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’.