Minions of Ofsted Part 2: Learning WalksPosted: May 27, 2013
In an earlier post I argued that managers who rely on a ‘progress week’ of Ofsted style lesson observations are ineffective because;
• Published observation schedules and the high stakes nature of observations encourage teachers to plan ‘show lessons’ while neglecting their other work – overall lesson quality declines during observation periods.
• In tough schools genuinely good teachers are mislabelled as ‘inadequate’ if they are observed with a horrendous class while charlatans can avoid further interference from management if they deliver one good lesson with a relatively well behaved group.
• Judging and blaming teachers for things beyond their control i.e. systematic behaviour issues causes stress and low morale.
• High stakes observations paint an inaccurate and unreliable picture of what teaching in a school is actually like which is a barrier to improvement.
• The system is open to abuse and can be as a management tool for bullying teachers.
Some senior leaders have arrived at the same conclusion and, as a solution, have replaced a ‘progress week’ of intensive lesson observations with the less intensive but more frequent ‘learning walk’. Regular learning walks get school leaders into more classrooms more often exposing them to the day to day goings on the school. If they do nothing else the increased visibility makes life more difficult for charlatans and bullying middle managers who wish to blame teachers for their own incompetence. Never mind the practice of giving a special name to something that the traditional head has done for decades; informal, regular learning walks are something to be embraced by good teachers and effective managers.
However there are school managers out there with a 'command and control' mindset who seem utterly incapable of making life easier for their staff. These managers have forsaken a healthy, informal approach to learning walks in favour of systematic ‘mini inspections’ based on the current Ofsted framework. The arrival of ‘tick box’ style resources (see Fig 1) mean that it is possible to carry out several ‘mini inspections’ in an hour. Some resources are so idiot proof that managers can disastrously delegate work to hounds in middle management and return to hiding in their office; visibility and exposure to the day to day goings on are reasons why leaders should partake in learning walks yet resources like this allow them to avoid them.
The belief that ‘10 minutes is enough time to check whether (Ofsted) standards are being met’ coupled with the systematic collection of evidence presents teachers with another problem; what should be informal becomes formal and as high stakes as the ‘progress week’ observations I described earlier. With professional success or condemnation riding on every learning walk teachers are forced to prepare for the ‘mini inspection’ by planning a series of ‘mini shows’ that cover all of the things on the observers tick sheet whether it is appropriate to the lesson or not! The irony here is that the rise of the ‘mini inspection’ and the ‘mini show’ has even got Ofsted inspectors complaining about formulaic but fast paced lessons where students are not exposed to any tasks requiring them to reflect for an extended period of time (4).
Finally one must also consider that it is simply easier, and therefore tempting, for managers to have their hounds ‘inspect’ a school and gather evidence to use against teachers (notice the lack of accountability for management in the video in Fig 1) than it is to implement genuine reforms. Teachers in tough schools are at an even bigger disadvantage because there are so many things they can be unfairly blamed for. Blum (2006) noted that observers are ‘unlikely to remain long enough to see you turn a lesson round, or they will arrive too late to see how well you managed to start the lesson’. In other words, luck matters more here than in the ‘progress week’ system because if a good teacher is unlucky enough to get a 10 minute inspection with a class who are temporarily ‘off the chart’ they are stuffed regardless of what they do afterwards – so much for accuracy!
In summary it is normally fruitful when school leaders spend quality time out of their offices finding out what their schools are really like – the best leadership teams do this all the time. Here learning walks are informal and used to identify obstacles that prevent teachers from doing their jobs – however an ineffective manager's interpretation of learning walks does neither of these things. Such managers are simply pretending to be Ofsted and seek to formalise learning walks creating a mechanism for blaming teachers for whole school problems. Introducing simplified paperwork allows managers to delegate responsibility and remain in their offices which disastrously isolates them from the day to day business of the school. Combine this with belief in the ’10 minute observation’ and ‘we can get an overview of lessons generally only with sufficient walks’ (sic) and the frequency of formulaic ‘mini show lessons’ that please observers, stress out teachers but waste students time increases.