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.
*Of course, this is addressed to a hypothetical SLT!