On the Topic of Grading Lessons and OFSTED... I Disagree

It's no good, I can't stand by, watching and listening to the current Twitter frenzy about abolishing lesson grading without offering my view. Perhaps I'm going mad.

I both disagree and agree, but if you push me, I disagree with the current push to 'abolish' lesson grading. I can see the subtlety, the rationale, I just think that it is the wrong solution to a question that hasn't quite been defined yet.

Never one to avoid controversy, if I believe strongly in what the right thing to do is, I'm fully aware that at least as far as Twitter is concerned, I'm swimming against the tide. Sorry, I'm just sharing my view.

The easiest summary of my view is based upon two things:

Firstly, the fact that context is everything. The stage of development of a school through the journey from 'Inadequate to Outstanding' (if using OFSTED grades at all isn't now heresy) is everything when considering the need for, and the use of, lesson observation. On a national scale, what is being discussed is the view of individual leaders in education with their by definition, narrow direct experience of context, versus a national body which must be fit for purpose to inspect all types of school, over the fully differentiated range from truly 'Outstanding' through to thoughts of closure. In a previous school in which I worked, when we were, as a school, 'Inadequate' and 'Requires Improvement', we had a very differentiated staff and needed to very clearly identify and target support, direction and intervention. We needed to know our staff and communicate where improvement was required, without ambiguity. As the school progressed through to 'Outstanding', lesson observation became more subtle and indeed became an active part of the lesson, which is very possible when all staff are operating towards the higher levels of ability. At that time, we could have operated without grades, but I feel we would have lost more than we gained, since many, many staff would have been robbed of the elation of being told that they had taught an 'outstanding' lesson or been re-affirmed that they were very good. Yes, I know this can be done in words, but you have to be a very skilled communicator to exactly feed back in words alone, so that there is no ambiguity and that there is focused clarity. In any case, if you are using key words to give clarity to the message, isn't that a grade in a word?

Secondly, in order to track large amounts of data, you need to tame the data, the most effective manner being to convert the information into numbers. Once data is in numeric form you can track trends to focus attention and action. I'm fairly computer literate and am quite able to graphically analyse letters or words, just as numbers, however, even then, you need a letter or word to begin with. If we all abandon grades, what comes then? Just words? Key Words? Are we all going back to the 'old days' where leadership teams didn't really know who their good or better staff were? Will we know who is steadily improving, or who is in decline and needs a pep talk? Will I know about the class that achieves despite their teacher? I can hear readers thinking, 'of course we'll know'. In small schools with 10 to 20 staff, possibly, when you have 100 to 200 staff? There will be those that will say that 'of course we will keep records, it is just the grading of lessons that will change'. What will happen, will observation dialogues be filed and the data 'lost', or will the non graded lesson form be analysed to extract a grade and then that be entered onto a computer? Wouldn't it have been easier to give one in the first place? Quality leadership teams will retain data, so that they have, as it were, 'the ammunition' if required when confronted by an OFSTED team. What will they do, quietly record grades without telling the teacher? Is it not better to tell the teacher?

There seem to be an awful lot of people suddenly drawing attention to the fact that OFSTED are saying that they do not grade individual lessons and that they draw a much broader view of teaching and learning across a school. In the framework it has always been this way overall and has not changed since 2009. I know that OFSTED are now trying to get the message wider and are starting to think of new development, however, not much has changed. For the last decade or so, I and others have looked at the OFSTED criteria for judging teaching and learning across a whole school and then edited it to become fit for the purpose of judging individual lessons. The difference is that there is now a subtle move towards judging the learning that generally takes place in that lesson rather than the individual lesson. Good schools have always used a broad range of information to judge the quality of its staff, this will not change, nor will it for OFSTED. I know that I'd rather deal with an OFSTED team that tell me grades, which we can discuss, rather than no grades and then find out later that we misunderstood the degree of their words.

Regarding observation, you have to know why, then how, you are going to do it, what you will do once you have done it, and what the outcomes and actions will be following the observation. I have always said that every lesson observation should be a professional development opportunity, with time put aside for feedback and resultant actions. Every school leader should be clear that there are two very important aims for any lesson observation programme. Firstly, to coach and support improvement for the teacher with their learners. Secondly, to add to the picture of overall self-evaluation for the school for the leaders to be able to plan next steps and actions and to match those with areas of weakness with those who have the same area of strength as a coach.

It is quite difficult to 'grade' a lesson accurately, the wider the scale, the more difficult it is, as anyone that has tried to do so on any scale will know. Put any group of observers together watching a singular lesson and they will have a range of views. It is because of this that in my current school we have put an extraordinary amount of time into moderating and validating observation. Since I arrived last summer, every single lesson observation has been conducted by pairs of observers, to moderate and discuss the quality of the lesson. The lesson is discussed and moderated before being fed back. Time consuming, but robust, and fair.

There will be those readers who like to pose the question around why 'comment only marking' is good for children, but not then for teachers, formative assessment, etc. Well, I don't know of those who like comment marking or the non-regular use of grades for students, who don't also think there should be periodic graded assessments or annual examinations. The marking happens weekly, routinely, not a few times a year. Pop in lesson observations, chats, quick looks, book trawls, are all the teacher equivalent of routine marking, the formal observation is just that, not a regular occurrence, a periodic assessment. Incidentally, I do not either believe that teachers should be stressed by being told in advance that an observation is coming. All of our observations are unannounced, to see what normally occurs, no stress beforehand and no expectation of a one-off show lesson. Neither is lesson observation tied to Performance Management since periodic observations are not a complete picture of a member of staff. One thing is clear, I will observe lessons since it is one key way of monitoring and supporting my staff, it's my job.

The first thing that I do in any school in which I lead, is to set up a database recording the abilities of all staff. This database categorises all staff into 7, not 4 categories, utilising all evidence that we have and tracking lesson observations over time; Coach, Outstanding, Good, Requires Improvement, Concern, Watch and Action. Yes, I have told and openly shared with my staff. Over time the categories have adapted to use the various OFSTED terminologies for overall teaching, since otherwise how does a conversation go with an inspector asking me what the percentage good or better teaching is, etc? However, crucially, the database has all information about all staff on it, including individual lesson observations over time, value-added examination data, marking trawls, surveys, etc. This large body of information enables me to judge where I think an individual member of staff is in their development and to have a whole school overview to enable me to plan. I can also team up staff matching strengths with weakness for coaching, etc. Do all outstanding schools do this? I would like to think so. This actually mirrors the OFSTED process in many ways, and indeed, OFSTED have celebrated the methodology.

The name of the grade is not important. Whilst the OFSTED grades are useful, they can be used, or not. When I observe a lesson I can think that a lesson was exceptional, or really quite good, ok with weakness or not very good at all. Every school leader knows that they can do the same. I've never been hung up by the OFSTED criteria, or the progress in 20 minutes fiasco, but you know, broadly, was it good, or not? Are those students getting a good deal? You will be able to talk to students, look in their books, just as OFSTED do, and you can judge, you can see. The names don't matter, the dialogue with the teacher will be the same, but a system that all understand and a way of recording the dialogue is needed, even if only to ensure that clarity was achieved. The grade is the outcome, the overall picture and it forms a part of the picture of the progress of that teacher.

So, what has been achieved if grades for OFSTED go? Well, lack of clarity, assistance to misunderstanding and the ability for anyone to say whatever they like about what they meant rather than the pinning of a grade with its immovability. What is the problem with the use of a grade to summarise what was thought; punchy, clear and unambiguous? I'll still be using grades, as will most schools, the only difference may be that I will be up front and open and for friendliness I may change the scale to 1: Exceptional 2: Great 3: Not Great.