My aim is to write a number of blogs on different aspects of schools in England. Governments, both Labour and Conservative, wanted to see major improvement for all students in England. They therefore began the search for accountability, and in so doing have created formulaic responses that in the worst cases have taken the creativity from teaching and from learning.
I will focus on the following:
Judging a lesson
Judging a lesson. When I left teaching in New Zealand (1996) we were edging towards improved lesson observations. We were building the expectation within schools that every term someone would come in to observe the learning in your classroom. I must admit that the emphasis was more on the teaching than on the learning. We were exploring hierarchical observations vs collegial observations. We were building programmes which focussed on teacher growth rather than on judgement.
So I was surprised to find in English schools a wealth of advice on how to judge a lesson, led by the published Ofsted guidance on lesson observations. Lessons were graded, as were schools: outstanding, good, requiring improvement ( was called satisfactory until 2011) and inadequate. In most schools these observations were carried out by HODs or members of the senior management team. Sometimes the observations were announced and sometimes unannounced.
Until last year the quality of teaching/learning was not related to teacher pay. That has now changed. But the records of observations done by the school were asked for by the Ofsted inspectors and those who did the observations also did observations with the inspectors to have their ability to classify verified by the Ofsted team. So the routine practice of lesson observation was seen as particularly important in assessing the school.
If you go online you will find many many guidelines, books written on what makes a good or outstanding lesson. Ofsted expected that such observations were routine within a school. In some schools that was not so, and school leaders had to learn how to observe. And so a wealth of courses grew up and consultants and books. It became an income source for many in the consulting industry, and a cost to schools particularly at a time when local government education support was being cut back. Such support is now privatised.
I am confident that I could always classify teachers into outstanding, satisfactory or needing support, and as a principal in New Zealand I did, but not based on one lesson and not using that terminology or recording it. And yet I did see this happen in England, although I do believe that that was very poor practice. Poor practice saw these observations become judgemental rather than supportive. Poor practice saw the judgements recorded, but the necessary support not eventuate, leaving the judged teacher losing confidence in their teaching.
And even more serious is when that judgement is based on half of one lesson alone.So much can happen within a lesson. The teacher may be trying group work for the first time. Not all students are going to adapt to that with fully focussed learning from the very first group work exercise. Under poor observation practices and judgements, because all students are not showing progress in their learning the lesson can be judged as inadequate or needing improvement. That mitigates against risk taking and experimentation. You might be observed just when you are trying out a new way of student learning.
Another issue I became aware of was the fine line between a good lesson and an outstanding one. In an out standing lesson every student is making rapid and sustained progress. While I can make that assessment for a class of students over a term, I find it really difficult to make that judgement over part of one lesson. And maybe it would not matter so much if these judgements were not so vital to a whole judgement of the school or to one teacher seeking promotion or a pay rise.
Every classroom teacher In England is expected to have a lesson plan, detailing what they expect to be learnt in that lesson, and detailing what levels each student is currently at, and what specific learning needs different students have. And that is good, but it can be turned into an exercise to please the senior management, rather than a means to teach better. It is possible to have all that written out, ready to be handed to the observer, and the learning still not be meeting the different needs of each student, because the teacher does not know how to do this. So sometimes the tasks become a barrier, another hassle rather than a means to improving the learning. In a good school, the support would be in there before the observations had highlighted the problems.
When an observation is made it is now common practice to ask one or two students to describe what they had learnt in that lesson. Student voice is really important in lifting standards in schools, but in the wrong hands it can be misused. On the other hand students can be wonderfully honest. I watched as one student advised the Ofsted inspector that this particular lesson , in which the student was obviously bored, had been taught twice by that teacher in the last week and the student thought that it was being repeated for the inspector!
The other activity carried out by most lesson observers is to look at a range of student exercise books. The aim here is to look at the feedback that the teacher is giving to the student. Feedback is very important, and parents often complain that their children’s homework is not marked. A tick alone is not feedback that can help the student improve. Again in England there are a range of guidelines and advice on the different ways to feed back positively to the student. Sometimes that feedback is tailored to how the student might attain their target grade for that term in that subject and where the particular piece of work fits in. So an exercise book where there are no grades or advice or targets mitigates against that teacher gaining a satisfactory grade for their lesson.
In a judgemental school where the senior team are trying to lay blame for poor progress on the teachers, the observation routines can become a means of putting teachers down, rather than of lifting the learning.
Lesson observation is a positive means to improving how we teach. But when this tool is used for pay and promotion purposes and for judging the school, it becomes a whip, something to be feared, rather than something to be welcomed, because you, the teacher can learn from it.
I believe that where we were in New Zealand in the 1990’s where observation was collaborative and supportive, is where observation can be of most benefit. I value observations including the emphasis on feedback to students, the use of the student voice and evidence of knowledge of where each student is at in their journey, but I am very wary of how these good practices can be abused and actually work against good learning and teaching.
Most importantly, the purpose of such lesson observations must be clear. They cannot serve two different purposes: lifting the learning and teaching within a school AND a tool for pay/promotion progress. That confusion of purpose endangers the really good things that can come out of a positive observation practice within a school community. Sadly, it is in schools where their relatively poor student achievement indicates that improvement in learning and teaching is urgently needed, that the different purposes of lesson observations can become so confused and where poor practice in observations is the norm.
My next post will be on performance-related pay and what has happened in England.