December 2014

The know zone

  • Number lessons
    ASCL’s new training DVD aims to give people a deeper understanding of budgets and balance sheets and so help avoid clashes over spending, says Val Andrew. More
  • A window on work
    Karleen Dowden offers five ways that schools and colleges can bring students together with employers to gain insights into the working world. More
  • To grade or not to grade?
    Tony Thornley shares his insights into what an outstanding school looks like and why best practice demands more than ticking Ofsted’s boxes. More
  • Maximise the benefits
    Are you and your staff getting the most out of continuing professional development (CPD)? More
  • ASCL PD events
    ASCL PD runs a number of CPD courses to help school and college leaders motivate their staff. More
  • Last word
    No one in their right mind would join a club and sign up to its regulations and then claim that the rules don’t actually apply to them, would they? So why do some people think that instructions issued by schools can be treated in such a cavalier fashion? More
  • Stronger together
    Exploring how one charity believes it’s possible to rebuild the lives of both bereaved pupils and schools. More
  • Unbalanced view?
    Workload is becoming an increasingly serious problem in schools and colleges. What is your view on this important issue – do you have a healthy work-life balance? Is an increasing workload something that is affecting you and your staff? Here ASCL members share their thoughts. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    More than half of ASCL members are now in academies and many are from independent schools – this month, the hotline has taken several calls from members in these sectors. Below are just a few of the questions our hotline staff have answered, although clearly in the answers there are messages for all members regardless of sector. More
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Tony Thornley shares his insights into what an outstanding school looks like and why best practice demands more than ticking Ofsted’s boxes.

To grade or not to grade?

Who’d be a school leader? The plethora of advice from Ofsted about lesson observation and grading, while useful in principle, still leaves schools without a clear understanding of what they should be doing to evaluate and improve teaching. In particular, their list of ‘don’ts’ may help you if inspectors are breathing down your neck, but it is no guide to what good practice looks like.

Indeed, it suggests that considerable confusion now exists. From straw polls at recent ASCL regional information conferences, about 40 per cent of you are still grading lessons, 30 per cent in some contexts only and the rest have abandoned it altogether.

Having advocated intelligent accountability through good self-evaluation and lesson observation for at least the last decade, I hope that some thoughts may help.

First, here’s my vision, gained from visiting many schools for Ofsted and the Department for Education (DfE) since leaving headship, of what the best practice should look like.

A school that has outstanding (by which I mean ‘has best practice in’) teaching and learning will:

  • enable nearly all students to make very good progress, particularly those who face challenges; this means better than ‘expected progress’ for many, and especially more able students
  • collect and evaluate evidence about students’ progress and learning, and about the quality of teaching
  • know what outstanding pedagogy looks like, and know the individual strengths and areas for development of its teachers and other classroom staff
  • to improve teachers’ practices according to need; these should involve collaborative mutual support and challenge and, if there is not enough high-quality teaching internally, support from external partners
  • to be even better and the school can show how teaching and learning have improved and continue to improve
  • How may a school achieve this vision?
  • By presenting clear, simple evidence of students’ progress. Identifying high-and low-performing student groups, subjects and classes by colour coding performance is one way of doing this. It must not be ‘death by numbers’ and it must be against national progress rates.
  • By assuring and monitoring, as far as possible, the accuracy of teacher assessment through internal and, if necessary, external moderation.
  • Through regular collection of other evidence that evaluates students’ daily learning, for example, work scrutiny, learning walks and student voice. Work scrutiny should not just look at marking and feedback: the quality of students’ work and their literacy and numeracy skills can all be evaluated through good scrutiny.

Formal observations

Formal observations – done well – are pretty good at evaluating pedagogy and learning ethos. They are much less effective, except in skilled hands, at evaluating learning and ‘typicality’ (see, for example, ASCL’s lesson observation DVDs for some ideas on how to do this).The challenge is that learning, of course, happens at different rates and over time. I have never seen a science class where all the students went from nothing to being able to write balanced equations in a single lesson. Learning is cumulative and usually requires practice to be assimilated.The shrewd observer will be able to make some assessment of progress from students’ responses, and from their books, but the most convincing evidence is their progress as shown by assessments over time. Some of the best teachers are not inspirational to watch, but achieve excellent results. Equally, some teachers can produce exciting one-off lessons, but have limited impact on learning.This doesn’t mean that you should scrap lesson observations. Personally, I would continue using them, preferably on an unannounced or limited warning basis, so that you see what the students’ usual diet is. You will also want to use them to check the impact of school policies, for example, behaviour management, literacy promotion and marking and feedback.It is generally unhelpful, however, to give a single grade. Making a range of sub-judgements against the Ofsted quality of teaching criteria provides a profile of strengths and areas for development. But you should triangulate these with other evidence.Finally, if it is important that school leaders know the strengths and weaknesses of their school, doesn’t the same apply to teachers and their teaching? Teacher self-evaluation, incorporating the evidence above and moderated by a line manager, is a powerful means towards the self-improving school in my vision statement. It also links naturally to the Teachers’ Standards and performance management.

Further information

The updated guidance, version 9 of the ASCL self-evaluation framework (SEF) documents, is now available. The documents have been revised to take account of this term’s changes to the Ofsted framework. For further information or to order your copy, visit

In addition, ASCL Professional Development has produced a very popular set of lesson observation DVDs that are currently on offer at a reduced rate. To order your copy, visit

Tony Thornley is an Education Consultant and a former Headteacher and Her Majesty’s Inspector (HMI).