On why we have stopped grading lesson observations (part 2)

On why we’ve stopped grading lesson observations (part 2)…

Following my blog earlier in the month and the conversations on this topic that have been taking place on Twitter, I thought it would be helpful to set out why we have taken the decision to stop grading lesson observations. I will say again that our decision was taken because we feel that this is right for our school at this point in time. It is part of a wider plan to make our school a truly ‘great’ school.

We considered the purpose of lesson observation. This is, in my opinion, the most important question for any school leader: Why are we observing lessons? If you believe the purpose of lesson observations is to take a ‘snapshot’ of a teacher’s performance in 30 minutes, compare this against OFSTED criteria and feedback the grade to the teacher then you should carry on grading lessons. We came to the conclusion that observations in this form were not productive. We believe that observation should be about developing practice, developing the expertise of teachers and working together to improve the quality of teaching and learning in our school. The point of observations should be to make the quality of teaching and learning better not to judge a member of staff against a set of questionable criteria.

I would urge all school leaders to ask themselves the question: ‘why are we observing lessons?’ When I asked myself this question I came up with the answer that, in the form we previously had, it was to demonstrate to OFSTED we were robust in our school self review. I now know that this is completely wrong. We were wasting a huge amount of time, energy and effort on observing staff against a criteria that, at its best is interpreted completely subjectively and, more importantly, didn’t really give an opportunity to help staff improve their practice. We had to move away from this.

Before this post progresses I should make it clear that I believe in accountability. I believe that schools should be held to account about their performance. In this light, I believe that the new proposals for accountability will be much better than the 5A*-C measure, as schools such as mine will be able to demonstrate the impact of the progress that students make from when they joined us. In holding performance to account you need an external body and we have OFSTED. There are many issues surrounding the reliability of OFSTED and this is probably another blog in itself. I need to make clear my position on OFSTED. For those of you that know me, you will know that I am not that fussed about OFSTED. That isn’t to say I don’t think that their judgements are important-they are-I just don’t run my school for OFSTED. Our school is run for our students, parents, local community and staff. That is what is important.I have always been confident that OFSTED would be happy with what we did but my school is not set up for OFSTED. When we were inspected in March this year (2013) we were very pleased that our judgements about the quality of our teaching matched theirs.

From next term all lesson observations will follow the same approach:

-All observations will be carried out by those staff who have previously undergone lesson observation training
The key to the whole process is feedback. We have worked hard to ensure that all feedback is formative and helpful to staff
-There will be no reference to OFSTED criteria ever in the feedback given to staff
Our feedback will be based on what went well and what we can improve
-We want staff to choose lessons where they may be having some issues for observations. We hope that the removal of judgements will allow staff to engage with observers to address issues that would never have previously been considered under lesson observations used for performance management.

I would like to clearly state that this approach is what we believe to be right for our school now. We are not trying to start a ‘movement’. We have moved from an underachieving school to a good school in the last 4 years and we really want to be a truly ‘great’ school. The decision to remove gradings from lesson observations is part of a wider programme of school improvement and this programme has been very successful. I have to give credit to my SLT and middle leaders who have worked tirelessly to get us to this position and would encourage all SLT to consider the move we have taken. In my last blog I stated:

“It became apparent to me that if we were to become a ‘great’ school then this would have very little to do with the structural aspects of the school. Improvements in the ‘structural’ aspects of the school helped us get to good. To become ‘great’ we actually had to encourage our staff to move away from the structures that had got us to be ‘good’ and give them the opportunity to develop and exercise their teaching skills in a supportive and collaborative environment. One in where all staff shared good practice, built on what was really good about their teaching and, if appropriate, be encouraged to take risks and try new things:

To be better we need to reflect on our practice in a non judgemental way. To improve our excellent teachers by getting them to reflect on issues that, in the past, would be hidden. Let’s work together to develop practice in areas we hid because if we looked at it during a lesson observation previously we would be graded inadequate. We need to move on from that.

We took the decision to remove grading from our lesson observations to make us better teachers. To remove the fear of being judged inadequate. To encourage our teachers to take risks. To encourage our teachers to be the best they can be and deliver lessons that they may not normally do. To encourage our staff to be truly great. To be great we cannot be worried about failing, indeed to be great we actually have to experience failure to get to this level. Great teaching exists where our best teachers exert their professionalism to ensure that our students succeed. We believe that this approach will improve the outcomes for our students. We believe that this will make us better teachers.”

At the end of the day we need to take a decision. We can decide to lead our schools in the way in which we believe to be right for our students or we can run our schools and try and match OFSTED criteria. In my opinion we owe it to our students and parents to run our schools in a way that will give our students the greatest opportunities and if this sits outside OFSTED model then so be it. Effective leadership in a school is not about shaping the establishment to fit OFSTED criteria.

In our school our results have improved considerably. I am convinced that our grades will continue to increase as a direct result of our focus on improving the quality of teaching and learning. In terms of OFSTED, this can only be a good thing. I have discussed this with some colleagues who have said that our decision is ‘brave’. I disagree, I believe it is right. I spoke about this with an OFSTED inspector who was concerned about ‘accountability’. I actually think that this model increases accountability. By sharing our practices, by working together to improve those lessons that we struggle with and by looking at those groups we find challenging actually increases accountability. It is brave to try and improve the outcomes for our students and accountability lies on what we get for our students. I think our approach will definitely improve the outcomes for our students.

I will finish with what I stated in my last blog:

“I am not saying that this approach will work for all schools. It may not. We are on a particular part of our journey and we feel it is right for us. We look forward to making our school a truly ‘great’ school and feel that this approach will help us.”

That is why we have stopped grading our lesson observations.

On why we’ve stopped grading lesson observations..

On why we’ve stopped grading lesson observations….

This term, after a round of lesson observations, I found myself reflecting on where we were as a school. I am coming to the end of my 4th year as HT in the school and was thinking how we could become a ‘great’ school. Our school has had its challenges in the past. We got a ‘Satisfactory’ in early 2010 shortly after I had taken charge and we have worked incredibly hard to improve what we were doing. In March this year we got a ‘Good’ from OFSTED and we were delighted that we had an external validation of what we had known for a while.

For those of you that know me, you will know that I am not that fussed about OFSTED. That isn’t to say I don’t think that their judgements are important-they are-I just don’t run my school for OFSTED. Our school is run for our students, parents, local community and staff. That is what is important.I have always been confident that OFSTED would be happy with what we did but my school is not set up for OFSTED.

Back to my reflections!

It became apparent to me that if we were to become a ‘great’ school then this would have very little to do with the structural aspects of the school. Improvements in the ‘structural’ aspects of the school helped us get to good. To become ‘great’ we actually had to encourage our staff to move away from the structures that had got us to be ‘good’ and give them the opportunity to develop and exercise their teaching skills in a supportive and collaborative environment. One in where all staff shared good practice, built on what was really good about their teaching and, if appropriate, be encouraged to take risks and try new things.

It became apparent to me that the main reason for grading lesson observations was down to providing OFSTED with information. We spoke about it at SLT and decided that our current structure was not going to make us a great school. To be great we need staff to engage about what they are finding difficult and ask for support. This would never happen if we graded observations. Staff (quite rightly) would choose groups/sets that would give them a good/outstanding judgements in previous lesson observations. They would never pick groups that they found challenging because of the levels of accountability based on the lesson judgement.

To be better we need to reflect on our practice in a non judgemental way. To improve our excellent teachers by getting them to reflect on issues that, in the past, would be hidden. Let’s work together to develop practice in areas we hid because if we looked at it during a lesson obs previously we would be graded inadequate. We need to move on from that.

We took the decision to remove grading from our lesson observations to make us better teachers. To remove the fear of being judged inadequate. To encourage our teachers to take risks. To encourage our teachers to be the best they can be and deliver lessons that they may not normally do. To encourage our staff to be truly great. To be great we cannot be worried about failing, indeed to be great we actually have to experience failure to get to this level. Great teaching exists where our best teachers exert their professionalism to ensure that our students succeed. We believe that this approach will improve the outcomes for our students. We believe that this will make us better teachers.

I have discussed this with some colleagues who have said that our decision is ‘brave’. I disagree, I believe it is right. I spoke about this with an OFSTED inspector who was concerned about ‘accountability’. I actually think that this model increases accountability. By sharing our practices, by working together to improve those lessons that we struggle with and by looking at those groups we find challenging actually increases accountability. It is brave to try and improve the outcomes for our students and accountability lies on what we get for our students. I think our approach will definitely improve the outcomes for our students.

We are professionals. We know what works. We know what we need to do to make our practice better. We must make these improvements away from the fear of being labelled to be failing. One of my sporting heroes is the basketball player Michael Jordan. As a mad basketball fan I admired his technical ability, his unbelievable court presence and his seemingly amazing ability to make the winning shot. It was only after listening to him about what made him a truly great player that I tripped over this:

‘I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.’

To be better we have to learn from our mistakes. But we can only learn from our mistakes when we are free from the risk of failure. Failure makes us better. But we can only be better if ‘failure’ is acceptable. If we have a system where ‘failure’ is discouraged then we will always have professionals who suffer from fear of failure. If we remove the gradings from observations then we encourage staff to take risks, we encourage staff to ‘fail’ whilst taking those risks and, ultimately, we create better teachers.

I am not saying that this approach will work for all schools. It may not. We are on a particular part of our journey and we feel it is right for us. We look forward to making our school a truly ‘great’ school and feel that this approach will help us.

That is why we have stopped grading our lesson observations.