There are a huge number of myths surrounding the perfect Ofsted lesson. I was recently lucky enough to listen to the science lead from Ofsted discuss good and bad science teaching and highlight the key to success. It's simpler than you would think but could also be difficult to achieve....

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At the end of August we welcomed the new intake of RSC initial teacher trainee scholars to Burlington House. It was a superb way to welcome these fresh faced and optimistic new recruits into the profession, networking with other trainees, meeting their mentors and finding their way around the numerous resources and support that the RSC offers them. I was there as the mentor for the North West region. Every time I go to a meeting or a conference I find something that sticks with me and fires me up a little and this was no exception.

As part of the day the trainees were lucky enough to listen to a presentation by Brian Cartwright, the science lead for Ofsted. You may think it’s a little early in their careers to dampen the spirits of these excited would-be teachers with discussion of the ‘O word’ but as I’ll explain, it turned out to be the perfect presentation at exactly the right time. For those of you outside the English education system, Ofsted is the body responsible for school inspections, for categorising schools (and some believe teachers…) as inadequate, requiring improvement, good, or outstanding. The ‘threat’ of Ofsted is ever present in the minds of teachers as well as school management.

It seems to me that somewhere in the recent past, schools have somewhat lost the plot when it comes to aligning good teaching with what they believe Ofsted ‘want’. The focus of Brian’s presentation was a report called Maintaining Curiosity which summarised visits to 91 primary schools and 89 secondary schools between 2010 and 2013. I highly recommend all science teachers to read it. Given the title of the report it should come as no surprise that what Ofsted actually want to see in your chemistry lesson is activity that stimulates the imagination of your students, encourages them to question their surroundings and puts chemistry in interesting contexts. I think that as teachers we all also want this but we get mixed messages from so many different places that it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.

In the time I have been teaching I have been told a lot of myths about the perfect Ofsted lesson. I have been asked to plan in a specific format (it will probably surprise a lot of you that Ofsted have no fixed idea of what a lesson plan should include, or even whether each lesson needs a plan at all), to write objectives in a particular way, to show outcomes (often differentiated to 3 levels, all, most, some..), to include mini plenaries, peer assessment, numerous different versions of AfL and Kagan structures. Given that lessons in schools tend to be 50-60 minutes long, taking away the time lost to pupils who are travelling from one area of school to another, then where are we putting the practical chemistry and independent enquiry? I remember vividly an Ofsted inspector entering my Year 13 (18 year olds in their final year of school) lesson a few years back. My heart sank, it was the only lesson during the inspection period I felt I hadn’t properly prepared. My lesson plan was sketchy and all the class were doing is in essence ‘playing’ with transition metal solutions and seeing their colour changes in simple test tube reactions. However one thing the students were doing was asking questions, forming hypotheses and discussing their findings. The inspector loved it and spent 25 minutes (unfortunately all of my break time!) talking to me about the lesson and what I could do next with them. You see ‘playing’ is essentially experimental science at its best but for me as a young teacher (I think this was my 4th year of teaching), I was genuinely surprised that the Ofsted inspector also believed this.

For the teacher trainees starting out on their careers, Brian’s message was that if they keep practical enquiry and curiosity at the heart of their lessons when they won’t go far wrong. It’s great for them to have that outlined before they start and before they get other messages from schools. 

The report can be found here, it is well worth a read (I recommend the PowerPoint presentation as a great summary).