Monday, 2 November 2009

Below is my latest article to be published in NATE News on the revised criteria for Ofsted lesson observations. Enjoy!

English (and Ofsted) at the Crossroads.

Phillip Jarret, HMI and Specialist Subject Adviser to Ofsted for English visited NATE council this September to introduce his team’s latest evaluation of English teaching in England. This article takes a look at the report and considers how far its findings are reflected in the new criteria for lesson observations used by Ofsted.

The recent report from Ofsted on the current state of English teaching, ‘English at the Crossroads’ should be essential reading for all NATE members. The report offers a stimulating and relevant appraisal of recent trends, as well as thoughtful and sometimes inspirational examples of good practice as case studies. To read a centrally produced document which takes such a qualitative approach is genuinely refreshing in a world in which English teachers increasingly need to be expert statisticians in order to defend their practice and their records.

I was intrigued to hear Phillip Jarret, HMI and Specialist Subject Adviser for English, Ofsted, speak about his report at NATE council in London last month. He presented the report with passion and with the obvious weight of expertise which one always hopes for from Ofsted. I found myself agreeing vigorously with his calls for the DCSF to help the most challenging schools recruit and retain effective teachers, for improved subject plans along with clearer curricular targets within schools as well as more consistent and effective marking of work. He identifies a need for independent learning opportunities (reading for pleasure anyone?) in the English curriculum, and for the quality and focus of homework to be improved. He also had some very interesting observations to make about the ways in which the most successful schools had embraced APP (Assessing Pupils’ Progress) as a tracking system and planning tool, rather than as simply a series of short assessment tasks. In short, there is something in the report to stir the interest of any English teacher, and the section on ‘Leadership and Management’ should be required reading for all subject leaders.

As a subject leader with an Ofsted inspection looming myself, I was intrigued to know how far the findings of this report have permeated down and helped inform the revised lesson observation criteria for section five inspections. Having recently observed a ‘Satisfactory’ English lesson as part of a mock Ofsted inspection which, by general agreement, would have been judged ‘Good’ under the old criteria, I am deeply concerned by some of the implications of the strong emphasis on evidencing ‘progress’ in the new observation criteria. The lesson in question was the fourth lesson my colleague had delivered to her new Year 7 English class in September. They were studying ‘The Ruby in the Smoke’, and were at the early stages of exploring the style, genre and plot of their class reader. We observed the first forty minutes of the hour long lesson before retiring to ‘make judgements’ or, if you prefer, reflect and share our perspectives. I was told by our visiting expert (a former English teacher) that the main reason my colleague should be judged ‘satisfactory’ was that there had been no reference to progression through the NC levels made in the early stages of the lesson. This was despite the fact that such references were a feature of her plan, and that explicit reference was to be drawn to this in the plenary (which we never saw). When I raised this point in her defence, I was told that the focus should be ‘relentless’ in terms of evidencing and referencing how students can progress. In all other areas, the visiting expert was full of praise for the lesson and for my colleague. Fair enough, you may think. But are we really at the stage where English teachers should mention levels or grades in the opening ten minutes of a lesson or face being damned as merely ‘satisfactory’? Is this ‘good’ practice anyway?

Thinking back to the excellent advice, for example on marking and feedback, in ‘English at the Crossroads’, there seemed to be something of a conflict here. I write not as someone with any particular axe to grind against the existence of Ofsted, or against inspections in general, but as a subject leader with a genuine fear that the new criteria are going to be looking for a language of assessment and an approach to pedagogy which is at odds with accepted good practice in our subject. We are told that Ofsted inspectors may only ‘drop in’ to a lesson under the new style of inspections. This visit may be as brief as ten minutes, and the implications of my particular experience (which may not be representative) is that teachers may need to make sure that they reference grade/level progression at some point in those ten minutes to stand a chance of being judged ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’. I asked Phillip about how far he felt section five inspectors would be aware of the findings and recommendations of his report, and his answer concerned me. There seems to be no way of telling whether inspectors are aware of the report’s recommendations, and very little link up between the work of the subject advisers and the section five inspection teams. I was depressed to hear him admit how rarely he sees speaking and listening lessons delivered when he inspects English teams; not because speaking and listening isn’t taking place, but because teachers have learned all too painfully that the type of reductive measures used to judge teaching and learning such as those I describe above can be harshly applied in the context of a classroom with a focus on oracy as a measurable skill.

The danger of the current inspection regime, it seems to me, is that delivering a reading lesson, for example, may not be an option many teachers would feel comfortable taking when faced with an Ofsted inspector. Is it perhaps far safer to focus on a lesson which explores one or two specific writing skills which can be wrapped up and exemplified in the study of some gobbet of text, mapped to the Assessment Focus and corresponding level ladder of the day, and churned out by the end of the lesson? The problem we face as English teachers (although it is surely not one unique to our subject) is that progress is not typically measurable in ten minute chunks. Progress should be central to all that we teach in English, but it is about something far less quantifiable than the ‘drop in’ style of lesson observation will ever be able to adequately identify. Anyone who ever fell in love with our subject knows that the breakthrough moments, the shining hours of pleasure in hearing a wonderful teacher read to you, and the life affirming confidence of knowing that you can finally express yourself adequately using our language, is more than an inspector can measure by employing such a methodology. Having heard Phillip Jarret speak to council, it seems he understands this (I wish he’d been my English teacher). His targeted subject inspections seem more thorough and considered, more contextual in their findings than whole school section five inspections can be. I’m just afraid that my colleague – and she’s a great teacher, never mind good – will carry with her that rather hollow and joyless advice she received this September and seek to be ‘relentless’ in the pursuit of ‘progress’, perhaps at the expense of the students’ pleasure and excellent or inspirational teaching.

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