Tony Powell, consulting educationist, looks at developments in observing teaching.


Recently, a Head asked me whether it is necessary to continue with lesson observations and if so, how and how many etc. The Head is part of a network and this is a recurring question over several meetings. I wondered to whether it is about recalcitrant staff and funding, but it remains a very good question.

My personal answer is that teaching is the most important activity of the school and therefore, there must be some direct observation. The nature of the observation, frequency and targeting all need to be decided according to the character and needs of the school and its staff, individually and collectively. This considered approach is great when you are working with individual schools, especially where governors are involved but with a group of Heads, it is not a sufficiently direct response. So, since nothing concentrates a Head’s mind better than their next Ofsted inspection, let’s consider what inspectors will look for.

Inspection from September 2019

There will be no changes to the way Ofsted inspects until September 2019. Inspectors will use the current common inspection framework (CIF) and accompanying handbooks. For the start of the academic year in 2019, there will be a new CIF and new handbooks and obviously these will be widely available to schools. We know that this will include changes in lesson observations because Ofsted has told us this and we have some indications of the changes in the report:

Six Models of Lesson Observation: An International Perspective (May 2018 — Reference 180022).

In November 2017, Ofsted hosted an international seminar on lesson observation. This paper reports on the observation models presented at the seminar and discusses how they may help Ofsted with future inspection framework development. Under the current Her Majesty's Chief Inspector (HMCI), Ofsted has become far more interested in learning from academic research and through working with other organisations. Nevertheless, it remains pragmatic and it is clear from the introduction by HMCI that Ofsted’s primary concern in the seminar was to inform possible changes in inspection procedures after September 2019.

“In no area was there more debate than on the key question of: what changes should Ofsted consider in developing lesson observation for its 2019 inspection framework?”

The observation models are interesting but not directly relevant to schools and were not designed to be. Schools should read the report with a focus on how the seminar and discussions will inform Ofsted changes.

What will not change

  • Lesson observation will remain a key component of inspection.

  • Direct observation will be triangulated against other evidence, including talking to pupils, scrutiny of work and data.

  • Ofsted will not grade individual teachers but will grade the quality of teaching across the whole school based on all the evidence gathered.

  • The “best fit”, ie the inspector’s professional judgment will not be replaced by a tick list system.

Common elements

Although there are differences in the models, there is considerable overlap. All six agreed that observers should consider:

  • the effectiveness of classroom management

  • the clarity of the teacher’s instruction

  • pupils’ attitudes and behaviour.

Observing learning

Currently, inspections grade the quality of teaching, learning and assessment. Yet all the international models and experts agree that learning cannot be directly observed in a single lesson because it takes place over time. It is true that inspectors look at a wide range of evidence to judge learning but equally, they evaluate whether good learning is taking place in the lesson. This will need to be resolved.

Subject-specific observation

This is an aspect that Ofsted wishes to develop but almost all models for observation are confined to generic teaching, except for some work in mathematics and language/literacy. This may be an area where Ofsted can take the lead, because HMIC’s subject inspectors have developed subject-specific grade descriptors alongside the generic descriptors and these include those for teaching.

Observation and the inspection inquiry

When Ofsted was first created in 1992, the inspection model was based on many inspectors, especially for secondary schools, staying in the school for a week. A huge number of lessons were observed across all subjects and at least 60% of the total inspection time had to be devoted to observing lessons. Today, all inspections have been dramatically slimmed down so the time available to gather first-hand evidence of teaching is minimal. In these circumstances, observation of teaching must be sharply focused by the inspection line of inquiry. The best way to show this is through an example.

In a primary school, results at the end of KS2 are consistently better in mathematics than in English. Inspectors must identify why this is the case. The main causal aspects are:

  • curriculum quality of subject planning

  • coverage of subject aspects

  • range of experiences

  • motivation

  • pace

  • care, guidance and support — pupils’ readiness to learn

  • teaching and assessment — staff subject knowledge, enthusiasm and expertise, delivery method.

Inspectors will first determine the school’s explanation through, eg the SES, the Head, governors and subject leaders. If this seems accurate, then verify. If unconvincing, they have the much longer task of gathering additional evidence. Both approaches will involve observing the quality of teaching in English and mathematics starting in Year 6 and working back.

Observation and self-evaluation

Observation for accountability

Ofsted does not judge individual teachers but schools must, and they must act where the evidence shows a teacher is ineffective. Heads have always known who their weak teachers are but observing them in the classroom means they cannot escape acting. This is required for example for performance management and for determining whether the teachers’ standards are met. These observations will be carried out by the teacher’s line manager or a more senior leader.

This type of observation must be differentiated by need. If there are lots of evidence that a teacher is highly effective, why observe them beyond the minimal requirement? Where the evidence is to the contrary, the teacher should be observed far more frequently, whatever the protestations.

Observation to share and develop expertise

Observations, such as those to develop subject expertise and peer observations can be very powerful models, and schools are increasingly interested in developing them. Examples include:

  • subject leader for history observes a history lesson and gives advice on developing subject-specific skills

  • following the above observation, subject leader amends and teaches the same lesson with teacher observing and giving feedback

  • parallel year teachers observe each other

  • teacher or subject leader plans, observes and gives feedback on a lesson delivered by a colleague.

Action planning — lesson observation

Consider the following.

  • Needs of the school — results against national averages, similar schools and between subjects in the school — the quality of teaching of individual staff.

  • Resources — senior staff, expertise for evaluation, funding for cover and staff release

  • Evidence base — current systems for monitoring and evaluation and the evidence this generates

  • Areas for investigation — eg use the key issues from the previous inspection — have these been fully addressed? What did inspectors do? What evidence did they gather when they identified them in the last inspection?

  • Retrace their steps — what is your evaluation?

  • What’s next?

Last reviewed 6 November 2018