Monday, 28 January 2013

Ofsted Science Survey....unpicking the mystery of science in Special Schools

So as many of the #asechat peeps and other teachers who follow me on Twitter I have had a bit of a week. So I'll tell it as best I can.

Last Thursday afternoon I was helping a member of staff with their GCSE coursework (long story, best not ask) when the Deputy Head came in and said 'I've got some bad news for you.' Now lots of things crossed my mind, what had happened that was so bad? He went on to say 'I've had a phone call...Ofsted are coming.' OK I thought, I've done this before I can do this. He then went on to explain 'No, they are just coming to see science. Nothing else. Just you.'

No pressure then.....

So I had a week's notice for a Science Department 'Subject Survey' ... a department of just 1. Me.

I set about thinking 'What are they after? What do they want to see?' I poured over as much documentation as I could get my hands on, the letter Ofsted sent, the documents provided on their (actually very helpful) website, I emailed the advisor in my county to see if she had any advice, and letters sent to other schools both special ed and mainstream that had recently had science subject inspections.
I started to make a list and it looked a bit like this:
  • Marking - that follows the school policy, that shows pupil self evaluation and improvement (unrealistic in all honesty in my situation but something to aspire to)
  • Evidence of Progress over time - we file examples of pupil work every half term in the aim to show science this doesn't always appear to be the case as different topics mean different levels due to interest/ability etc. but certainly over time you can build up a good picture of strengths and weaknesses. We do also have Classroom Monitor to record data however I personally find it a bit cumbersome and useless for Key Stage 4.
  • Data - linked in with the above, although I do not 'manage' my data I am aware of all my pupils targets taking into account their various SEND difficulties. The Assistant Head who 'does' data was fab.
  • know what I mean. In science there are plenty of opportunities, so I made a document (assisted by some work done with my county's heads of science) to suggest where the links were, it needs to be added to the schemes of work without being too discrete. 
  • Literacy - we do a lot of cross curricular literacy (we need to, the boys don't all read well) so I wanted to show it off, connectives, punctuation, why scientists need to read, write and do maths - see a previous post with photos of the display.
  • Risk Assessments and Health and Safety - I put together some documentation to show how we met Health and Safety requirements, how we took into account the pupils SEND needs when risk assessing practical work and wrote about staff/pupil ratio. I included any 'incident reports' (actually only 1) and what was done to improve safety. 
  • 5 minute Lesson Plans - I love it, and the inspectors certainly didn't complain. What I did do however was to write a 'context' for each group. Where they were at, what they had covered and where the lesson fitted in. I also (without naming individuals) explained what SEND needs the group presented and the strength and weaknesses this presented. Yes they were long but worth the effort as it helped the non-SEN specialist inspector understand what we were doing and why it was important. 
  • Schemes of Work - all of them...took ages to check them but got there
  • Governors Report - unique to SEN probably, each year I write a report about how pupils have progressed in science. What has changed, why it has changed, what we need/want to make more progress and (if relevent) how much it may cost. For example I asked for a fume cupboard in last one now! 
So after a lot of faffing about with all the paperwork above the morning arrived. I have to say I woke up thinking 'bring it on' I could do no more...but I still got to school at 7am!

The inspectors arrived at 8, I watched them pull up from the window but was not involved in the first meeting with the Head. The Head gave them a very frank overview of BESD schools and what our pupils were like. The SEN inspector knew what he was coming to, the Science inspector not so much...interesting.
I met the inspectors and they seemed like 'nice' men, no reason to suggest they were there to do anything except look for me doing good stuff....even if the clipboards were a bit scary.

So along came the first observation, and the kids could not have been more BESD if they tried, they were scared and intimidated by these 'strange men' in their lesson and although calm were very difficult and in my mind, did not demonstrate what they could really do. Deep down I was annoyed, not at them but at the system. I was fully expecting to be told 'requires improvement' ... not good enough.
One of the inspectors saught me out at the end and said 'can you talk now or shall we do this later?' - the selfish part of me wanted to know....was it good enough?
Turns out I wasn't going to know!
The feedback did not exist!
The inspector was far more interested in my views on Vocational vs. Academic for lower ability students. He asked me whether SEN kids actually need a science qualification or should it be purely what 'they want to know or explore' ... i.e. is there any point in attempting a GCSE?
Now I was quite offended by this, we had put in a lot of hours to get our pupils at least a bit 'switched on' to education and why it was important to leave with some GCSEs. Were they actually suggesting this was not a priority?! I explained that a broad, basic understanding such as provided by Core Science is good as pupils can go out into the world able to deal with a lot of the issues presented to them at the doctor's surgery or in the paper.
I basically argued with a lead Ofsted inspector for 20 minutes and was given no judgement on my teaching at all.


So off I went for a coffee, very confused and suspicious, what were they up to?

Second observation was even more difficult but one thing is for sure, they really saw BESD at its most extreme and in the end left the room as they realised the detrimental effect they were having on the lesson, helpful in some ways so I could actually teach something but a shame at the same time. I felt awful for the kids and how they felt about it all and generally was convinced it was all unravelling around me.
I couldn't touch my lunch knowing I was off for a 'grilling' with the inspectors. It was turning into a long, long day.

So off I went, turned out my Head and the Assistant Head were there too....relief!
 The inspectors wanted to know about the development of science in the time I had been at the school so I explained how we had gone from nothing to actual results in 3 years. I explained how I had written all the schemes of work and that more were achieving level 5 and GCSE grades now. I think they were impressed. I talked about the visitors we had bought in, where we had tried to make things cross-curricular and how the literacy drive had taken off in science and how the pupils confidence in their reading was paying off as the improvement was becoming more and more noticable.
The inspector from this morning started again about vocational education vs. GCSE and explained the reason they had come at all.....finally the truth came out.

They were trying to figure out what was the 'best fit' for lower ability / SEND students so they could inform a case study report for ministers. That's what this was all about. So I used the opportunity to explain again why I thought that, although very valid, their idea of 'independent exploration' is very difficult to manage especially given time constraints and no money. I also reminded them that the 'points' gained from GCSE - even at a lower grade would be more valuable.
Our pupils do a college course one day a week in the form of a BTEC (examples include Plumbing, Construction, Animal Care, Sport). There are plenty to choose from with lots of science links. Only one vocational course can count under the 'new rules' so BTEC Science is not an option, I would have no buy in as the college course is worth far more.
This got them thinking, it was pretty plain to see.

The Science inspector said to me he was impressed (he hid it well) and said it was 'eye opening' what I was doing here. He was especially impressed by the older boys' knowledge and was pleased that 'proper science' was being delievered by a 'proper science teacher.' This has probably made me feel most proud.

We discussed other involvements including the ASE Conference, future Teach Meets, my presentations at Heads of Science meetings and the formation (and future reformation) of a Cluster group. They were impressed that I bothered to do all this and I explained the benefits to a teacher working on her own. Managed not to mention Twitter in front of my Head just in case but OBVIOUSLY Twitter is a brilliant place to access forward thinking and creative teachers.

We did discuss the progress being made by students, and it takes time. I explained that we needed to look over a year or so, not just a term. A true picture needs to develop so we can address issues such as lack of 'basics' from KS2 due to exclusion/not being at school. They were accepting of this which was good.

Pretty much at this point I was let go. After 2 hours of 'grilling'  so I waited......

and waited....

and waited.....

Finally at 5:30pm I was called into the Head's office to be given the 'verdict'

Good in all areas, close to Outstanding in others. Yay!

Then the Head explained that the work the inspectors had seen today was going to be used in a National Case Study to be sent to ministers.....gulp!

So to sum up, overall it was a stressful but not unpleasent experience, mainly because I had no idea what they were looking for.

There are a few 'buzz words' though that keep coming up, so here is a list of 'Things Ofsted are looking for at the moment'

  • 'Out of the box' teaching - risk taking - you basically can't be outstanding without it
  • Cross-curricular links but ESPECIALLY Literacy and Numeracy - how are you as a science teacher using/improving their other skills
  • Pupils in control of what they are learning and what they want to know about a topic
  • SMSC links
I hope this is helpful to some of you out there....ASE Conference Stuff to follow...

and before you ask, yes I did celebrate, and sleep, and have chocolate :) 


  1. I have Ofsted tomorrow (for a SEN school), your post has made me stop hyperventilating! Especially the last part about their hot topics, thank you!

  2. It's good to read that it went so well. Well done. Hopefully your classes have recovered from the intrusion.