Dear Senior Leadership Team,
I’m writing to ask you to reconsider the possibility of changing our school system of observations so that they are only formative and developmental, never numerically-graded summative judgements of teachers.
Every time I ask about this, I get asked one of these questions in response: but what do you expect us to do about Ofsted? How are we supposed to make performance management work without grades? What on earth would happen to accountability for underperforming teachers? And what about recognising outstanding teachers?
Now, these questions are reasonable, but they are not unanswerable. As a classroom teacher, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the expansive global research on performance management in organisations. But I would ask a question of my own, a question that I believe should guide us in our leadership decisions: what decision would best help our teachers improve the quality of their teaching and pupil learning?
To my mind, it’s inarguable that the decision to move to formative-only observations would be the best one we could make for helping teachers improve. In fact, I’d challenge anyone to think of a single decision that would do more to improve teaching quality at a single stroke. I say this because, as I’ve argued before in my articles on on ‘Who’s Afraid of Lesson Observations?’, and ‘What if all observations were only formative?’, our current system is damaging for morale and dysfunctional for improvement. Overnight, this could change.
So, what about Ofsted? Come inspection time, how important is it that we can hand over a percentage of lessons and teachers graded as good and outstanding over the last few years? And what’s the alternative anyway? Without knowing the exact interactions between senior leaders and inspectors, it’s hard for me to say how vital this is. But I’m convinced that if we have the courage of our convictions, we can work out an alternative way of presenting the quality of teaching in our school to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate. Progress and achievement data is one. Feedback and actioned targets is another. Attendance, punctuality and applications per place are also indicators of a quality teaching staff. Whether this will wash with the inspector is up to you. All I’d ask, is whether we are here to impress inspectors, or whether we are here to do the best by our children and our teachers? If it’s the latter, let’s put the horse before the cart and let Ofsted follow our leadership, rather than us following theirs.
What about performance management, you ask: what about accountability, especially for underperforming teachers? I can only answer this from the vantage point of a classroom teacher, not a senior leader. From this angle, how do I want my performance to be managed? There may well come a time, if circumstances change and I find myself in a difficult time in life, when I am underperforming against your expectations. It happens to us all. Without formal observations, how would it be flagged up? Grading me as inadequate would just demoralise me. Instead, what I’d appreciate would be a crystal-clear threshold standard, the up-front clear-cut non-negotiables that you expect every teacher to deliver on, regardless of the difficulty or the timing of their circumstances. This could include the quality of pupil work, the quality of marking and the quality of pupil dialogue and response to feedback; all this could be captured by book checks rather than formal numerical graded observations. Other threshold criteria I’d expect all teachers to live up to would include attendance and punctuality at all lessons and duties, and professionalism at all times in interactions with pupils, staff and parents. Again, I’m no expert – does that cover it all? If I was struggling or underperforming on any of these areas, I’d then expect and deserve to be put on performance review. I just don’t think you need to grade my lessons to know this or help me out.
What, then, if I’m in a great time of life, and I’m reaching a high standard in my teaching and contributions to the school – wouldn’t I want to be recognised with that elusive, rare and precious commodity, an ‘outstanding’ grade? No, I wouldn’t. Let me be blunt. I don’t work hard and give my best so I can get a good grade. I work hard and give my best so I can inspire my pupils to achieve, so I can see them succeed in life and so I can see them grow as individuals. That’s the best reward. Aside from the idea of a pay bonus, a numerical lesson grade is probably the least effective and most divisive motivator I can think of.
In short, there are no reasons not to get rid of summative observations altogether; on the contrary, here are over a hundred anecdotes that show why we should. The alternatives are out there. Thank you for taking the time to consider my view. I hope I speak for many, if not all staff, when I ask that we completely abandon our observation-as-inspection regime, and I look forward to your response.
This post is absolutely first class. I’m in the fortunate position of setting up Lincoln UTC and have the freedom to create systems and structures that will bring the best outcomes for staff and students. My mind is thinking along the same track as yours. Not numbers but strengths and areas for further consideration are most helpful…and I’m a fan of active lesson observations rather than clipboard / static observations. I’m also finishing my Ofsted training at the moment and feel I’m well placed to understand how I can provide the best environment in the UTC each day and then justify to Ofsted why this is the best model when I am inspected before we open next year. I’d love to pick your brains on this over the nest twelve months if you were interested?!
Another good thought provoking post. We are moving to a coaching system at King’s Leadership Academy this year.
Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.
Reblogged this on Scenes From The Battleground.
Hey Joe c’mon! You really wouldn’t give this to SLT? Why on earth not? No self-respecting senior leader could say you are philosophically wrong. Of course we would give the usual responses, but this kind of thinking promotes change. Thanks, John.
Hi Joe, Well written and (as a current classroom teacher and member of SLT) as ever, you raise some very valuable and valid points; but I do think that your views may change if and when: (all anecdotal) you observe more and more colleagues; you work in a range of schools; you start to line-manage other teachers; you are line-managed yourself by a teacher who performs no better than you; you become a senior leader responsible for ensuring good teaching across the school/role-model/consistency/accountability/doing it for the kids etc; or you may or may not be a parent whose child in placed in a classroom far from ‘good’ teaching. All these suggestions are a small sample of scenarios that we face in a complicated education system, marred with top-down pedagogical-systems.
Two solutions I have managed to propose in 2 schools I have worked is Open Classroom and Good in Ten. Theses observational CPD programmes as well-received and really do help a teacher develop, using the formative method. If you do manage to find a few other examples of good practice as a result of your tweets and comments here; please do share them. I’m always looking for ideas to encourage teachers to observe each other for developmental reasons; especially those who are simply NOT interested one iota.
With the introduction of new (top-down again) pay policies making huge implications for school appraisal systems, performance and policies, as well as reviewing practice in the classroom, I think it’s going to be even harder, to crack the formative vs. summative debate in our current methodologies.
We talk about ‘comment only’ marking having more impact on pupil progress than marks only or marks and grades, yet we grade and comment on lessons and then wonder why teachers get hung up on the grade rather than engaging in a rich dialogue about effective teaching and learning practices. It’s a fundamental principle of assessment for learning that works for all learners whether they are pupils or teachers.
A brilliant summary Joe. What you describe is exactly the range of indicators which inspections take account of. It is not just the 20min observation. All LOs should be formative, SLT should be modelling being observed. Above all, you are absolutely right, schools should not be trying to impress inspectors. Schools are there for children.
Some very thought-provoking ideas here, Joe, and I’d like to take you up on a couple of them.
You mention that Ofsted should be satisfied with achievement and punctuality data. Sure, they take this into account, but what they also want to know is that leaders have a secure grip on driving the quality of T&L in every lesson, and all inspectors that I have spoken to are mighty impressed with an observation system which features graded, unannounced observations that can be shown to have moved teaching forward. Whether we should be overly worried about what Ofsted think is a valid question, but I’d probably ask this same question of you when you are a senior leader and see what your response is.
Coaching and short, arranged observations are a crucial part of any system, but so are full, unannounced observations. Only with these two approaches combined can a school get an unrestricted view of the quality of T&L and how to support teachers in developing their practice to improve students’ learning. And if there are full observations, surely it is dishonest – cowardly, even – not to give the teacher a summary of what the quality of the lesson was. Every teacher I talk to wants to know, and in the most effective schools teachers get regular affirmation through these formal observations of what good teachers they are and what progress they are making. If you wouldn’t be interested in an expert who is your senior colleague telling you that you were outstanding, that’s up to you. I suspect most teachers would.
In most schools, teachers are observed for far less than 1% of their time in the classroom. To me, this seems unfair on everyone. Schools need to develop systems that firstly help each teacher to develop professionally – and regular observations, both coaching and summative are a key part of this – and result in students getting the deal they deserve: good or outstanding teaching in every lesson of every day.
Sorry to disagree so vehemently with some of your points, Joe, but I do think that as a profession we need to move away from seeing observations as something to be resisted.
I have to disagree Leo. I can honestly say that NO formal observation has had any impact on my teaching. When receiving feedback all I’m listening for is that one word. If its good or outstanding then I’m simply relieved (and the piece of paper gets filed never to be looked at again). If satisfactory (as was), haven’t as yet received less, then I’m crushed- simple as. Doesn’t help at all. Demotivates me.
I’m currently new to a key stage and completely out of my comfort zone. Do I want to be judged? No, of course not. Would I value being observed and given the chance to talk through how it’s going and how I could improve? Absolutely.
I’m sure all SLTs would quite happily adopt this approach with Ofsted*
*I’m talking about a hypothetical Ofsted, of course.
Hi Joe, interesting read although the observation process you have been involved in appear very negative. We run an Insted process in my school for 2 days each term looking at a range of aspects. This article suggests that the number is the focus when in fact the feedback surely is the key component. We use our observation schedule as a way of sharing good practice and constructing a coaching network to support colleagues moving forward. Like it or not observations are part of the profession and if we are too focused on the grade it will of course have an impact on teacher’s self efficacy but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it it. surely it is how that feedback is delivered which needs addressing?
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