We are now a year on from our full-throated retreat from graded lesson observations, described in this blog Better than Outstanding. If the title of that post was meant to presage the outcome of last year’s Ofsted inspection, I’m afraid I mistyped. We are now RI. We also have a new headteacher (although this is unconnected to our inspection result.) So we are now in the tricky position of having to improve the quality of teaching, while at the same time proving it.
It was always our mission to get better at what we do, and I always understood that – without grades – there was an increased onus upon us to benchmark what we meant by high quality teaching. To that end, and with the input from our middle leaders, we produced this: The Portrait of Great Teaching and Learning at Chace.
This was the invention of many mothers, an accumulation of the wisdom of ASTs and lead teachers and what we call ‘Development Coordinators’ over the past five years. It was designed not as a checklist, but as a prompt to ‘further greatness’: any teacher, however good, could be even better and this portrait might suggest ways they could get there.
However clever we were, Ofsted’s judgement suggested that not all areas of the school had absorbed our message. So this year, we have sought to underline some fundamentals. We have articulated our ‘Commitment to Great Teaching and Learning’, basing our September professional learning day on the non-negotiables displayed here.
These would not be the priorities of every school: they do respond to criticisms from our inspection team. But nor are they a departure from what we think we know about good teaching, and the leadership of good teaching. For note the x and y of this Commitment. Underscoring everything is ‘Knowing the Students’. This is how we offer differential challenge, pose questions, plan with high expectations. We assess so we can know so we can plan so we can teach.
Over-arching the fundamentals is our ‘Shared responsibility for high quality teaching’. Where a teacher is struggling, it is incumbent on us all to support. We can help through our rebooted peer observations. The head has asked for this to appear in every area’s improvement plans, and it will surely feature also in performance development (appraisal). Our development coordinators are this week engaged in a bit of ‘deliberate practice’, using our peer observation templates to plan, teach and peer observe on an aspect of differentiation. All of our middle leaders have been trained in developmental approaches to formal lesson observation.
They are to eschew all references to gradings (I would even ban adjectives if I could), and focus instead on key episodes or phases in the lesson. Crucially they must commit to next steps. When we surveyed colleagues last year, there was clearly a preference for this approach, what I called our ‘Soft Landing’.
We know we have to know our students; we are still learning how to know our teachers. Our portraits, our commitments, our shared responsibilities will take us a long way. But we know that, if we are to assist them to become better when they are not being watched, then we need a better understanding of the work their students are doing when the door is closed. That is not meant to sound sinister: we want our book checks to be a real insight into what students do. As one of those senior leaders who frequently peers over the shoulders of students into their books (or worse, flicks through an anonymous selection from a crate), I concede I often don’t really know what I am looking at. To a history teacher, what does ‘progress’ look like in a maths book? Are most of the questions answered correctly? If so, does that mean the teacher is fabulous, or that the work is not challenging enough? What do I think of the teacher who has splashed out in red, compared to the one whose students have located their green pens and aren’t afraid to use them? What does progress look like? Our lead teacher team sought last term to come up with some answers.
Taken singly, these might simply be indicators of a student’s performance: just because they done it, don’t mean that they got it. But we posit that, together, and over the space of pages, these might be useful proxies for progress. We arranged for each department to translate the above into indicators which made more sense in graphics, geography, etc. It remains to be seen how useful a document it will be.
Our new assessment and feedback policy has helped, but it is obvious to me as I walk past classrooms at 7.30am, spying teachers behind a tower of books, that we have more to do to make marking both effective and manageable. Inevitably, given our RI-ness (in an authority where nearly every other school ranks above us), our teaching and our books are under external scrutiny. But our headteacher recognises that, to make sense of this generous support from the outside, we first have to know what we stand for. Just as we have stated our ‘shared responsibility’ for high quality teaching, this extends too to how we support high quality assessment and feedback. Our developmental approach to lesson feedback must be matched by a similar approach to book checks – what I can’t avoid calling ‘feedback feedback’. Liberally stealing from questions I believe Graham Dring uses in coaching, I have designed this.
It will take a while for our senior and middle leaders to make this their habit, and we may have to do some persuading of our local authority friends, but I am hopeful.