Why Ofsted shouldn’t observe lessons

Ofsted state that the purpose of school inspection is to provide..

an independent external evaluation of its effectiveness and a diagnosis of what it should do to improve.

I want to ask a very simple question. “What information are Ofsted getting out of observing lessons that they can’t get in other ways?”

We are literally swimming in data about schools. Even if we just look at the information publicly available on the DfE website there are millions of data points. In addition to this the DfE holds the pupil level database. Add the public data to the pupil level data and there is a wealth of information about each school. This data is not just who got what result, but is also capable of in-school, local and national contextualisation, in effect enabling us to answer the question “Did this cohort of students get the results we would expect?”

Can data answer every single question we might have about a school? Clearly the answer to that is no. But I think its the wrong question. Given the wealth of data we should being asking how likely is it that an inspection team would arrive at a school expecting to find excellent teaching in a subject and fail to see it? And vice-versa, of course. This is implicitly acknowledged in the decision by Ofsted not to inspect schools it deems to be Excellent unless a desk review of the data indicates an inspection is necessary.

Here’s my view. Lesson observation by Ofsted, undertaken in the course of a typical section 5 inspection is a waste of everyones time. Such a snapshot of evidence, particularly part lessons observed by one person, is next to useless in comparison to the rich datasets that already exist before the inspection team sets foot inside the door. If a particular department is producing excellent results (both absolute and contexualised to both nationally and in-school) then what is a lesson observation going to tell the inspector? If a department is poorly performing in comparison to their school, then the same question.

Good schools that produce good results (and I don’t just mean in absolute terms) already have internal observation systems. Leadership in those schools use this information to focus improvements in the school so that teaching is improved where improvement is necessary. Good governing bodies monitor and ensure these systems are working. If none of this is happening then it will show in the data. A school, that has a poorly performing department (which the available data will show) should have lesson observation data on that department and evidence of how it is working to improve that department. If not, then that is evidence of poor leadership. Ofsted observing lessons in that department will add nothing to the picture.

What do we want to know about our schools? We want to know that they are producing the best outcomes possible for the students in the school. We want to know that students in the school are safe and well cared for. We also want to know the same is true for the staff working in the school. None of these things will be more apparent from lesson observations than they would be from intelligent data review, including well run surveys of students parents and staff. Unfortunately of course, we no longer have such things to rely on due to the rush to have no-notice inspections.

Ofsted should be restricting itself to inspecting the leadership of schools. It is poor leadership that leads to organisational failure so this is where the effort should be focussed. Ofsted should be asking:

  • Is there a formal observation process
  • Is there a formal departmental review process
  • Is there external moderation of internal reviews/observations (by say the head of a local ‘excellent’ school)
  • Are departmental improvement plans informed by departmental reviews
  • Are heads of department properly accountable for departmental improvement plans
  • Are departmental improvement plans monitored by the school leadership
  • Does the governing body monitor departmental reviews

Quality assurance is a continuous process not a single activity. And here is my real problem with Ofsted. Perversely, it focuses everyone’s attention on the single activity, i.e. the lesson that is being observed, rather than encouraging the development of a proper quality assurance process.

There are possibly those who would argue that the above is just a paper chase and a school could just create the right paperwork and pass an inspection. Well, not if the data doesn’t support what the paperwork is saying. If your school has a 100% KS2 L5+ intake and bottom quartile GCSE outputs, then it presumably won’t have an internal review system that says everything is hunky-dory. This is what Ofsted should be looking at.

In short, stop wasting time and everyones energy on unnecessary observations and focus on what is going to ensure long term continuous improvement. Good leadership.

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2 thoughts on “Why Ofsted shouldn’t observe lessons

  1. Is there not some place for joint observations, as a method of moderating the quality of teaching judgements of leadership teams?
    It’s not unheard of for kids in an affluent area with supportive parents to do well in spite of a school rather than because of it.

    1. I would see some form of local peer review operating. The school where I am a governor works with two other schools and they regularly do joint observations as a “reality check” on the internal observations.

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