Former Ofsted FE and skills inspector Phil Hatton was critical of a report from University of Wolverhampton academic Dr Matt O’Leary that raised “serious questions about the fitness for purpose” of graded lesson observations. This is Dr O’Leary’s response to Mr Hatton.

The University and College Union (UCU) research project into the use and impact of lesson observation in FE recently came in for some critique from Phil Hatton.

The project is the largest and most extensive of its kind carried out in the English education system and as such marks an important milestone in lesson observation research.

However, Mr Hatton seemed more intent on damning the report than seriously engaging with its key findings. This is disappointing but not surprising given that Mr Hatton seemed to have a particular axe to grind and, as it turns out, has not even read the report.

Mr Hatton describes himself as a ‘scientist’, yet there is a noticeable lack of empirical evidence or systematic argument in his article, much of which is based on personal anecdotes.

The fact that he dismisses the real experiences and views of thousands of UCU FE members displays a high level of contempt towards them. That he should also compare them to ‘turkeys’ voting for Christmas is an insult to the very serious issues raised in this research.

Whether or not he disagrees with the views of UCU members, to belittle them is disrespectful and irresponsible. It is clear Mr Hatton has not read the report in full and thus draws on his pre-established prejudices to support his argument, the antithesis of a ‘scientific’ approach.

Performance-driven observations are an extremely unreliable means of attempting to assess and measure professional competence

Mr Hatton takes issue with the representation of college managers in the study. The research sample included UCU members nationally. The fact that senior college managers comprised a small percentage of that sample is a reflection of the composition of UCU’s membership.

It has nothing to do with excluding a specific population group from the research, which Mr Hatton seems to imply in his comments.

A sample can only be drawn from the population in question. If Mr Hatton were to make the effort to read the report in full, he would indeed find there are numerous instances in which the views and voices of senior managers are included, often conflicting with those of teaching staff.

His comments suggest that he has little understanding of research methodology. If he did, then he would know that to reduce threats to the validity and reliability of any research, the methodology should be made explicit and transparent for all to see so that a judgement can be made on what data was collected, from whom, how it was collected and analysed etc.

Once again, had he read the report, he would realise that there is a section which discusses this in detail and is open to the external scrutiny of any reader.

Mr Hatton states: ‘I am very simplistic about my expectations of the FE system’. His simplistic position is not restricted to his expectations of FE, but extends to his conceptualisation of the way in which observation is used as a method and its role in informing judgements about professional competence.

In referring to a system of observation that he introduced at a college where he was responsible for managing quality, he conflates the use of grading performance with ‘identifying and spreading good practice’ as though this was something that is unproblematic and uncontested, let alone the disputed notion of what constitutes ‘good practice’.

However, in his defence, he does state that this was 18 years ago.

Times have certainly changed considerably since then and the failure to acknowledge the increasingly high stakes nature of graded observations in FE is merely one example of how out of touch he appears to be with the current debate.

His claim that ‘if you cannot put on a performance with notice, there has to be something very lacking in your ability’ is very revealing about Mr Hatton’s views of the purpose of observation.

He is right about associating the use of summative observations with ‘performance’. A key theme to emerge from the research data was the inauthenticity of the performance element of isolated, episodic observations.

There were repeated examples of ‘poor’ teachers raising their game for these one-off observations, only to go back to their poor practice for the rest of the year.

In contrast, some consistently effective teachers were so unnerved by these high stakes observations that they seemed to go to pieces during the observed lesson.

Thus the important lesson here is that performance-driven observations are an extremely unreliable means of attempting to assess and measure professional competence.

His final claim that ‘the best way of gauging the quality of the experience of learners is to observe what they are getting in a quantitative way, in a transparent way’ would seem a commendable suggestion, but it is one that belies the complexities of teaching and learning and seeks to measure them in a reductive and ultimately unreliable manner.

Let us continue to use observation to inform judgements about the quality of teaching and learning, along with other sources of evidence.

But let us also acknowledge its limitations and accept that the grading of performance is little more than a pseudo-scientific practice that gives rise to some very serious counterproductive consequences for the well-being of staff.

Dr Matt O’Leary, principal lecturer and research fellow in post-compulsory education at the University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (CRADLE), and author of Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning