Observing the Observers:

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Ross Morrison McGill founded @TeacherToolkit in 2010, and today, he is one of the 'most followed educators'on social media in the world. In 2015, he was nominated as one of the '500 Most Influential People in Britain' by The Sunday Times as a result of...
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This is a blog about my experience of teaching and learning (under the revised September 2014 framework) when Ofsted enter your school gates. This blog is not about the overall experience and the various areas that are judged during a Section 8 inspection visit. This is all about inspectors observing lessons without gradings!.

No More Grades Ofsted Inspectors:

Audio introduction:


In September, I blogged about What are @OfstedNews Now Saying? in which I stated that although the guidance for teaching and learning had changed for the better, it still needed to be reduced in content. Since I posted this over 8 weeks ago, 18,000 of you have chosen to read this blogpost! I ask for less stipulation on what should and should not be accepted in lesson observations and have made my views known in blue font in this blog alongside the Ofsted framework for teaching and learning.

I fear these updates are only adding to the minutiae of ‘teaching according to Ofsted’, rather than ‘Ofsted, according to teaching’. Although to be fair, Ofsted are listening and changes are coming as a result of teachers tweeting, blogging updates ‘according to teaching.’ You just need to take a cursory glance at the text highlighted in red font in this blog, to see how much detail has been added to dispel any myths and clarify anomalies.

The Day Before:

In the 3rd week of the new academic year, and into my third week as deputy headteacher, I received a call over the ‘walkie-talkie’ asking me to leave lunch duty and come over to the headteacher’s office. I calmly made my way, half-suspecting the unusual break in routine to be ‘the call from Ofsted’, and as I approach our admin. corridor, I quietly mouthed the word ‘Ofsted‘ as I approached my deputy colleague. I could tell in an instant, that the expression in her face was just that. We had received the telephone call.

As I grabbed my planner and pen, I entered my heatdeacher’s office who was still mid-call! After a short briefing between deputies and the head, we emailed staff and then arranged a short briefing after school. At the end of this meeting, I led an impromptu 5 Minute Lesson Plan CPD session to all teaching staff and gave them the option to plan their lessons a) quicker and b) focus on learning and not the teaching. n.b teaching staff have been producing 2-3 pages of lessons plans, from what I can gather, for a long period of time!

Evening Preparation:

After answering staff questions, I set about introducing a new Learning Walk proforma for senior leaders to use in paired observations with inspectors. This was a chance decision for me, because a) I wasn’t quite sure of the templates currently being used in the school; b) unsure of how confident colleagues would be able to use a new document during such a high-stakes process and c) a mixture of old and new processes.

My justification for this, was having used this format for several years I was confident of its success. And secondly, keeping in mind the new Ofsted framework and no-more-lesson-gradings, I set about amalgamating this tried-and-tested ‘What Went Well and Even Better If’ formative observation document shown below;

In with the new:

Formative Lesson Observation Ofsted

Out with the old:

On the other side of this document, I added a detailed crib-sheet that my school had been accustomed to using last year. In essence, this is the Ofsted framework for teaching which is displayed in a grid, divided into the 4 categories we are all too familiar with. Note, this model was curated for judging overall teaching and learning across a school, not individual lessons. This is where so many of us have gone wrong! Nonetheless, the document serves a very useful process for judging the overall quality of teaching and learning across the school and a useful self-evaluation exercise for individual heads of department. It was shared as a prompt for sourcing evidence over time and not as a tick-list.

Judging Teaching Over TIme Gradings Ofsted

Best fit:

This aside, the reason I included this second document into our template for the Ofsted process, was that the school have been using a system like this for graded observations. Therefore, I wanted to ensure they were equipped with systems they were familiar with, as well as having an aide mémoire to use for every observation. I was keen to push the formative model from the outset, even during high-stake assessment, such as Ofsted.

This document was a best-fit for using both models for myself as overall lead for teaching and learning, as well as established colleagues moving towards a new framework. On reflection, senior leaders all said that the proforma was very useful. The final document can be previewed below and you can download the template by clicking the image. The long term aim is to remove the judgements from the crib sheet and the four divisions. My intention is to move towards an evidence base and define this, as well as a definition of what is good / not yet good.

Formative Lesson Observation OfstedLeading on T&L:

Once I had created the proforma, I left work at 9pm (the time the school building was locked) and tweaked a few details before sharing vital information with my new leadership team at 11.30pm. I emailed my them the following information:

Ofsted Email Leadership

The above email was supported with a list of key questions to ask students in lesson observations. I am keen to use this as an ‘evidence base’ for gathering evidence of ‘good teaching over time’. I will share this in the future once I have established our own Progress Over Time model for observations. I will probably grow this document alongside a version of this book observation template.

Observing the Observers:

If you ever need evidence of what Ofsted does to a school and how an inspection can offset the balance of those that work within them, going to bed at around 1am Mr. Wilshaw, and after just 4 hours sleep, I was at my desk by 6am preparing timetables, handouts and cover for the day (plus repeat for Day 2) should be enough proof of the damage an inspection can bring to the wellbeing of teachers working in schools.

Day 1:

Inspectors observed 31 parts of lessons, 10 of them jointly with 5 members of our senior leadership team. Observations included tracking the learning of specific groups of students, such as the most able and those from minority ethnic groups. Some lessons were literally just ‘popping in’ and walking through, whilst others were 10-15 minutes in length.

I had advised the inspection team not to observe one member of staff; and they also visited another teacher three times within the first morning. I carefully pitched a question which hardened my belief:

“Could you clarify your strategy for observing the same member of staff three times this morning. Was it planned or purely accidental?”

The reply from several inspectors;

“It was accidental!”

Shouldn’t the lead inspector (and the team) devise a plan before leaving their briefing room? This would ensure the process had less human-error. Nonetheless, I must stress that the inspection team were very apologetic and our teachers were unfazed. It was a minor issue in the grand scheme of things and I was doing my best to keep focused on the bigger picture.

Throughout day 1, all core subjects remained the main focus of the morning.

Feedback was offered to teachers at the end of the day. At approximately 4pm, inspectors gathered with those senior leaders involved in paired observations. I had been teaching for most of day 1, so was not involved in any observations – nor the receiver of any – but I made it my prerogative to be present. The lead inspector provided the context and reminded us all that at no point should lesson gradings be made or be offered. My spine tingled with glee and the meeting with Mike Cladingbowl and the Ofsted Five raced through my mind. At no point did this meeting arise in any conversation.

After all declarations of interest in lesson-gradings had been made, each member of the senior leadership team took their turn to discuss each of the lesson observations they had conducted with an inspector, highlighting ‘what went well’ and ‘even better if’.

Image: www.huffpost.com

After each member of the leadership team provided feedback, the relevant inspector who was part of that (actual) paired observation retorted with their own perceptions. On occasions, questions were asked and short discussions ensued. All in all, the process was much less provocative. If I could put ‘my Grim Reaper hat’ on for a moment and ask the inspectorate, why on earth are teachers not involved in this paired feedback?! I know ‘timing’ is the obvious answer, but is there an opportunity missing here?

In summary, the process is much less softer than what I have encountered in any Ofsted inspection throughout 1998 to 2013. Playing the game of cards with an array of poker faces is no longer needed. The upper hand lies solely with the school, who (should) know the quality of teaching and learning better than any inspectorate team. After-all, you are in a school every-single-day and the ‘progress over time’ model equips everyone (including inspectors) to make an informed judgement of overall quality, regardless of what they see in individual one-off lessons.

The inspectorate team left at around 5-6pm and the work continued into the night, starting off with another with another quick CPD session to teaching staff on questioning strategies and stretch. A leadership team followed the inspectors departure, followed by a further deputies and headteacher meeting. I then set about designing an evidence trail timetable for day 2, as well as my own lesson plans for the next morning.

Despite 5 hours sleep, I felt much more relaxed for day 2.

Day 2:

During day 2, there were far less observations conducted. Based on day 1 feedback to the headteacher, I had prepared a timetable of ‘where to go-find’ supporting evidence. This timetable included a range of possible sources where inspectors could go-see evidence in answer to their queries. I have no confirmation either way of whether of not this was used. I also failed to ask at the end of the process.

I do know much less observations were completed on day 2 and by lunchtime, none at all. We had already indicated this to our staff. Throughout the day, dare I say, I thought I heard a teacher walked past my corridor and utter the words, “I got a Good!” Although I cannot confirm this and spent the next 2 days after the inspection trying to confirm the words I thought I had heard. Although, I am confident that I did hear an inspector say to one of my colleagues on the corridor outside my office, “if you could have, what would you have given?”

Again, I have no firm proof and I do wonder if I was hoping to ‘hear’ anything so that I could point the finger. Do bear in mind, I had only slept for 10 hours over the past 48 hours, so delirium may have started to kick in!

Later on in day 2, I met with my designated inspector for areas I had whole-school responsibility. The Ofsted documentation was a paramount feature here as we ploughed through the required conversation, pausing to write ‘key statements’ onto their evaluation form. It was painful. Despite this, given that I was new to the school, having a good grip on appraisal, teaching and learning and staff development (in general) enabled me to support the school with my own personal embedded knowledge.

All in all, the entire inspection process was fair, robust, supportive and humane. On the whole, not one single lesson-grading was given to any teacher. The slight human errors can be forgiven, because clearly there were no rogue inspectors in this team.

Dare I say, I think the Grim Reaper may now have a softer side?

Grim Reaper gone soft Ofsted Lesson gradings


The picture of teaching and learning can be summarised as follows:

  • Ofsted did recognise that our “current drive for improvement is unremitting”, yet within the classroom, “the quality of marking is not consistently diagnostic to help students improve their work.” The quality of teaching, over time, is not good enough in all subjects to ensure that all students achieve their full potential at the end of the key stages.
  • Develop teaching and learning to ensure that, over time, all teaching is typically good or outstanding by improving and sustaining the achievement of students in a wider range of subjects and;
  • ensuring that teachers know how well students are doing through using assessment accurately to identify students’ progress and targets, and marking their work diagnostically to help students improve their work.

Before the inspection, we had already started to initiate much of the above, and this will take time for us to have systems embedded so that teaching is consistently good over time. You can read more about what we have already started here:

  1. Let’s Talk About Teaching (What is a Good teacher?)
  2. Power to the People (CPD)

If you ever need a way in to a new school – and leadership team – Ofsted is a sure way to make this happen! I was in at the deep end from the beginning, close up with colleagues in challenging meetings and at times, for up to 14 hours per day. On reflection, Ofsted was a very supportive process and our outcome is a fair reflection of the journey the school has been on over the past 2-3 years and where we are heading!

I’d like to take this moment to thank my colleagues for their hard work, as well as the welcome I have received over this first half-term. We have much to do and there are exciting times ahead for teaching and learning.


Finally, it is very significant that Ofsted liked what they saw in our classrooms, but our headline results determined our overall teaching and learning grade. If our results had been higher, then our grade for teaching and learning would have too. Therefore, if outcomes require improvement, then teaching and learning over time cannot be better, which makes one wonder what significance no grading of lesson observations actually has on the outcome, although it had a huge impact on the process.

What next?

  • From the result of this tweet at the end of day 1, @OfstedNews and @ASCL_UK have come together to organise an event for schools, teachers and leaders to come together to share views – particularly those who have experienced teaching and learning (and no lesson gradings) under the new framework, as well as an opportunity for others to come together to gather opinion.
  • According to ASCL, 74% of schools are still grading individual lessons today.
  • Given that PiXL has just reported that the national average for 5A*-C (inc. Eng and Maths) is now 55%, there is an opportunity for schools to consider Good teaching overall if their school results are in line with national averages.

29 thoughts on “Observing the Observers:

  1. It would be great if all Ofsted inspectors actually read/knew the guidance. I was present at a talk yesterday by a recently qualified inspector who talked in direct contradiction to the guidance published on Friday by Ofsted (Clarification for Schools) – particularly on the subject of lesson judgements and feedback. Until Ofsted disseminates its decisions/rulings/changes properly to everyone including inspectors, the situation will remain a bit of a lottery, with some inspectors continuing to judge individual lessons and expect lengthy ‘conversations’ in students’ books.

  2. “the quality of marking is not consistently diagnostic to help students improve their work.”

    This worries me a bit. Ofsted’s clarification last week included the weasel words “unnecessary” and “extensive”. It seems to me that we are in for another period of Ofsted central office pleading innocence about demanding specific things while inspections on the ground do just that (last time, lesson styles – this time, marking) , providing fearful SLTs with an incentive to demand maximum arse-coverage through unreasonable marking policies.

    Otherwise, glad it went ok for you, and I hope you and your colleagues catch up on your sleep.

      1. “why on earth are teachers not involved in this paired feedback?! I know ‘timing’ is the obvious answer, but is there an opportunity missing here?” This happened during our inspection in March. Just the once, tho, with the lead (HMI) at my behest. She was unfazed and this type of guerrilla tactic seemed to add credibility to our judgments

  3. Ross, thank you for taking the time to write about your recent experience of the Ofsted inspection. It is great to learn that that you felt it was genuinely a supportive process and the findings were fair overall. It is also good to learn that at the time of the visit the lead inspector reinforced the points about not grading individual lessons or providing them in feedback.

    This last point seems to be incongruent with the criteria used for reaching the overall grade for the quality of teaching in a school. The inspection handbook makes it clear that for the quality of teaching to be graded outstanding much teaching is outstanding and never less than consistently good. Did the inspection team explain how they determine “much” and “consistent”? Are the two terms not connected with adding up i.e. much is related to “lots of” and consistent is related to “again and again”? If so what is being added up to judge the much and what is being added up to judge the consistent?

    If individual grades are no longer being awarded to lessons then it seems to me that the criteria for reaching the overall judgement of the quality of teaching need to change in order to reflect this.

    1. Hi Terry. Thanks for the comment. Any good inspection team will clarify criteria and myth, particularly new lesson-grading landscape. I’d be worried if they didn’t.
      The lead did refer to overall grading transcript regularly and it was a best fit, despite addressing some evidence in one area and also the other. It ultimately narrowed down to one or two key words. Such as, some or most etc.
      Consistent = evidence of Good teaching over time refers to evidence of data, progress from entry to exit by key stage, books and typicality.
      I agree, the teaching grade should NOW be removed and amalgamted with the overall grading within ‘Achievement.’

  4. I need some advice on how to summarise quality of learning over time for individuals and teams if there are no longer quantitative measures……..any ideas?…..I have the evidence base, ie lesson observations/work scrutinies/student progress but unsure how to put it all together!. I have internally judged lessons using grades but only for my own reference.

      1. Yes I have of course equated grades to qualitative measures instead but any tips or guidance on how you bring those individual judgements together…..

  5. Thank you for sharing all this. We are just moving away from grading lessons. My question is how do you answer the question from Ofsted ‘what is the quality of teaching at your school.’ I am assuming we still make judgements but not based on lesson observations – but on a range of data including student progress over time. So there will still be judgements given to the inspection team? I think we need a data base for gathering the information needed – any suggestions?

    1. I have blogged about sourcing progress over time (i.e. quality of teaching) before. There are 4 or 5 key sources of qualitative information: Marking. Student conversations. Typicality and Support (search within blog for this); the teaching observations (informal and without gradings) and student data over time; taken from teacher assessment / data drops. I have never given judgements to the inspection team, but have provided an overall picture of T&L based on best fit within the current Ofsted framework.

    2. I agree Suzanne that is the advice that I need. I would be able to give evidence for each source but not sure how to combine the individual judgements together.

  6. we dropped lesson judgements in January 2014, we revised our lesson observation proforma to incorportae the non grading of lessons and have two observers for each observation to develop their own teaching and learning- they are given time (not enought but still it is time…) to discuss the lesson and feedback with a focus on the quality of teaching, what went well and the key development that would enhance the lesson.
    No grading has helped develop a culture in our school of lesson observations not being threatening, but being non-judgemental ( i hope!)
    our teaching was graded “good” last inspection adn it would be interesting to se ewhat they now say with this method now being used…

  7. Pingback: Has Twitter calmed my Observation Nerves… | educating miss

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