A Little Meeting with Ofsted

Having been to the unmistakably impressive UCAS building in Cheltenham a few weeks ago as a member of the UCAS Teacher Training Advisory Group, I walked right past Ofsted’s London office. As an organisation, it holds such a prominent place in the English education system that you couldn’t possibly miss it, and for no very good reason I think I expected the offices to be impossible to miss too. Rectifying my error I engaged with the very pleasant G4S reception people and in short order Sean Harford came down to meet me and ushered squeezed me into a very bijou meeting room with Angela Milner. I think the ensuing discussion was helpful in clarifying for me some of the issues around ITE inspections and how these are going to work under the new, new framework, which has started but only on a small scale this year (I think there have been ten, part 1 inspections so far last term, so there will have been ten completed inspections by Christmas).

Previous reports of meetings with senior Ofsted people have been very positive and Sean and Angela didn’t let the side down. I think it was very much a discussion about where Ofsted are at with ITE inspection, and the thinking behind that position, rather than anything earth-shattering that might make a big difference in the future. We covered most of the things I have been thinking about, although there are a couple of things I might expand on a bit now the dust has settled (actually the Ofsted office wasn’t dusty but you really couldn’t have swung a cat in that meeting room).

If there was a theme to the meeting it was that Angela and Sean were very focused on the two closely tied issues of the Ofsted ITE remit, and the quality of NQTs in our schools. I got a sense of awareness – not so sure about sympathy – for the difficult decisions we have to make when viability of ITE provision, and quality of trainee teachers, are not necessarily served by the same choices but I think I came out of the meeting more aware than when I went in that essentially the Ofsted line is that they are commissioned to report on quality of ITE in terms of the quality of the NQTs produced and they do not see taking into account the difficulties that providers experience in achieving that, as part of their job. This came through most clearly in discussing validity of Ofsted grading. I had suggested that a provider might be performing minor miracles with weak trainee teachers but still come up short in comparison to another provider with the reputation to attract stronger applicants; Sean’s view was that children are only affected by the quality of the NQT, not the progress they’ve made to get there. I think he has a good point, however harsh that might be. The same theme came through with recruitment decisions – if a provider is accepting marginal applicants, that’s their call but Ofsted aren’t interested in how far their training takes them, only in how good they are at the end of it. If the alternative is to close down, or exacerbate the teacher recruitment shortage, that’s not an issue within Ofsted’s remit.

If you read my earlier blog on ITE inspections you may remember that I suggested the elephant in the ITE room was the School Direct route. I got a bit more of a sense of sympathy here – you can’t be involved in ITE without being very conscious of the enormous upheaval shifting so many places to SD has caused. Again, though, the message was that it’s the outcome that matters, not the training route. So ITE inspections will be looking at a mixture of PL and SD trainee teachers in part 1 and PL and SD NQTs in part 2, and whilst these will be looked at as separate groups (as for different subjects and phases) the quality of training is judged on the performance and no account will be taken of the route or the advantages of SDs greater experience in the one school, or the disadvantages of poorer opportunities for wide experience, or the difficulties of maintaining standards. So I guess that’s a level playing field, at least. If it’s harder to maintain high standards of training across SD provision then that’s tough on old framework Grade 2 providers that had to get heavily involved in SD to maintain numbers; if SD confers an advantage because more observed trainees and NQTs will be well-established in their schools then that’s tough on the Grade 1 providers that had protected allocations and didn’t see the writing on the DfE wall. So maybe it’ll all come out in the wash but it’s tricky for providers who have a tremendously difficult balance to strike between holding Alliances to account for weaknesses in their SD provision and not pissing them off so they go looking for a softer option, taking the money with them.

Perhaps more importantly, from the perspective of those not directly affected by ITE inspections, rolling PL and SD together in this way will make it difficult to judge whether SD is, in general, providing a better, worse, or just different training route. That’s a massive question and Ofsted are the only people likely to be able to make a reasonably impartial judgement. The DfE and NCTL have too much to lose, having promoted it so fiercely; and it’s caused too much damage to the established HEI providers for their view not to be easily dismissed as partisan. Ofsted still have work to do to persuade everyone that they are completely apolitical e.g. see this Times Higher Ed article but I would like to see them report on the overall quality of SD and their perception of the strengths and weaknesses of the model at some point in the future – maybe it will be late 2015 before they’ve inspected enough SD to have any useful evidence. Meanwhile, they could undo some of the damage from the March 2013 statement by Michael Wilshaw that seemed calculated to lend support to DfE and NCTL policy, by publishing an update on the relative performance of HEIs, against SCITTs and other employment-based routes – both Sean and Angela seemed to think that grade breakdowns were pretty comparable.

Of course, all this talk of measuring outcomes and judging the provider on the quality of the product still depends on being able to measure with accuracy, validity and reliability. I don’t think anyone meeting with Ofsted has come away with the sense that Ofsted believe their judgements are infallible and Sean was quite open about the possibility that not every inspection report was perfect. The discussion on how Ofsted might take this forward was very brief and, if I happen to find myself in this kind of situation again, it’s the area I would want to ask about more. I remain astonished at how quickly Ofsted seemed to roll-over when Rob Coe suggested individual lesson grades were unreliable (maybe that was an open door waiting to be pushed and really it was just the discrepancy between policy and practice that remained but Michael Wilshaw did respond with “Which ivory towered academic, for example, recently suggested that lesson observation was a waste of time – Goodness me!” so I don’t think it was a fait accompli). If Ofsted had engaged with research more they would either have already found themselves in agreement with Rob, or would have had the ammunition to hold their ground. I’m not suggesting individual lesson observation grades would be a good thing, and Sean didn’t miss the opportunity to state clearly that ITE inspections do not grade individual lessons, just that the response to Rob’s message suggests more uncertainty within Ofsted than they might be comfortable admitting.

Perhaps more of a thought out loud than anything stronger, but whilst there is obviously a moderation process as part of training inspectors, Sean did express an interest in what would be termed ‘blind second-marking’ in a university context. Interestingly he said something similar when he met Andrew Smith. It’s not an area I can claim any expertise in but I am pretty sure that there are various ways in which these measurement issues could be investigated. This data, showing that KS2 level across a cohort significantly influences secondary school Ofsted grade, is an example but there are much more sophisticated regression analysis techniques that might be relevant (although maybe Ofsted should be starting with Section 5 inspections rather than ITE if they are going to commission this kind of research).

A minor point about Part 2 of the inspection was clarified. The reference in the framework to NQTs/former trainees is purely because FE trainees don’t become NQTs so Ofsted definitely won’t be looking at any trainee beyond their first term as an NQT (or former trainee if in FE) during ITE inspections.

Both Angela and Sean were very clear that the Part 2 Inspection of NQTs was about how well-prepared they were, not some kind of bald snapshot of their teaching in one observed lesson. They were as quick to raise the sample size issue as I was and their model was quite a noticeable reflection of education research methodology where only large sample sizes allow conclusions to be drawn across contexts, but small samples often provide richer information because the data goes deeper and can be, in fact has to be, considered in context. I found this reassuring because it makes the precise timing of this part of the inspection less critical. I think the difficulty for providers will be that a lot will be riding on the way in which NQTs report their experience – the inspectors will need to be pretty astute to spot the NQT who has been given loads of personalised support and an extensive toolkit to take into their NQT year but hasn’t engaged with, and drawn on, it very effectively, as against the NQT given the same support and toolkit who can rattle off a list when asked and explain how they are using it.

I was pleased that Sean and Angela were talking much more about the quality of information and preparation for NQTs, and the quality of information passed on to schools, rather than the support provided to NQTs, particularly since an inspection team might be looking at NQTs outside the provider’s partnership. Some schools engage really well with the local HEI that has trained their NQT but many don’t, and aren’t keen to release NQTs for this purpose either, and it’s not something providers can always influence. Also, during Section 5 inspections in schools the inspection team will normally sit down with the NQTs and look at the support the school have provided, so that should help significantly in persuading schools that continued engagement with training providers might be worthwhile.

The final thing that came through loud and clear was that the focus on behaviour was going to become significantly stronger. I guess this is unsurprising in the week that Ofsted have published a report on low-level disruption in schools, and during a period when they are trying to move away from giving an impression that behaviour in typical schools is pretty good. I’ve put forward my views on behaviour training in ITE before and hope that everyone involved in training teachers can use this Ofsted priority to collaborate on finding best (or better) practice. I’m in no doubt that if inspection teams find NQTs struggling with behaviour, they will be asking hard questions about whether their training exposed them to a wide enough variety of kids and gave them the tools for the battle. Again, a lot is required of inspectors to correctly distinguish the NQT having a ding dong battle with a difficult Y10 class, but holding up and gradually turning the tide, from the NQT who wasn’t so well prepared but doesn’t have such a tricky class, or who never needed any help with behaviour. With that massive proviso I am prepared to concede that providers are not entirely at the mercy of the quality of the school their NQTs are working in.

My remaining bone of contention is the emphasis on Grade 3 trainee teachers being unacceptable. Angela was clear that the process of grading was holistic and involved working up from the bottom, to establish first whether all the Grade 4 criteria were met and then whether there was evidence to award the next grade up and so on, as described in the Handbook. To me that still seems as though one Grade 3 NQT might be a sticking point and Angela and Sean didn’t entirely convince me that it wouldn’t be. In effect I got the sense that, in making the grading judgement, the door might still be unlocked, if not ajar, if the provider could demonstrate a convincing narrative of significant personalised support, extended placement or additional experience, and clear advice and follow-up for both the NQT and employing school. If I’ve interpreted that correctly then I at least am clear that what we are doing at Southampton will be recognised by Ofsted but, as with the developing Section 5 inspection process, I do worry that the ability of the provider to narrate convincingly might be more significant than whether or not they’ve actually done the business. I also think that while the pressure for providers to convince themselves that a Grade 3 trainee is actually a Grade 2 is not quite so remorseless, it’s still definitely there. I don’t understand why that first sentence in the first criterion is included; surely stating that “Trainees demonstrate excellent practice in some of the standards for teaching and all related to their personal and professional conduct” would have covered it without preceding it with “All primary and secondary trainees awarded QTS exceed the minimum level of practice expected of teachers” [their emphasis]. The former statement is about the quality of trainees; the latter is about the numbers assigned to them.

So that’s my summary of what came out of the meeting. From my point of view it has clarified some of the intention behind the revised framework and demonstrated that Ofsted have at least understood the difficulties that remain with inspecting ITE providers in a way that genuinely recognises the best provision. It still feels like a big, and very pointy, stick to me, well a big and pointy axe, really. I guess we’ll have to see how well it’s wielded – the right intentions aren’t enough (and don’t even think about trying to wield anything in that meeting room). I wish any colleagues, inspected last term and waiting for Part 2, the best of luck (bet you didn’t get much summer holiday this year!). For what it’s worth, here’s what I would still like to see from Ofsted:

  • Get rid of the statement on outcomes that makes everyone paranoid about Grade 3 trainees rather than paranoid about whether they are doing the best for all trainees
  • Openly commission some research into validity and reliability of inspection judgements (fair enough if this starts with Section 5)
  • Continue to work with providers to find the best way to time inspections to avoid ‘funny’ weeks – Angela seemed keen on this
  • Be even more clear that sample sizes are small and judgements shouldn’t be skewed by particular incidents, or individual trainee or NQT performances
  • Be even more clear that it is the preparation of trainees, the package that NQTs take with them, and the extent to which they can draw on that package, that is being judged, and not just the quality of their teaching regardless of school support and context
  • Produce an update on the report about types of providers early in the life of the last framework – the data for all inspections under that framework must now be available
  • Consider producing an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses seen in SD compared to PL routes as soon as there have been enough inspections to do so

Many thanks, Sean and Angela, for making time to see me, and continuing the very welcome engagement of Ofsted with the people being inspected.

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2 thoughts on “A Little Meeting with Ofsted

  1. I’m not sure how Ofsted is ‘raising standards and improving lives’ (its own strap-line) by condemning children to a string of supply teachers of indeterminate qualifications or subject specialism by paying no attention to its own contribution to the shortage of teachers of maths and the sciences. A qualified teacher with a maths degree who is thought to be capable of continuing to improve his/her teaching in the NQT year and beyond (whilst not yet ‘outstanding’) must surely be better than having no maths teacher to put in front of the children. We’ve already seen Loughborough ceasing to offer PGCEs in the sciences, and we’ve lost the Open University PGCE courses as well. How many providers will follow? And will maths and science education in England really be better without them? I think not. Successful international competitors train their teachers in higher education establishments.
    Secondly, the insistence on all beginning teachers being ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ is actually doing no one any favours. When I speak to school colleagues they tell me that they think that some providers are inflating grades as a result. It is far better to know that someone has significant areas for development in their teaching, so that you can put support in place, than to get a teacher that you are told is ‘outstanding’ who isn’t. In fact, the obsession with grading is largely counterproductive. Every teacher has areas for development in his/her teaching, and whether or not these are significant depends very much on the context – are they teaching A Level students or Year 7, are they teaching in a school where there is a great deal of challenging behaviour or not, are they teaching top set or nurture group? So the information one really needs about a teacher is what are his/her strengths and areas for development – and then you deploy, and support, them accordingly – the grades really tell you very little.

  2. I appreciate what you are saying about grades for trainees. There are HEIs that don’t grade trainees at all – Cambridge for example. There isn’t anything in the Ofsted inspection framework that prevents a narrative on trainee teachers rather than a grade, and I suspect an inspection team would be VERY wary of critising lack of grades given the grief Ofsted have been through over graded lesson observations. However, in the past, there has been a very clear requirement for careful tracking of trainees progress, and the framework has this requirement that, effectively, all trainees need to exceed the Teachers’ Standards. Again, this could be done in a narrative way but that requires a certain boldness. Cambridge have the advantage of a reputation that gives them particularly strong applicants and a headstart in persuading inspectors that their approach is compatible with an Outstanding grade. However, unless Ofsted make some kind of unequivocal statement I think the majority of providers will continue to grade trainees, and actually I think there is some justification for this. I know what you are saying about shortage subjects but the schools in our area are occasionally, temporarily, short-staffed but the situation isn’t one that justifies allowing the small number of trainees that don’t get to the required standard to start taking responsibility for their own classes. ITE providers do need to be gatekeepers to the profession and I think grading is compatible with this. Finally, I have been clear that I think this requirement is a perverse incentive for providers to inflate trainees grades. I know this is not happening at Southampton but it wouldn’t surprise me at all if what you are hearing anecdotally elsewhere is true. I think if we had narratives rather than grades, this would be even more tempting.

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