On being inspected…

My name is David and I’m a school inspector.

There, I’ve said it.  I should add that I inspect for ISI (the Independent Schools Inspectorate), not Ofsted; I should also add that I not only enjoy inspecting schools (I really do think it is the best professional development around) but I also value the process of being inspected. Done well and inspections can be mutually beneficial experiences; done badly and the damage done to those involved can be incalculable.

I used to be a governor in a state school which was long overdue a visit from Ofsted.  When I was there I think it is true to say that ‘being Ofsteded’ featured in so many conversations among staff and the Senior Leadership Team that it bordered on an obsession.  And yet I sympathised with the school: the inspection hung over the staff daily, sometimes distorting perspectives, but ensuring that the school was not only ready, and also able to gain outstanding in each of the grade descriptors, was of fundamental importance to everyone attached to the school.  Even as a governor I spent hours in meetings and going on training to ensure that I was ‘Ofsted ready’.

It’s different in the independent sector.

Schools are inspected, on average, every five years (although there are interim inspections between full inspections) and they are given a little under a week’s notice of the inspectors calling. Because of these timescales staff do not spend much of their working week worrying about inspection; instead, they can focus on teaching.  If it is a ‘full, integrated inspection’ it means that every aspect of the school is inspected.  Imagine how important, and how thorough, preparation has to be when you are not only dealing with rules and regulations governing a school, as well as the quality of teaching and learning, but also the wellbeing of hundreds of young people boarding in the school.

We were recently inspected and we had a team of 12 inspectors here for the best part of a week.  They can, in theory, ask for anything at all, ranging from the minutes of a meeting dating back years, to access to any part of the school site. It can be an exhausting experience. But, driving the whole process, is the desire of each inspector to leave the school in a better place, with a stronger understanding of itself, than it had before the inspection.  Throughout the preparation period, and during the inspection itself, there should be a sense of mutual respect and, importantly, reciprocal learning.  Inspectors (many of whom are serving Heads or members of SLT)  should leave the inspected school with new ideas about how to improve their own schools: if they don’t then they will undoubtedly question why they continue to give up so much valuable time.

When the final inspection report is published the school should recognise itself in its pages: each member of staff, each parent and each student, should be able to say: ‘yes, they understood us’.  There may be disagreements, and frank discussions, but acrimony only really begins to colour judgements when the teachers feel the inspectors did not take the time to understand how the school works.  That requires preparation on the part of the school, and time and patience on the part of the inspectors.  We hear a lot, these days, about what the independent sector can learn from the state sector, and much of that is justified.  But in the key area of inspection I believe that the state sector could learn from the independent sector, thus making the whole process more constructive, and less stressful.

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Re-reading ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland

I have recently moved house.  What should be a pleasant event is, in reality, truly hideous; in fact if there was a fifth horseman of the apocalypse I think he would be called ‘Moving house’.  However, even the most draining, exhausting experience can throw up some unexpected pleasures.  Old photographs, postcards sent by long-lost friends, items of clothing worn by children when they were babies…such things stop you in your tracks, transporting you, for a moment, into your past and projecting you into your future, just as Eliot wrote about in ‘Burnt Norton’ (‘Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future/And time future contained in time past.’)

And then there are the books.  Why do we cling to old books that we will never re-read? What unique power is contained in those yellowing pages that makes us hesitate before putting it back on the shelf?  Other objects do not maintain such a hold over us, but throwing that collection of poems away, or binning that broken-spined novel, seems like a conscious fragmenting of the self.  It weakens us, removing a past from our own identities.  And so we continue to break our backs as we carry hundreds of books from place to place.  Such things used to make some sort of sense before Kindles and the internet, but now?  I’m not so sure.

craft-of-the-classroomEvery so often a book slips from a box that makes you think again about how you teach because, years ago, it made you think for the first time about what it means to be a teacher.  One such book is ‘The Craft of the Classroom’ by Michael Marland, first published in 1975 (another one would be ‘The Learning Game’ by Jonathan Smith).  Marland’s book was hugely influential when it came out, changing the lives of many people (teachers and students alike).  When I picked it up again for the first time in perhaps 15 years I did so cautiously: what could it tell me now I don’t know? Do teachers still think of themselves as possessing a craft?

Its subtitle (‘A Survival Guide’) seems to place it in a particular sub-genre wearily familiar to many teachers (let’s call it the ‘us and them’ school which includes titles such as ‘Getting the buggers to behave’ and deploys lots of imagery of attrition, conflict and battle zones).  That approach, or rather that tone, seems rather old fashioned.

But Marland knew what he was writing about (this affectionate obituary from The Guardian shows just how much experience he had in London state schools, and gives a real flavour of this charismatic headteacher).  As I browsed it again my eye was drawn to pages with whole paragraphs underlined, and my (neater) handwriting asking questions of the text and author, somehow expecting answers, and finding them, eventually, in the classroom.

The 70s are now characterised as a brutal time when even the teachers not only dressed like Regan and Carter from ‘The Sweeney’ but acted like them too (and they were the good guys).  Marland’s book is humane and fair, and contains advice that seems, in retrospect, remarkably far-sighted and modern:

Never refer to a pupil’s family in front of other pupils. Never use the ill fame of other brothers and sisters, perhaps because they were at the school, to criticize a pupil.  Never make invidious comparisons with other members of the family.  Never say anything to wound.  Never refer to physical or racial characteristics.

I wish my teachers had read this.

Of course, much is outdated (advice on the right sort of equipment a teacher should have makes alarmingly little mention of mobile devices, unless you count a board rubber , mark book and chalk).  But Marland reminds us that good teachers share the same qualities, regardless of the period, or even the sector, they find themselves in.  One section caught my eye, and again, I could not argue with much of it:

It is important…that in searching for improved motivation we do not overlook the very basic point that in fact almost the best motivation is simply achievement.  On the whole, we want to do the things we can do, and don’t want to do the things we can’t do.  In classroom terms this means that it is not practical to put too much emphasis on motivation, nor to wait until pupils ‘are motivated’ to do something.  Vigorous teaching of the skills will often lead on to motivation.  ‘Being able’ to do is very close to ‘wanting’ to do.  Not being able to do is distressingly off-putting.

But he was no soft liberal who had the soft prejudice of low expectations.  Quite the opposite.  And he placed particular emphasis on the teacher as the leader of the group of pupils being taught: ‘you have to be able to dominate the group’ he writes.  And this section on classroom management goes further, and is written from real experience:

There is nothing so pathetic as the sight of the desperately anxious teacher casting away more and more of his standards as frantic sops to rapid popularity and sacrificing the elements essential to a good long-term relationship to the empty hopes of immediate success.

We have all seen those teachers who want to be friends with their difficult students, allowing what were once clear lines to become blurred.  It never works, and new teachers should know this, as should their mentors. Some schools publish reading lists for teachers new to the school to read (they  invariably include Dweck and Hattie). But they could do worse than include extracts from The Craft of the Classroom.