The Ofsted pilot in which graded lesson observations will be dropped from FE and skills inspections, as revealed by FE Week, is evaluated by Phil Hatton.

At first I thought FE Week was doing a late — or an early — April Fool’s Day skit on seeing the headline about Ofsted dropping graded lesson observations, partially in response to a report that gives a particularly one-sided view.

The report by Dr Matt O’Leary, is based on the views of thousands of University and College Union (UCU) members (the ones who have posters in colleges saying ‘no to graded observations’) and very few college managers.

As a scientist myself, this does not seem a particularly valid methodology for conducting research, unless you want to load the dice (or as valid as asking turkeys to vote for Christmas). But what is this observation phobia of the last few years really all about?

I am very simplistic about my expectations of the FE system.

Students should get mostly good teaching as an expectation. Those entering the profession, whether as an assessor in work-based learning or a teacher in a college, should want to aspire to be good teachers – otherwise why bother?

I would also expect, as part of a sensible selection process, for all new staff to have conducted some form of ‘mini-teach’ as part of an interview day.

Giving feedback to someone who is doing a reasonable job of teaching, but saying they require improvement rather than being satisfactory is a world apart

On my first day in a college back in 1979, the senior lecturer in charge of applied science told me with a smile that I would probably not be watched in my teaching throughout my entire career, and that I should not to worry about how good a teacher I was.

There were inspectors at the time, who sometimes visited colleges, but it was very much a ‘hands off’ approach to gauging quality. Hence their ineffectiveness and eventual demise.

When I introduced a system of observation about 18 years ago at the college where I managed quality, observations were graded, but with a real focus on identifying and spreading good practice.

The unions agreed to this and the lead union representative was probably the best single teacher I have ever observed. At the same time the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC) was inspecting, with graded observations that were actually published in reports, but with little of the objections that are currently being voiced.

Ofsted’s policy shift (or rather Sir Michael Wilshaw coming into Ofsted and wanting to make an immediate difference, telling inspectors what he wanted with no consultation on the likely impact) to re-classify grade three from “satisfactory” to “requires improvement” has had a completely negative impact on the use of graded observations in judging teaching and learning both on inspection and in internal quality improvement of teaching and learning (there was good reason to shake up those who repeatedly got grade threes as institutions).

This quickly translated into the four-point grading becoming two Ofsted grades in reality, two or above or below two.

Giving feedback to someone who is doing a reasonable job of teaching, but saying they require improvement rather than being satisfactory is a world apart, both during inspection and as part of internal quality improvement.

Some inspectors shy away from spending enough time to grade when they see where an observation is going and turn what would have been a graded observation, into an ungraded learning walk.

Hence there is a very different playing field to that which existed two years ago. The UCU, doing its best to protect the interests of its members rather than learners, lobbies for a three-week notice of observation, hopefully of an agreed session.

If you cannot put on a performance with notice, there has to be something very lacking in your ability. To be effective in giving students a good experience, managers surely need to know what the student is getting every day, not at a special performance?

Getting the way an observation system is viewed in a college right requires consultative management, not focusing on labelling people as a particular grade of teacher that somehow then defines them, but on a shared purpose of getting the overall package of course delivery to “good”.

I am very worried about the potential negative impact of not grading teaching during inspections. No one asks questions about how the quality and consistency of observation judgements are assured within Ofsted or by the three inspection service providers.

Learning and skills inspectors are being more and more absorbed into a homogenous inspectorate heavily focused on schools, with little time to share and standardise practice as specialist FE inspectors.

The FE Week coverage about colleges falling from outstanding to inadequate grading says a lot about the robustness of the previous inspection model.

When I looked at one 2009 report that had no curriculum areas inspected it had very little in the way of graded observation and inspection of curriculum areas (something Ofsted wanted to introduce two years ago but backed down on with unanimous feedback from the sector). This report concluded that teaching and learning was outstanding, but gave a weakness of needing to improve retention (the data included at the back clearly reflects outcomes not stacking up with the grade for teaching and learning).

The non-graded observation inspection model being spoken about, is harping back to the previous Ofsted model that was known internally as a ‘drive-by’ inspection (small teams locked in a room and not getting to the ‘nitty gritty’ of what a typical student experiences).

Look back at the boom in ‘outstanding’ grades given at that time and the correlation with how many did not focus on first hand observations.

The inspectorate of 20-plus years ago was disbanded partly because it was ineffective in judging teaching and learning, without which there was not a clear agenda to drive improvements in it.

The FEFC did some very good work in changing that focus, as did the Adult Learning Inspectorate. Hopefully the next government, whoever it is, will realise 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.

Bring back the FEFC practice of allowing nominees (or others?) to co-observe a sample of observations — if you are confident in what you are doing there will not be a problem. FE is very different from schools, one model of inspection does not fit all.

Phil Hatton, former FE and skills inspector with 20 years’ experience, leading hundreds of college and work-based learning inspections. He now works as an adviser at the Learning Improvement Service