Last reviewed 14 January 2013

The clear message from Ofsted is that the quality of teaching in a school is evaluated using a range of evidence in order to build up a “best fit” judgment, reports Tony Powell.

This is not a new approach — Ofsted has reaffirmed the point because there were a number of misconceptions in schools. In particular, many believed that Ofsted assesses the quality of teaching from some sort of averaging of the grades for lessons observed during the inspection.

The main points of guidance are:

  • inspectors evaluate how well teaching promotes the learning, progress and enjoyment of all pupils

  • inspectors consider the relative strengths and weaknesses in teaching and their impact on learning and progress.

  • teaching is judged by its impact on pupils’ learning and progress over time

  • inspectors will not look for a “preferred” teaching methodology

  • in any single observation an inspector will not expect to see every characteristic of outstanding teaching.

The evidence base

Triangulation of different types of evidence is central to the Ofsted methodology. Inspectors do not rely on observations alone to make judgments because it only gives part of the picture. It may also be that the quality of teaching during an observation is not typical. For example, some teachers may spend more time on preparation and planning.

Evidence about teaching

Before an inspection the lead inspector is able to look at evidence in a structured way. However, during the inspection different types of evidence are gathered. For example, an inspector may scrutinise books, then observe a lesson during which he or she talks to pupils, followed by a discussion with governors, etc. The evidence is then fitted together like a jigsaw.

For self-evaluation, schools can draw up a plan to analyse each type of evidence and build up an overall assessment of teaching over time against the grade descriptors. A logical sequence might look something like this, with some prompt questions that schools should add to.

Written evidence

Previous reports — what were the strengths and weaknesses identified for progress, teaching and learning?

Data analysis — how does attainment and progress compare to national averages? Does this point to good or outstanding teaching?

School self-evaluation — what is the school’s judgment on teaching? Has teaching improved since the last inspection?

School improvement plan — is improving teaching a priority? What strategies has the school adopted?

School policies such as teaching and learning — are policies clear, well-structured and relevant?

Surveys and questionnaires — does the school ask for views on the quality of teaching? Are these views favourable?

In the school

Learning walks — are public areas clean, bright and attractive? Does the environment celebrate the work of all pupils? Does display cover a range of subjects but in particular literacy and numeracy?

Classroom organisation — how are classrooms and resources organised? What does this tell you about teaching and learning strategies?

Pupils’ work — do pupils take a pride in their work? Is there evidence of differentiation? Is all work marked?

Discussions with pupils — do pupils like school? Do they feel they are making good progress?

Discussions with staff — do staff take pride in their school? Are they confident that they can improve teaching?

Lesson observation — are pupils engaged and making good progress? What is the teacher doing to achieve this?

Some common myths about good teaching

This is the title of one of the sections from the report: Moving English Forward. As well as misconceptions about how Ofsted gathers evidence, there are fallacies about what inspectors look for. This can distort the nature of teaching in an inspection and also at other times. If senior staff share this flawed view the school may inadvertently promote ineffective strategies. The common myths are as follows.

Fast pace: some teachers believe the faster the lesson, the better the learning. While inspectors stress that pace is important, teachers too often focus on the pace of their planned activities rather than the pace of learning. As a result pupils do not have time to concentrate and persevere.

Too many activities: the false belief is the more activities in the lesson, the more effective it will be. This is often counterproductive, as activities may be changed so often that pupils do not complete tasks and learning is not consolidated or extended.

Over-detailed and bureaucratic lesson plans: excessive detail in plans causes teachers to lose sight of the central focus on pupils’ learning.

An inflexible approach to planning lessons: school policies sometimes insist that all lesson plans should always follow the same structure. Also, evidence suggests that teachers often feel that they should not alter their plans during the lesson. Inspectors believe that a structure is helpful to teachers but they need the confidence to depart from their plans if early indications are that the pupils know more or less than the teacher had anticipated.

Limited time for independent work: pupils rarely had extended periods to read, write or discuss issues in class. Inspectors observed lessons where pupils were asked to self- or peer-assess work before they had been able to complete more than a sentence or two, while the inspectors’ priority is to evaluate the quality of pupils’ learning in lessons.

Constant review of learning: some teachers will spend considerable time getting pupils to articulate their learning, even where this limited their time to complete activities and thereby interrupted their learning! Pupils need time to complete something before they can valuably discuss and evaluate it.

Teachers should be encouraged to be creative and adventurous in their teaching, and to vary approaches depending on the nature of the learning planned for the lesson. Above all, they should focus on the key actions that affect pupils’ learning and progress within lessons.

Good practice films

Ofsted has begun to produce videos and podcasts to illustrate surveys. Two of these have been recently published and are excellent resources for addressing the issue of evaluating teaching over time in primary schools, since they show evidence from a range of classes across the school and also contain commentary by staff:

  • St Thomas of Canterbury School — English (14 minutes).

  • Heversham St Peter’s Primary — mathematics (19 minutes).

Both can be accessed via the Ofsted website. Type “good practice films” into the search box.

Both films are short enough to show in a staff meeting and still leave a reasonable time for discussion. They also illustrate different but complementary messages on promoting good and outstanding teaching and learning.