude words, involving 'off'. 

(I wish I had said, "Yes, and are you qualified to observe me?" or, "Shouldn't you have known that before you stepped into my classroom?" or, the  slightly censored version in my head being, "What the actual? Who the *bleep* do you think you are?"). 

A consequence of this question is that, to use a rugby term, I felt on the back foot here from the off, having to justify myself to her as she didn't seem to like anything that I had done. 

"How long have you been working here?" 
"Have you had any training since you've been here?" 
"The boy in the middle?" (There were two, she had student profiles with pictures and names on)
Me, "Which one, there were two sat in the middle?"
Wagging  her finger vaguely, "The one in the middle?"
Me, "His name would help."
"He has a C in English" 
Me, after doing a 'Sherlock' and working out who she meant I explained that was an input error as he only had a C in his course work, but not his overall grade. 
"Who inputs the information to the profiles?" (I didn't know and told her so)
And so on. Eventually she got round to the feedback. It wasn't much of an improvement from the interrogation. 

The 'Feedback'

She gave her criticisms whilst peering over her glasses like Umbridge from Harry Potter, whilst adopting a condescending tone (I know Andrew Old, I know): 

Inspector: Some of your resources had literacy errors, like a capital 'S' on semi-colon' - that's not good modelling of literacy is it? 

Here I felt fairly patronised and embarrassed, then rallied and told her I usually use it to my advantage and correct errors in front of pupils. Or that often pupils spot-errors and correct them. I wish I'd said, "Have you never seen Geoff Barton's session on Literacy at Wellington Education Festival? Have you read his book, 'Don't Call It Literacy!" where he discusses why teachers should share their errors with pupils and share how to correct them too." I didn't say it, but still wish I had.

Inspector:  They hadn't quite got semi-colons had they? 
My rebuttal: No, which means I need to go over it again with them. Which I will. 

I wish I'd said, "Do you know what that means? It means clearly no one has bothered to teach them semi-colons in the past 5 years of secondary school. They'd been given up on. That's what that means."

Inspector: Why did you use a resource from an American website? (referring to The Oatmeal)
Me: I have used it before and it helps with difficult grammar teaching, as long as you point out the different terminology and what it refers to in British Standard English and grammar, I don't see it as a problem.

Inspector: At times they looked a bit bored. 
Me: They are preparing for a Controlled Assessment, its the nature of the lesson before a Controlled Assessment which involves fairly didactic teaching. 

I wish I'd said. "I am NOT paid to entertain. If I was, I'd be on an awful lot more money than I am now. Have you bothered looking at my classes Controlled Assessment results? If I was as bad as you are implying, they would not be achieving the Bands/Grades that they are." 

Inspector: There was a missed opportunity when the student asked about the meaning of the word 'frolic' (I was baffled, what missed bloody opportunity?) - you should have checked the whole class understood. (I had, as far as I can remember). 

At which point, I had utterly switched off and was taking less and less notice of what she said. There were a few positives about the use of the Word clouds but: nothing about the level of challenge; she didn't look at ANY of their work in the lesson, so no comment on that (their writing warm-up work was brilliant!); nothing about the good relationship I have with the class; nothing about the good behaviour of the students; nothing about how well they were achieving; nothing about the progress I KNOW they've made since September. 

She had a very fixed view of what she thought I should be doing, and how students at college should be taught literacy and GCSE English. I could see her literally ticking off boxes as she went on with the feedback. I don't think I could have 'won' no matter what I did. All this did was show me the fickleness of lesson observation gradings and why they are of no help to me as a method to improve my teaching. Nor is it any use if your observer has no credibility and the "Are you qualified to teach?" question lost her any credibility she might have had. Why on earth should I take notice of anything she had to say to me after that?

Inspector: Grade?
Me: OK then. (knowing full well it wouldn't be a Good or better, it wasn't an Inadequate so knew what she was going to tell me)
Inspector: A three.
Me: OK...(I shrugged my shoulders and thought I'd better show disappointment then added)...I'd obviously prefer better. 

I then shot off down the corridor to find a toilet and put the bloody kettle on. 

When I came back after break and thanked the class for being aweseome - WHICH THEY DARN WELL WERE, Cheeky Lad said:

"I didn't like her.....I think she had her head wedged up her *rse"

Did I laugh? Oh hell yes, of course I bloody well did. 

I have since marked their most recent Controlled Assessment. What was lovely was seeing the more ambitious students using words from our writing warm-ups such as: grotesque, illuminate, atavistic, askance - along with new vocabulary from the poems they read -  the kind of words I know they would not have used in September, as they a) didn't know what they meant b) did not have the ambition, or motivation to do so. 

A message for FE Ofsted Towers:
Somewhere on my 'phone, I have the name of the inspector involved here. If you would like to know who it was, please direct message me on Twitter and I shall pass it onto you. 


  1. Hang on - grading individual lessons? That's not on at all, unless FE is still following such an outdated method.

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