OFSTED Revisited - Reliving the Experience of an Initial Teacher Training Inspection

OFSTED Revisited - Reliving the Experience of an Initial Teacher Training Inspection

Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the British Educational Research Association, University of Exeter, England, 12-14 September 2002

Authors: Lorraine Cale & Jo Harris, School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, UK

Title: The lessons learned from two initial teacher training PE OFSTED inspections


This paper has been developed from a more substantial commentary in a paper currently under review. Following the first OFSTED inspection of secondary Physical Education (PE) Initial Teacher Training (ITT) at Loughborough University in 1996/97, Hardy & Evans (2000) expressed grave concerns over the reliability, validity and credibility of ITT inspections and drew attention to the limitations in the system. Furthermore, they commented ‘we write…in fear that recent legislation will ensure that, in the future, we may receive more of the same’ (p.58). The paper presents an account of a second inspection in 1999/2000 and considers the extent to which ‘more of the same’ was received second time around. Based on the experiences of the earlier inspection, it provides a commentary on staff experiences, approaches to, and reflections of the process, and draws attention to the issues and problems which were experienced. We conclude that, thankfully whilst ‘more of the same’ was not experienced in terms of ‘outcomes’ in 1999/2000, it was with respect to ‘process.’ Whilst improved grades were obtained, we suggest that these in part also reflect the lessons we (not OFSTED) learned from the previous inspection. Furthermore, given the limitations and inconsistencies of the methodology, the credibility of the process and validity of the outcomes remains questionable.

Document type: Conference paper

Presented at the BERA conference, the University of Exeter, September 12-14th, 2002.

Key Terms: OFSTED, Inspection, Initial Teacher Training, Physical Education, Secondary

Background – Setting the Scene

In an account of our 1996/97 OFSTED (Office for Standards in Education) inspection of secondary Physical Education (PE) Initial Teacher Training (ITT), Hardy & Evans (2002), fired by a mix of dismay and frustration for the practices OFSTED and the TTA (Teacher Training Agency) demonstrated, expressed grave concerns over the reliability, validity and credibility of ITT inspections. They drew attention to the problems inherent in the system of inspections and highlighted faults and limitations in the process and the possible consequences. Others share similar concerns, dismay and cynicism and have questioned the methodology and/or the ‘high stakes’ nature of inspections (Campbell & Husbands, 2000; Graham & Nabb, 1999; Sinkinson & Jones, 2001; Tymms, 1997; Williams, 1997).

OFSTED inspection results are published and are highly significant because the TTA is statutorily obliged to take into account OFSTED grades in the allocation of trainee numbers and funding to ITT providers, and to consider the withdrawal of a provider’s accreditation where poor quality or non-compliance with statutory obligations is reported. Sinkinson & Jones (2001) note how funding allocations, trainee numbers and institutional reputations, not to mention lecturers’ jobs, are a direct consequence of the outcomes of inspections and argue that it is therefore vitally important that all involved have confidence in both the methodology and the judgements made. However, on the basis of an analysis of published OFSTED inspection reports for secondary mathematics Post-Graduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) courses, Sinkinson & Jones (2001) highlighted a number of criticisms with the inspection framework and inconsistencies in reports. Likewise, based on evidence drawn from ITT inspections at the University of Warwick, Campbell & Husbands (2000) argued that the inspection methodology and the application of published criteria were insufficiently reliable to bear the weight of the consequences of the outcomes.

In our case, the penalty for our ‘category C’ set of grades following our 1996/97 inspection was a ‘dented’ reputation and a reduction of ten percent in intake quota with an associated loss of funding, not to mention reduced morale amongst university staff and mentors. Following the inspection, Hardy & Evans (2000, p.58) commented ‘we write in knowing that other institutions have been left scarred by similar experiences, and in fear that recent legislation will ensure that, in the future, we may receive more of the same.’

This paper presents an account of a second inspection in 1999/2000 and considers the extent to which ‘more of the same’ was received second time around. We were anxious to ascertain whether OFSTED and the TTA had learned from the first round of inspections, or whether the ‘learning’ was to be left to us! Based on the experiences of the earlier inspection, the paper provides a commentary on staff experiences and reflections of the ‘official’ inspection process and the way in which the second inspection was approached, including the strategies employed, the dilemmas faced, and the lessons learned. The commentary presented, whilst at times critical of the inspectorate, is not intended as a reflection of the quality of the individual inspectors involved. Rather, the comments aim to draw attention to the issues, problems and systemic faults within the inspection process.

Doesn’t Time Fly!?

Gray & Wilcox (1996) suggest that the frequency and scale of OFSTED inspections represents external scrutiny on a scale hitherto unparalleled in the world. Given this, and the fact that our previous inspection of the PGCE PE secondary course, reported elsewhere (Hardy & Evans, 2000), was carried out in 1996/97, it came as no surprise to hear from OFSTED in June 1999 that PE was on the ‘provisional list’ for inspection during 1999/2000.

This ‘round’ of inspections was to be based on the joint OFSTED and TTA document ‘Framework for the Assessment of Quality and Standards in Initial Teacher Training’ (the ‘Framework’) (July, 1998). The methodology and the organisation of the inspections was detailed in ‘Secondary ITT Subject Inspections: Guidance for Inspectors: September 1999’ which identified a five-stage inspection strategy. In scrutinising the guidance document, the enormity of the task ahead dawned on university staff - it was evident that the new Framework was to involve considerably more work than the previous one (OFSTED and TTA, 1996).

Stage One – Paperwork to the Ready!

The demands from OFSTED began well before commencement of the course as the inspectors required all generic and subject specific documentation in advance.

According to the Framework:

‘Stage one is a preparatory stage... The purpose is two-fold: first to establish the institutional context of the inspection visits and second, to provide a sharp focus on the outcomes of the previous inspection.’ (OFSTED/TTA, 1998, p.2)

Stage one involved a visit from the Managing Inspector (MI) to examine generic documentation and meet with the PGCE director. The subject inspector’s role at this stage was to analyse the subject-specific documentation received focusing on the structure and content of the subject provision, the most recent inspection report, and the actions required to improve the course as a result of the last inspection. Having revised all documentation following the previous inspection and the introduction of DfEE Circular 4/98, we felt reasonably confident that our subject-specific paperwork was in order. One of the first lessons we had learned from our previous OFSTED experience was just how important paperwork and the ‘paper trail’ was to inspectors!

Stage Two – The PE Inspector Makes Delayed Contact!

Again, according to the Framework:

‘Subject inspectors will visit the provider, usually in the autumn term, in order to:

gain a clearer understanding of the aims, objectives and distinctive features of the subject training and, where relevant, the progress made in meeting the objectives in post-inspection plans;

gain an initial understanding of trainees’ starting points and needs;

assess how well the training has been planned to meet these needs.’

(OFSTED/TTA, 1998, p.4)

Another lesson learned from the previous inspection was that inspectors did not necessarily always follow procedures or ‘play by the rules’ and it was therefore of no surprise to us when our first contact and consequently visit by the PE Inspector (PEI) was later than expected. When the PEI eventually did make contact, she apologised for not doing so earlier but explained that this was not supposed to occur until after the MI’s visit. However, as the MI was having difficulty arranging a visit, special permission had been obtained to make contact.

Stage two of the inspection finally took place over two days in early December. The visit involved reading generic and subject-specific documents plus GTTR forms, personal profiles for all trainees, staff curriculum vitae, information on selection procedures, partnership school profiles, external examiner’s reports and responses, and the OFSTED action plan and report. One particular issue which arose from scrutiny of the documentation concerned the procedures for dealing with ‘weak’ trainees. The PEI described our current procedures as ‘informal’ because there was no specific proforma for ‘weak’ trainees. Believing the procedures to be clear, rigorous and effective, however, we politely contested this claim. The visit also involved meetings with the PGCE PE course tutor, the PGCE PE course team, and a group of trainees. The meetings with the PGCE PE course tutor focused predominantly on developments relating to the OFSTED action plan. Given that university staff were generally pleased with the progress that had been made in achieving the objectives in the action plan and with the intake of trainees, in theory this stage of the inspection was not expected to pose too many problems.

Scheduling the meeting with trainees was problematic as they were already in the fourth week of their first teaching practice. A group of eight were eventually assembled for a one hour meeting with the inspector at 5pm one evening after school. The trainees were reportedly asked about issues relating to their subject knowledge, awareness of National Curriculum requirements, and their early experiences in school. Following the meeting, the PEI described the trainees as ‘bright’ and commented that this must present a challenge to university and school staff.

A further purpose of the discussion in Stage two is to enable inspectors to identify a suitable range of inspection activities for subsequent stages and some negotiation also took place over the timing and content of future visits. From the previous inspection, we had learned just how crucial the timing of inspectors’ visits could be. The PEI proposed visits to the schools to observe mentor training on the trainees’ very first day in their second teaching practice school. In our minds this was poor timing and suggested limited digestion of the documentation and understanding of the mentoring process by the PEI. Accepting these difficulties and taking into account the PGCE timetable and the PEI’s busy diary (permitting little leeway), alternative arrangements (to make two visits in the Spring term) were eventually agreed.

Following the Stage two visit, staff were convinced that the paper trail associated with procedures for dealing with weak trainees and challenging bright trainees were issues to be focused upon during future stages. We had learned a harsh lesson following the previous inspection when we had not taken the advice/‘hints’ the inspector had given us from stage to stage (even though in our view we had good reasons for not doing so). Thus, meetings were held to discuss possible responses to these matters.

Stage Three: Inspection of Training – The Pressure Builds!

The Framework informs us that:

‘Subject inspectors will visit for up to three days… to gather evidence to inform their judgements …’

(OFSTED/TTA, 1998, p.4)

Evidence was to be gathered through school visits to observe mentor training and a visit to the university to watch training sessions, read trainees’ assignments and school reports, meet a group of mentors and meet the same group of trainees as in Stage two.

The School-Based Training Visits

The school-based training visits took place during the first two days back following the Christmas break, and involved the PEI visiting three schools. This was far from an ideal time to visit but, due to the inspector’s other commitments, these dates were not negotiable. The timing meant that all arrangements for the visits had to be carried out by the end of the Autumn term and at the start of the new term, inevitable disruption (e.g., due to timetable changes, changes in PE groups/classes, activities/topics taught) occurred. The schools and trainees were quickly though carefully selected by university staff and those concerned (including ‘reserve’ mentors and trainees) were notified and preparations hurriedly made.

Our experiences of the previous inspection had taught us that it was best to leave nothing to chance and thereby influenced our choice of schools to be visited and our preparations. The latter included a twilight meeting before Christmas with the mentors and trainees involved to discuss the purpose of the visit and the nature and range of the training to be observed. It was agreed that mentoring sessions would be ‘staged’ to demonstrate a variety of ways in which mentors work with trainees. Mentor A would provide the trainee with feedback on their general progress in relation to the QTS standards. This linked closely to an assignment task. Mentor B would observe a pair of trainees deliver a lesson with a specific focus and give feedback, whilst Mentor C would provide feedback on a lesson which the trainee had taught the previous day and discuss subsequent lessons with this group. University staff spent time discussing each ‘scenario’ with mentors and trainees to ensure that they felt adequately prepared and supported.

The school visits went ahead as planned and the PEI stated that s/he had observed some good and interesting mentoring and that the trainees came across as enthusiastic and committed. However, although the mentors involved considered that the mentoring sessions had gone reasonably well, discussions with the PEI (referred to as ‘grillings’ by the mentors) focused on the theme of how they know that trainees are improving week by week and in what ways they record trainees’ weekly progress. Again, it seemed that the PEI was keen to see more paper in the system.

As previously requested during the visit, the PEI also met with seven mentors who were members of the PE Advisory Group which had been formed since the previous inspection and whose purpose was to review and develop the PGCE PE course. The meeting took place after school on the first evening and focused in particular on ways in which the mentors had been involved in the partnership since the previous inspection.

The HEI-Based Training Visits

By comparison, the arrangements for the university-based training visits were less complicated and, when the inspector informed the university of the intention to visit for two days in February 2000, it was simply a matter of scheduling it in around the existing timetable. The tutors whose sessions were timetabled for those particular dates were contacted immediately and informed of the ‘good news’! Again, having learned to leave nothing to chance, a meeting was convened to discuss the purpose of the visit and for tutors to outline the proposed objectives, content and delivery of their sessions. It was considered important that the inspector’s ‘snap shot’ of university-based training reflected certain aspects of the work routinely covered on the PGCE course such as the use of Information and Communications Technology, a range of teaching and learning styles, cross-curricular links, differentiation strategies, and assessment methods.

The observation of the sessions went smoothly and the trainees experienced some of the most ‘jam-packed’, intense sessions of the year with task cards, handouts, ICT and other resources ‘flying!’ As requested by the PEI, another 5pm meeting was arranged at the end of the first day with the group of trainees that were met in January.

During the visit, the PEI also read sample coursework assignments, phase one school reports and trainee self-assessments forms. Whilst Stage three appeared to run relatively smoothly, staff appreciated that inevitably all the inspector had seen was a crude, superficial and somewhat arbitrary ‘snap-shot’ of what training at a particular phase entailed (Hardy & Evans, 2000, p.64).

At the end of this stage, the inspector met with the PGCE director and PE course tutor to provide oral feedback. The meeting clearly was not seen as a forum for discussion or an opportunity for professional debate. In 1996, Hardy & Evans (2000, p.70) expressed their views of such a practice suggesting that ‘to reduce discussion of the complexity of ITT provision to an across-the-table (one-way) ‘exchange of views’ was as preposterously risible as it was unhelpful.’ Likewise, Campbell & Husbands (2000) have highlighted the limitations of such a system in which decisions are made without dialogue or discussion. One of the main issues arising from the feedback was that the PEI considered that we needed to be more rigorous in checking the attainment of each of the QTS standards and it was strongly suggested that a QTS Standards portfolio be introduced to assist this process.