Spotlight on Ofsted: obtaining my observation notes - the process explained

Spotlight on Ofsted: obtaining my observation notes – the process explained

A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity.”
The Dalai Lama

The process of inspection remains opaque.  Speculative claims of insight, whether from teachers, leaders or consultants, create a mire of obfuscation and make inspections even more stressful.  Anything shedding light on Ofsted should either increase the confidence of teachers (and the public), or induce amendment.

In my (limited) experience, it has been impossible to obtain verbal feedback, so inspectors’ views of my teaching have remained unclear.  In February I obtained and published the Evidence Forms for observations during my school’s inspection; over the last three months I went through a more complicated procedure in order to get hold of evidence recorded in our July monitoring visit.  As these resources are one of the few ways of illuminating what has gone on, been noticed or ignored during inspections, I thought explaining how to recover them might be useful.

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Shining light on a darkened space

Using the Data Protection Act to obtain your lesson observation notes

The Data Protection Act provides people the right to access data held upon them; Ofsted provide lesson observation notes under this.  Ofsted’s page on this process is here.  The form for this, which existed in February, has been removed, but in my recent application, I included all the information it requested: school, date and time of the lesson, year group, name of inspector, subject and details of the lesson content.  In February, I received the Evidence Forms promptly.

What happens if Ofsted fail to provide your notes?

I sent off for my observation notes a second time after our monitoring visit in July; this time, things panned differently.  At the forty-day deadline for response, Ofsted sent me an apology, rather than my notes.  A few days later, I received another message, saying:

Mark Phillips Senior HMI recorded notes from what may have been your lesson as part of a ‘running evidence form’. There are references to Mr Phillips dropping in on several classes and speaking to several teachers as well as the chair of governors on the same evidence form. There is a reference to ‘7 History’ on part of the form but no details about the lesson context or content which is what we use to positively identify if a form relates to the lesson described by a requester. As details such as teacher or class names are not even recorded on full formal lesson observation forms, we have no way to positively identify if the section of notes relate to you and your lesson.

“If we cannot make a positive match and confidently identify someone’s personal data as belonging to them then we are not able to disclose it to them, so I am sorry but we cannot assist further with your request.”

I was unconvinced: I had seen the inspector start a fresh form on entering my lesson, and, as the only history teacher in the school, I felt it shouldn’t be hard to identify me.  (I can imagine that, if your observation coincides with five other lessons on the same topic with the same year group, this situation is perhaps common).

To whom do I appeal?

Focusing on these reasons, I requested a review, but was told no internal review process exists and there was nothing more Ofsted could do.  So I complained to the Information Commissioner, who oversees compliance with the Data Protection Act.  The link takes users through a handful of questions to ensure a complaint is appropriate; I then completed a short form, explaining the situation, alongside a record of the emails I had exchanged with Ofsted’s Information Management team.

After only a fortnight, the ICO wrote to uphold my complaint as to the time taken to respond, and to instruct Ofsted to review the information it held and check whether it could offer me personal data.  And so, last weekend, I received the Evidence Form for my lesson.

So where are the notes?

Well this is interesting.  A paragraph was included in this letter, which wasn’t in the response to my February request: it affirmed that, as information created by Ofsted, the notes are Crown Copyright and may not be republished without permission.  Whether this relates to my initial publication of Evidence Forms, I’m unsure.  I’ll ask if I can publish them, but the whole premise of this post – that teachers should obtain (and share) their lesson observation notes to throw light on inspections, falls by the wayside if permission is routinely denied.

Post-script: Ofsted – really protecting my data?

The Data Protection Act exists to ensure individuals’  data is accessible to them and is not shared freely.  On requesting data from Ofsted, subjects must submit proof of identity and address.  The records are sent Special Delivery, presumably to ensure they don’t fall into the wrong hands.  I used my parent’s address for my request (since I have easy access to proof of identity for that address).  I my father’s email:

A discourtesy which has crept into so many areas in recent years is that of addressing mail to ‘Mr Fletcher-Wood’, without any initial.  Usually it doesn’t matter, but if a Special Delivery envelope arrives here saying that and carrying only a Bristol address which I don’t recognise, then I shall open it.
“In this case, however, it was the letter to you from Ofsted with the observation details that you have kicked them to provide….
“For a bunch making so much fuss about data protection it’s stupid of them not to use your initial.  Will you roust them on this point, do you want me to do so, or shall we both do so?”

Consider them rousted.