In this article I've written some notes for Heads of Department. These are just my thoughts, so the usual kind of disclaimer applies, ie it's not intended to be advice as such, just some things to think about.
If there’s one thing that every teacher dreads it’s a visit from the inspectors. As head of department, you’re the one who will be called to account if things are found wanting. So how can you prepare for the almost inevitable knock on the door, and come through the experience not merely unscathed, but triumphant?
The first thing I’ll say is that although scrutinising the inspection criteria is necessary, you really need to start preparing for the inspection long before you even know that an inspection will take place. In a nutshell, you need to run your department as if an inspector could walk through the door any minute.
That does not mean, however, going through the inspection criteria and adopting a tick box approach, perhaps with a view to papering over the cracks until the moment of crisis has passed. Rather, it means taking a far more strategic view of the whole thing.
A good way to go about doing so is to ask, and then ensure there are are answers to, a few simple-looking questions:
1. What is going on in your department?
2. Is it fit for purpose?
3. Would you be happy for your own children to be students in your department?
4. So what?
Let’s look at these questions in turn.
What is going on in your department?
It’s your job to know what is actually happening in your domain. Are your teachers following the scheme of work? Are they assessing students in accordance with departmental/school policy? Are they recording such data properly? Do you know what that data is, or at least know where to find it? Do you understand what the data is telling you?Are your teachers having discipline problems? Are their students actually learning anything?
If anything needs attention, it’s better to find out before an inspector does.
For example, if a teacher is having discipline problems, what is the procedure for dealing with the situation?
There are four main ways of finding out what is happening in your department:
Have an open door policy
I’ve always found that if there’s an ethos of it’s being OK to wander into someone else’s classroom — that is, they can walk into yours as well as vice-versa — there’s a good chance that you will pick up information when you do so. It’s also more likely that they will feel safe about coming to you with any questions or issues.
Meet with the teachers in your department
If time allows, it’s a great idea to have meetings with individual teachers. They don’t have to be long, or like performance appraisal meetings, just five or ten minutes every week or so to find out how things are going.
Have mutual lesson observations
Lesson observation is unfortunately associated with inspection, and being judged. However, if time allows for it to happen, it can be a great way of learning from each other and of providing starting points for discussion in team meetings or on training days.
You can use lesson observation to help with particular aspects of teaching. For example, you might ask a member of your team to check how long you give students to answer a question before answering it yourself.
There is also the happy side effect that if everyone becomes used to having another adult in the room taking notes or talking to students, it won’t feel so bad when an inspector calls.
Hold information-sharing departmental meetings
Team meetings are not solely for the purpose of you dictating policy or lecturing your team. Information-sharing is important too. Asking each member of your team to spend a minute or two minutes saying what they’ve been doing and what issues have cropped up is time well-spent. In fact, if you’ve just introduced a new scheme of work, I’d say it’s essential.
Look at the data
It’s important to know what the data is in your department, and what it means. Consider these two exchanges I had with teachers:
Me to HoD: It’s great that girls are doing so well compared to boys in your subject (Computing). Usually girls tend to have their confidence sapped by the boys. So what’s your secret?
HoD: What makes you say the girls are doing better than the boys?
Me: Because that’s what the figures you showed me say.
HoD: Oh, really?
Teacher: Look at this. The first graph shows what my students’ overall attainment looked like at the start of last term, and the second graph shows what it is now.
Me: Erm, very impressive, but what is actually being measured?
Teacher: Who cares? The second one’s higher, isn’t it?
I’d suggest that those kinds of answers won’t impress an inspector.
Is your department fit for purpose?
Inspection has, in my opinion, become much too unwieldy, too ‘over-thought’, too open to interpretation. What is really needed is a yes or no answer to the question: is this school fit for purpose? Or, in your case, is this department fit for purpose?
The purpose of your department is, presumably, to give the students a good education in your subject, to enable them to go on to further study, or a job, or to be a more knowledgeable person, more able to navigate the vicissitudes of life because of having studied your subject.
If none of those kind of things is happening, then surely your department is not fit for purpose, because it’s not effectively doing what it exists to do.
You may prefer to think it has nothing to do with your department. The students are ill-disciplined, their parents don’t value education, there’s no money to spend on books, and so on. Even if all those things are true, it doesn’t alter the fact that if your department is not having a positive effect on the students’ education, then its existence is pointless.
The good news is that unless you’re really unlucky, the reality will be more nuanced than that. For example, perhaps your students are getting great exam grades, but can’t wait to drop the subject at the earliest opportunity. Or the opposite: maybe they love the subject, which is over-subscribed, but don’t get good grades in exams.
The starting point is to ask the question, and the next stage is to take full responsibility for dealing with it — even if you don’t think it’s your fault or anyone else’s.
Let’s put it this way: you’ll find it a lot easier to change departmental practice than parental attitudes to education!
Would you be happy for your own children to be students in your department?
You can ask this question even if you don’t have any kids yourself. It’s the killer question, the one that everyone (even inspectors) ask when it really comes down to it.
If the answer is ‘yes’, then great — but don’t rest on your laurels. If the answer is ‘no’, then drill down to pinpoint what exactly you don’t like.
And then deal with it.
This question should be asked whenever you’ve implemented a new approach, or are using education technology or, indeed, doing anything extraordinary. If one of your team spends all night developing a special inspection lesson, in which he hangs from the ceiling, does cartwheels and dresses up in Victorian costume, any inspector worth their salt will remain impassive. At the end of the lesson they will ask (or should ask): so what?.
In other words:
Did the students learn anything?
Did they learn more, or better, or faster, than they might have without all the amateur dramatics and histrionics? If not, then what was the point of it all?
One of your fundamental jobs as head of department is to ask the questions set out at the beginning of this section. It may be hard to say to an enthusiastic new teacher, who has spent several hours perfecting the art of operating an interactive whiteboard, video camera and a class set of tablets all at the same time, “So what?” but the alternative is, possibly, to sacrifice the students’ education to some extent. Perhaps you can ask the question more subtly, and not be so blunt, but ask it you must.
When all is said and done, these questions and their answers are intertwined. If the answer to “So what?” is “Nothing”, then the department can hardly be said to be fit for purpose. In that case, you wouldn’t really want your kids to be studying in it, would you?
In my opinion, the correct mindset for an inspection is to be prepared for someone to walk into your classroom with a clipboard, but with no notice whatsoever. That is actually much less stressful for all concerned. You won’t (hopefully) have any member of your team staying up all night preparing a special inspection lesson….
A detour: the special inspection lesson
We’ve all heard the stories. A teacher stays up until 4 in the morning preparing a special inspection lesson. And then the inspector either declines to observe his lesson at all, or pops in for only 20 minutes.
But ‘inspection lessons’ are at best a waste of time, and at worst thoroughly dishonest. They are a waste of time because even if the inspector fails to see it for what it is, one of the kids is bound to say “This is much better than our normal lessons!”. And they are dishonest because they are not the norm, but you’re trying to pass them off as such. And in any case, if you think you need to prepare special lessons for the benefit of the inspector, are you not implying that your usual lessons fall short of the expected standard? If so, don’t the kids deserve better?
Being inspection-ready, continued
In order to be inspection-ready over the long term, you need to pay attention to all the things covered in this book. For example, you need to have, and to understand, the data. Your teachers need to be experts in their subject, and in the latest thinking in the subject. You documentation needs to be in order. You need to be aware and mindful of the inspection criteria.
On the issue of inspection criteria, one very important thing to bear in mind is that Ofsted, the inspection body in England and Wales, says that its criteria (to be found in the Inspection Handbook) are not to be used as checklists. Most people probably do use them as checklists, but a better approach is to try to unpack what they are really looking at.
For example, take the criteria for teaching to be judged ‘outstanding’. The first point is:
“Teachers demonstrate deep knowledge and understanding of the subjects they teach. They use questioning highly effectively and demonstrate understanding of the ways pupils think about subject content. They identify pupils’ common misconceptions and act to ensure they are corrected.”
Now let’s take it apart:
“Teachers demonstrate deep knowledge and understanding of the subjects they teach.”
This suggests that you recruit teachers who are qualified in your subject (ideally). It also implies that they are having enough professional development to be able to know about the latest developments in the subject, and the latest thinking in how best to teach it.
“They use questioning highly effectively and demonstrate understanding of the ways pupils think about subject content.”
This implies that they have a repertoire of assessment for learning techniques at their fingertips, and know how to get into the pupils’ heads in order to infer with some degree of confidence how they are thinking. This is vital if they are to “identify pupils’ common misconceptions and act to ensure they are corrected.”
All that is a lot more than box-ticking — and you need to go through this process for all the criteria in the ‘Outstanding’ box.
(It’s useful to use the other criteria as a kind of yardstick, to make sure you’re not inadvertently being just ‘Good’, or ‘Inadequate’. It’s very easy to assume that something you and your department colleagues are doing is wonderful, whereas in fact it may be merely mediocre or worse. The other inspection grades’ criteria can help keep you on your toes.)
In other words, being inspection-ready is a long-term process. But what if you find out you’re going to be inspected next week?
Preparing for an imminent inspection
I’d suggest doing the following:
Get sets of pupils’ books (or work in other formats) ready: inspectors undertake what is called ‘work scrutiny’. They typically like to see examples of works at different standards. (But don’t make the mistake of labelling work ‘Poor’, ‘Mediocre’’ or ‘Useless’: it tends to have a dispiriting effect on the kids.)
Tell pupils that someone will be observing the lesson, and that they should behave normally (unless their normal behaviour is pretty dreadful). One of the things that pupils tend to do is remain absolutely silent in lessons being observed, because they think you will be ‘marked down’ if there is not total silence in the lesson. Tell them not to do that, but to answer and ask questions, and talk to their partners, as they usually would.
Don’t prepare a special lesson. If the pupils have been working in small groups on projects, say, then let them continue. The inspector will walk around the classroom asking the pupils what they’re up to, and why.
Give the inspector, or arrange for him or her to have, access to your computer network so that they can type and point reports, look at your online resources and, where appropriate, pupil data (but being mindful of data protection considerations; for this reason, check what the school’s policy is on this).
During the inspection
If the inspector says they’d like to meet you in your free period on Tuesday morning, don’t say that you’re too busy. Move things around so that you can meet them.
Be punctual when meeting the inspector.
When an inspector enters your classroom, give her a sheet outlining what the lesson is about.
When the inspector gives you feedback, don’t start arguing. If you disagree with something they’ve said, put your point of view in a quiet, professional manner.
If the inspector offers to give you or your colleagues some advice, take it.
If you think that the inspector has missed something vitally important, or not asked to see something of which you’re especially proud, draw their attention to it. They may be experienced, but they’re not psychic.
Above all, try to enjoy the experience as a series of dialogues with a fellow professional in your field. You’re far more likely to learn something if you’re open rather than defensive, and see the inspection as an opportunity to show an outsider what you’re doing in your department, and obtain objective feedback.
After the inspection
Meet with your team to discuss what was learnt from the experience. If the inspector came up with suggestions for doing things differently, discuss whether they should be implemented, and if so when and how. If you feel that your department has been judged unfairly, perhaps because the inspector missed or misconstrued something, tell your senior leadership team contact as soon as possible.
Then go for a nice meal or a drink with your colleagues, and have a well-deserved rest the following weekend!
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