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The importance of lesson observations

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We asked associate education expert for The Key, David Driscoll, to answer some key questions about lesson observations. David is an independent consultant and a senior partner with an education consultancy, with considerable experience of inspecting schools and colleges. Members of The Key for School Leaders can access the KeyDocs he has produced for articles, such as our school leaders' pre-inspection checklist or sample self-evaluation forms.

How important are lesson observations in the context of the current Ofsted framework?

They are still very important, but probably not as important as you think. The emphasis on how inspectors evaluate teaching has changed recently. There is now a much greater emphasis on looking at pupils' work and talking to them about their learning before reaching any judgement on the quality of teaching. Many teachers think that lessons are graded by inspectors; this is not the case and has not been for quite a long time. There is no place to grade a lesson on an evidence form.

What inspectors can do is grade achievement, teaching, behaviour and leadership and management - providing they have enough evidence to do so. While a single lesson can give you a feel for behaviour, especially attitudes to learning, it is much more difficult to get a picture of achievement and teaching over time. This is why inspectors will often now not grade these aspects until they have checked the work in pupils’ books. The lesson does, however, provide the opportunity to discuss any strengths or areas for improvement observed over the 30 minutes or so that the inspector is present.

Is it possible to define an outstanding lesson?

No, but you can define outstanding teaching. Lessons are not evaluated, so there is no such thing as a good or outstanding lesson. It is teaching that is evaluated, and outstanding teaching would bring about outstanding progress over time. So school leaders should use all the evidence available to them to develop a clear picture of teaching. This includes lesson observations, but more importantly it involves sampling pupils' work, analysing data on pupil progress broken down by different groupings, and talking to pupils and parents.

How can schools prepare for lesson observations?

By making sure that what the inspector sees is what usually happens in the school. The very best schools have developed a culture of staff wanting to be observed, rather than resisting observation, so that they are always improving their practice. Observations are not just carried out by the headteacher, but by other teachers, teaching assistants and governors. It is a two-way process. The teacher gets lots of feedback and the observer finds out what is working well. This benefits both since they develop greater understanding of aspects of excellent teaching. However, don’t forget to look at all the other evidence as well.

What should be included in feedback?

Quite simply a discussion of what went well and what could be better. It needs to be noted that the purpose of a headteacher’s observation is different from that of an inspector’s. The former has to carry out performance management, while the inspector wants to find out why the achievement is as it appears to be. Both, though, are interested in making improvements, so they need to identify the strengths and weaknesses in practice.

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