Observation is part of quality improvement systems where staff carrying out teaching or other key activities (action planning, reviews, tutorials, support) are observed, judgements are made and feedback is given. Action planning may follow and results are used for self assessment.

How does the way you use observation compare with that of the most effective provision seen on inspection?

The following strengths and areas for improvement have been taken from recent inspection reports across the Ofsted Learning and Skills remit.

Common inspection strengths

  • Particularly effective observation system that covers key learning processes
  • Thorough lesson observation system that raises teaching standards
  • Good monitoring of training in the workplace

Common inspection areas for improvement

  • Inadequate observation of teaching and learning
  • Insufficient monitoring of training provided by employers
  • No formal strategies to support the quality of teaching and learning

If you were given a similar area for improvement bullet at the end of your last inspection, self assessed this area as an area for improvement, or want to work to avoid such areas for improvement, then consider what inspectors judge to be key.

Particularly effective practice identified in inspections includes:

  • An observation system that is understood and accepted by staff, with a focus on improving the experience of learners (getting staff involved in setting up the system and reviewing it).
  • Understanding that some members of staff may see observation as intrusive, unpleasant and even threatening and managing potential conflict.
  • Observations that extend beyond traditional teacher-class learning situations and include key processes such as initial advice and guidance, tutorials, reviews and learning support. In such cases a programme of observations are planned which incorporate all stages of the learning process or learner journey.
  • Having a shared understanding of the purpose of observation, in terms of improving teaching and learning and key learning activities. Often by having staff representatives involved in setting up and reviewing observation systems.
  • Training all staff who will act as observers thoroughly, including initial joint observations to aid consistency.
  • Explaining how the observations will take place, be recorded, judged and results used in a consistent way.
  • Having paperwork that is 'fit for purpose' and not made to do all jobs when it is unsuitable.
  • All staff who teach being observed delivering teaching on at least an annual basis (risk assessment may be used, more observation for new staff or for changes in job role).
  • Making accurate judgements about the effectiveness of training, identifying strengths, satisfactory aspects and areas for improvement.
  • Giving prompt, constructive feedback to those being observed that focuses on what has been observed rather than the individual.
  • Grading what has been observed in order to provide quantitative data for self assessment and to be able to demonstrate that year-on-year improvements have been made, or know the reasons why things have remained stationary or gone back (often linked to loss of key staff or rapid expansion of an area).
  • Agreeing written actions for improvement and following up in an agreed timeframe - typically six weeks (shorter times and further observation where there might be a negative impact on learners).
  • Identifying areas of good (and poor) practice that can be disseminated, including equality of opportunity and Every Child Matters where appropriate.
  • Maintaining confidentiality of the observation process so that it is less likely to be viewed negatively by participants (following the practice of Ofsted).
  • Recognising and managing the additional stress which grading can cause (helped greatly by confidentiality).
  • Using peer observation to improve learning and share good practice, particularly for those new to teaching or other key processes.
  • Focusing observations on areas that do not do well in analysis of feedback from learners, such as tutorials or key skills.
  • Having 'champions' for different areas of delivery, whether practical teaching or action planning, to support development of others.
  • Innovative ways of judging the quality of key learning activities by listing possible outcomes that would be desirable for an activity to be a grade one.
  • Quality assuring a sample of observations by having joint observations, with suitably trained internal 'master' or external observers.
  • Quality checking paperwork generated by observations to check that judgements and grades tally (a grade 1 or 4 should be matched in the strengths and areas for improvement recorded - some systems check all grade 1s or 4s).
  • Using the observation process to improve the quality of training, not to demonstrate the process is in place and to generate data.

Healthcheck questions

Health check

Which processes does the observation system need to cover in order to cover the learner's journey?

Are there gaps that need to be covered?

Are your observers suitably experienced and trained for what they are observing?

Are your observations planned to cover a range of activities, ensuring that over time staff are seen delivering practical and theory (essential knowledge) training?

How do staff feel about the observation arrangements - are they supportive and confidential (staff surveys, appraisal)?

Do the observations lead to clearly defined, specific actions that staff can use for improvement (examples)?

Can you show that things have improved for learners as a result of the observations  (examples)?

Is good practice identified and spread (examples)?

Are observations quality assured for robustness (examples)?

How are you using the data generated by observation in your self-assessment report and development plans (teaching and support)?

Do staff have 'champions' that they can talk to if they want to improve an area?

Are they being used (examples)?


What could you do next to improve your provision?

  • Read inspection reports to identify what the best providers are doing in your particular type of provision or area of learning (also check other types of provision as good practice is usually transferable between inspection contexts - adult and community learning, college, DWP, work-based, etc). As well as looking at providers with ‘outstanding’ aspects or monitoring visit reports with judgements of ‘significant progress’, look at providers who are similar to yourself in terms of remit, size and what they offer – Ofsted inspection reports
  • Get a clearer and richer understanding of what you need to do to improve – Learner-centred self-assessment
  • Use downloadable quality-improvement resources to develop your staff team and to focus on actions that will help to improve your provision – Actions for quality improvement
  • Adopt or adapt the best bits of other providers’ work that inspection has identified as being particularly effective – Ofsted good practice database examples
  • Measure just how effective your initial-assessment system is and if your quality-improvement initiatives are working – Data projects
  • Develop a blueprint for initial assessment of your learners – Initial assessment and support
  • Check whether your self-assessment report is fit for purpose – Self-assessment surgery projects
  • Use the guidance developed by Ofsted to know what to expect in order to prepare for inspection, look at the Ofsted inspection handbook for your remit or the inspection toolkit – use the search box if necessary - inspection handbooks and toolkit
  • Use the Excellence Gateway as a first ‘port of call’ when researching areas that you would like to improve. As well as the Ofsted-related area, simple word searches will bring you a variety of information about what others in the learning and skills sector are doing to improve their provision. This is particularly useful for any newer areas that you may wish to research.