Better than Outstanding

Last February, I posted this blog on Observing without Levels at my school. I suggested then that my ‘homework’ was done: having read the blogs and the research from The Sutton Trust I set about devising new lesson observation and appraisal paperwork, winning SLT support and convincing other colleagues. The case was set out here: A fresh way of looking at Lesson Observations, at a ‘Leadership Development Time’ session with all middle leaders in March, where I shared Chris Watkins’ insight that ‘high-stakes’, ‘one-off’ lesson grading systems lead to cultures which are about proving, rather than improving; they encourage performance, not learning.

At a conservative estimate, we were spending over 530 hours per year on appraisal lesson observations. Yet we had no evidence that any of it improved teacher quality or students’ learning. Nor could we be confident that the grades we awarded were right. (Strong et al., 2011, found that 63% of all observation grades were wrong.) As the AHT for staff development, the process did nothing for me either: never did it throw up a professional development need, other than for those who were deemed ‘inadequate’.


Next week we are surveying staff for their views: what do they think of the show so far? Anecdotally, the signs are promising. Colleagues are reporting that they are taking more risks with their appraisal lessons. One colleague – returning to the Maths classroom after 10 years – experimented with group work in a new layout, because he valued the feedback he hoped to get. Another invited me into her lethargic year 11 class, because she wanted to talk to me about how she might give them a boost. Neither colleague – both proud professionals – was concerned about the grade they would get… because  they knew they would not get one.

But some zombie phrases have crept into a few feedback forms. One head of department (clearly hoping for approval from me by copying me in) had added to the bottom of his form, ‘In old money, this would have been an Outstanding.‘ Ah well. So, this week, middle leaders are getting their Development Time from me. They will be getting the benefit of my Advice on No grades Lesson Observation and we might even conduct a ‘live’ lesson feedback.

The job is not yet done. Inspired by this, from John Tomsett, we have already agreed that ‘Performance Development’ is a better term for what we are doing. It places the emphasis where it should be. We are also determined to press ahead with the less formal peer observations that have become a welcome feature of our teacher development culture. I am ambitious too to see objectives routinely phrased in terms of their impact on students, rather than simply the practice of the teachers. And I am convinced that Action Research remains a valid and powerful way of driving improvement. We are not settling for ‘outstanding’.

For What it’s Worth… what is it worth?

I have a headache. Or rather, I have had a headache since Monday, and it’s now Friday. I check off the usual suspects: alcohol (cheap and red and, to be fair, not that much of it); eyesight (I now have three different pairs of glasses, for different focal occasions); sleep deprivation (but I was in bed at 9pm last night, and it was half-term only last week); I am an assistant headteacher for staff development in a busy London comprehensive (Eureka!)

The kids at school have been acting up a little bit more than usual – Guy Fawkes’ unintended explosive legacy – but aside from that the job has been what the job often is. This is not a moan. I am one of the lucky ones. I still get immense enjoyment out of working in the classroom, and in some respects I am still getting better at it. I am surrounded by colleagues I admire. I am backed to the hilt by my Headteachers and fellow SLT members. This is not a moan. But I have a headache that hasn’t gone away in five days.

I have just done a mind-splurge of everything I am working on at the moment. The inter-connections are so convoluted, like neural pathways, this could be a cross-section of my actual brain. Mere words won’t be up to the task of describing it. But I’m thinking: maybe blogging is better than paracetomol. What follows will not be classic prose, unless I reach Joycean heights of internal monologue.

I am Professional Coordinating Mentor for ITT. Across three universities, I have 11 trainees, each of whom comes with a uni tutor and a school mentor. I get invited to steering meetings I cannot attend, but was suckered into delivering a ‘keynote’ at a careers day at Middlesex this coming January. Professional Studies comes every Wednesday – after teaching all morning and before the SLT meeting that touches the night. We are a School Direct lead school, and with @Bterziyski I try to remain disentangled from the sticky UCAS/NCTL web. Our school partners, and main university provider (London Met) lean heavily upon us, adding to the downward pressure of emails from potential candidates. This week I had 6 visitors from the School Experience Programme in my A level History lesson. I had fewer students in the room than adults.

I am Induction Coordinator for NQTs. I had 8, but I lost one at half-term. I hadn’t seen that coming, because I struggle to keep close enough watch on them. They each have a mentor, and I try to support them too. The induction programme per se runs most Thursdays after school. This is a serious business – they are seriously stressed – but we have a laugh too. The programme rests upon a series of mini enquiries (AfL, differentiation, that kind of thing): they get a bit of input from me or someone more expert; trial the ideas in their own classrooms; then come back in week 3 or 4 and blog about it. That stresses them more, but I try to convince them that enquiry is the best form of professional learning, and that blogging is the most fun they can have on the internet without being arrested. I have been dropping into some of their lessons, but haven’t done so formally yet.

Observations. This term we went grade-free. I won the battle of ideas, but I’m wary of a counter-insurgency. I’ve been reading things on our new ‘Dialogue and Development’ forms such as ‘In old money this would have been an Outstanding.’ SLT colleagues are squirming, trying to find ways of not uttering the word ‘good’. I tell them to speak instead about what makes it good, what could make it better. We are getting there. My Headteachers were probably happier with the old system, but they have backed me on this because I’m the Appraisal guy. This is an appraisal-ish time of year: I am thinking of renaming the season. I do my share of appraisees, and therefore my share of appraisal observations. But I also oversee the policy, which in recent years has meant rubbing off the harsher edges of PRP, holding firm to the principle that it should support teacher development and student outcomes. I’ve become good at squaring circles. I’ve had half a dozen colleagues applying for the Upper Pay Range; by custom they run their portfolios by me before they submit them to the Headteachers and the Pay Panel. It’s a part of my job I can’t afford to get wrong.

‘Professional Development’. Two words: the first having no fixed meaning, the second with no fixed ending. So my job is both endless and meaningless? Well, the first maybe. We do allow a few people out of school for courses, but increasingly this has been for exam board training, and increasingly they have been online. I also coach three colleagues on National College leadership programmes. But most of our PD is in-house. Our Development Time work – with all teachers, spread across 5 afternoons – is led by volunteer ‘development coordinators’, and Lead Teachers, from whom I take the glory by line managing them. They also lead our professional learning days. Next week we start our first Twilight PD course – offered to staff over 4 sessions, in 4 different areas (Leadership, Behaviour, Differentiation, Marking and Feedback.) Some teachers gladly fell in, while others were gently pushed. It’s our main response to their development needs as identified by appraisal.

The differentiation course will be run as a Lesson Study by two of the Lead Teachers. I have been trying to develop the school as a ‘research community’. I have signed up for the IOE Leading Evidence Informed Practice in Schools course. I tutor 4 colleagues for their MA in Education through Middlesex University. I host the discussion pages on the IOE Research and Development Network website. The work I do for IOE means I have to read government documents, policy announcements and research summaries, and I do what I can to pass on the love.

My day job is actually a 4-day job. On the 5th day I travel to Bedford Way to develop and faciliate courses for the London Centre for Leadership in Learning at UCL IOE. Aspiring Leaders, PD leaders, Middle leaders, Heads of Year, appraisal, school improvement planning, impact evaluation. I’m meant to be writing a chapter for a book. My name is on a bid for something. I’m teaching Swedish headteachers next week. Who ever said I know anything about any of this?

I know about teaching. Or, rather, I know how to teach. My year 10s will tell you I’m sick. My year 12 History class are less convinced but they liked what I did this week. My year 13 Politics class mainly want to study Politics at university, and that means a great deal to me. And I think I know how to line manage… not in the show-me-your-data kind of way, perhaps, but certainly in the I-know-you-can-do-it fashion.

Anyway, it’s Friday and this headache has been nagging me since Monday. I’ve got a lot on. But, now that I’ve written it all down, it does seem to mean something. And that is something.