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When OfSTED came to visit

It’s three weeks into my new job and I find myself enjoying one of those rare lunchtimes where things are quiet enough for me to be able to sit in front of a computer and check my emails. Scanning down the list, I see an email from the headteacher.  Now, any email from the headteacher will always stand out but one that has ‘OfSTED’ in the subject line does so even more. I open it up and my suspicions are confirmed; the school will be inspected the following day (and on the day after that). I have always made it a personal rule not to panic about inspections or observations as I would much rather be damned for what I actually do than allow the kids see me pull out ‘an OfSTED lesson’; I honestly believe that any such attempt would have me ‘caught out’ in moments.  I’ve reached the point where I have an ‘open door’ policy and happily let anyone watch my lessons, with or without notice.

That said, having only been in post for less than a month, I was a little on the anxious side.  All the things I was planning to do and they were watching me now!  I am, however, pleased to say that I taught my lesson in the same manner that I would have done if no one had turned up and with no more planning.  This was enough to have the inspector tell me that the lesson was classed as ‘Outstanding’.

This post is not intended as ‘look at me, I’m amazing’. Nor is this post intended as ‘this is how to get an Outstanding’. My genuine intention is to list the two things that I thought were really important during the observation, which I’ll go into some detail about.  I also wanted to be clear about six ‘OfSTEDisms’ that I often hear as being vital but were conspicuous by their absence in my lesson.  Please, do not take this as a ‘guide to getting an Outstanding’, I don’t believe that there’s any magic recipe for that but I do believe that tackling some of the myths that teachers (particularly music teachers) have to deal with when it comes to lesson observations.

Lesson context

This was a Year 7 lesson in an all-boys school. Music is taught on a six week rotation with other arts subjects. The pay-off for the rotation is that learners have four (50min) lessons of music each week. I have designed Year 7 in a way that has one teacher delivering a SoW for three of those lessons and I deliver a separate SoW in the fourth lesson. The SoW that I teach prepares pupils for the skills that they will need in the third unit of each rotation. This was my third lesson with the class and the second lesson where they were allowed to use our practice rooms. Anything that I mention having been taught/learnt in the past was done so before I knew that OfSTED would be in.

I did… make it musical

OfSTED’s recent reports about music education have been clear – music lessons should be musical. That means actually having pupils involved in creating musical sound. Being a Musical Futures Champion Teacher, this is pretty much the way I work anyway so I was delighted when ‘Making More of Music’ and ‘Wider Still, and Wider’ were published providing the voice of the inspectorate to reinforce the value of practical music making.

The class that I was observed with was learning how to play chords of C Major and F Major and were doing so using two rhythms that we had learnt to clap in the previous lesson. The rhythms had been well internalised through body percussion work and the notes CEG and FAC had been internalised through a singing activity.

In using keyboards, pupils had been given just two pieces of information:

(a) how to find C, which was learnt through a rhythmical chant (taught at the start of this lesson)
(b) that there are only seven ‘letters’ in the musical alphabet, which was learnt by singing the ‘alphabet song’ up to G, stopping abruptly, putting on a silly voice saying “that’s it, start again!” (taught at the end of last lesson and recapped today)

This meant that when pupils were in practice rooms, they could do at least one if not all of the following:

  • clap the two rhythms
  • find C on the keyboard and play it to the rhythms
  • sing the other notes that they needed to use
  • find the other notes on the keyboard
  • play the chords as block chords or arpeggios
  • play the chords with one of the two rhythms
  • do so in time with the rest of their group
  • do so with attention to dynamics, choice of octave, choice of arpeggio or block chord, choice of timbre, etc

Every pupil, therefore, was able to work on something that was clearly musical and do so with varying levels of skill. Those who were able to do everything that I asked were able to focus on the quality of their performance through attention to detail.

In short, it was obvious that this was a music lesson – you could hear that it was! Each pupil was able to demonstrate musical understanding through his ability to make music and was clear of how to progress, making use of the internalised resources, peers and me as they saw fit.

I did… speak to the inspector

Throughout my career, I have always made it a point to speak with any observer. My opening line is always “Can I give you some context about the lesson?”, which puts me in a position to talk about how this lesson fits in with the current unit and the larger scheme of work. It also allows me to demonstrate my knowledge of the class by speaking about individual needs and how they are being met.

On this occasion, I spoke about how the pupils had learnt the clapping in a previous lesson and that this was only their second lesson using practice rooms. This let me highlight my ‘hidden objective’ for the lesson, which was to get them used to having so much responsibility for their own learning and the development of mutual trust for when they are working in a different room to me.

I also made a point of finding the inspector when I saw that a group had made noticeable progress. I literally walked up to her and said “Could I just bring you to a group to highlight the progress that they have made?” She looked delighted and followed me to the practice room, where the group demonstrated what they had just shown me and I gave them some additional feedback. I then left her to her own devices while I carried on with my lesson. A lot if INSET and discussion in recent years has highlighted that evidence of progress is a big one during observations these days but why bring the class back to the room, disrupt their learning and then get back to work when it’s so much easier to bring the inspector to the evidence?

I was also able to speak to the inspector about the data that I had and how it was acquired. I showed her my class spreadsheet and highlighted specific columns. I mentioned that target grades were based on FFT data, that my record of prior musical experience was from a previous homework, that a plus or minus was a formative record of how they did/didn’t meet my expectations and that the assessment grade was from the other teacher’s lesson (following the ‘parallel’ scheme of work). I highlighted that we had only just received our Pupil Premium data because it was so early in the year and explained that it wasn’t in my spreadsheet yet but I gave her access to the database where it was kept. She was very happy with all of this and said not to worry about the pupil premium data being in a separate place. She asked how she could figure out where individual pupils were and I highlighted the column that said which practice room each child was working in.

Having a dialogue with the inspector allowed her an insight into my approach to teaching, monitoring and assessing the class and, again, put the evidence right in front of her. There was nothing here that I wouldn’t have had if OfSTED weren’t coming in and I would like to think that was obvious from the inspector’s discussions with me and the pupils.

I should highlight that some teachers that I have spoken to have recoiled in horror at the suggestion that a teacher should speak to any observer.  Some have even been explicitly told by senior leaders or teacher trainers that they should never do so.  I have always spoken to observers and have never found their reaction to be adverse.  I honestly can’t see the harm as long as you ensure that the conversation doesn’t detract from the quality of teaching and learning in the lesson.  

I did not…

As promised, here is the list of six things that I didn’t do during the lesson (or in my preparation).  Obviously, if your school has a policy that these things should be done, then there is a need to play the game.  I just want to highlight that they are not necessary for a lesson to be deemed as ‘Outstanding’ in an OfSTED observation.

I did not:

  1. write learning objectives on the board, state them as ‘learning objectives’, get the kids to write learning objectives anywhere
  2. have any written work in the lesson, the kids had neither books nor worksheets
  3. have any mini-plenaries
  4. write a lesson plan
  5. have a seating plan (I made a note of which pupils chose which practice room but this column of the spreadsheet changes each lesson)
  6. tell the pupils what their target levels are (preferring to relentlessly focus on improving what they were doing)

Anyone else?

I am very keen to hear back from any other (music) teachers who have recently been observed by OfSTED.  Was your approach similar of do you have a different way of getting through inspection time?  I would also like to hear how this marries up with school (and music dept) policies – would you be ‘allowed’ to teach a lesson like this?  Input here or via Twitter ( @johnskelleher) would be very welcome.