On observations and grades

This post falls under the heading of “things I’m not sure if I should write about but have wanted to for a long time so here goes anyway”.

I obviously do stuff to make money. You know, a job. The reason this post falls under the heading above is that it could be considered some form of promotion of that role. It’s not intended to be. The reason I’m writing it is I think it might be useful information.

So, one aspect of the “job” is a system for recording lesson observations as part of performance appraisal. It’s used by a few hundred schools and has been for the past four to five years. And this post is a bit about those observation forms and how they have changed over the years. Sort of a report from the frontline. They’ll be no detailed figures or exemplars, just my thoughts on the changes and what they might mean. It is also a skewed sample – of schools that have made the decision to buy into a system. So I make no claims that what I see reflects the whole population of schools. Nonetheless, I hope this is useful.

When we started out five years ago virtually all the schools that come onto the system had grading on their forms and mostly it was Ofsted grading. At the outset we never marketed things this way (and we’ve tried to steer clear of the “this would be good for Ofsted” approach – though it would be false to claim we have never gone anywhere near that). It is also true to say the original system was developed in response to customer requests, which included the Ofsted grading.

First the first year or so I’d say that all the forms we were asked to put on the system were graded – if not with Ofsted grades then with a bespoked grading. Having said that most of the grading was on a scale of, usually, 1 to 4 so you could say it didn’t matter what the grades were named, it was still an Ofsted scale. To digress slightly at this point I’d say that whilst there is a lot of truth in the previous sentence I’d also say that words do matter. When applied to a single lesson it is hard for a teacher to hear the word “Inadequate” and not take it personally. So whilst I take the point that a 1 to 4 scale is a 1 to 4 scale I do think that the descriptors used make a difference. Anyhow, back to the main focus.

We first started to see a significant change a couple of years ago. Many of the new schools we were taking onto the system wanted to use observation forms but they didn’t want to have any grading on them. This did, however, vary with the context of the school. Schools in a category and those recently out of it stayed with grading but probably 70% of new schools coming on to the system went to narrative only forms. Additionally at this stage we also had a number of schools where it was the choice of the staff member being observed as to whether or not the lesson was graded.

Then, in the past year, there has been a further change.

Most schools have now moved from using Ofsted grading on observation forms. However most, probably near to 90%, are using forms that have some form of data collected on them. This is done in a number of different ways. The most common is looking at whether specific things have been seen in a lesson. Schools have developed their ideas of what they would like to see in a lesson, usually in conjunction with the teaching staff. On most such forms there are 6 to 12 factors that are highlighted. Some schools are taking this approach further and looking to be able indicate if those things are exemplars that can be shared with other staff. Some forms allow the observer to indicate if any of these specific areas require further work. We rarely, on new forms, see a 1 to 4 grading. Significantly most new forms do not have an overall grade on them.

By picking out specific areas relevant to their setting the observations are able to be a less subjective than a traditional graded form whilst still providing some level of data to provide a summary across the teaching cohort. This is most often used to inform CPD planning for the coming year.

Another feature we see more frequently is to require a focus for the observation – perhaps surprisingly this was not a common feature when we started but I guess that was an Ofsted thing – they didn’t do it so why should the school.

There are still some graded forms on the system and there are still some forms that are 100% narrative. But these are in the distinct minority. The hybrid has taken over.

Even though this won’t add any to my popularity I’ll take a paragraph to make a defence of those schools who still use a 1 to 4 graded approach. In my experience they do so for a reason. Yes, Ofsted have made some great noises both about observations specifically and the need not to do things just for Ofsted generally. But those schools that have been under the Ofsted ‘cosh’ for many years cannot easily shift from that approach. Indeed, until Ofsted can show over a sustained period that the ‘bad old days’ have gone for good, they would be foolish to do so. I’ll make one point in this respect. Schools in a category have regular contact with Ofsted. And they are the schools most likely (in my experience) to be using graded observation forms. Until this is not the case we can only assume that Ofsted doesn’t go out of its way to advise against this. But enough of the Ofsted bashing. They know I’m a fan. No, really. I am.

So we are seeing the appraisal methodology moving to a more triangulated approach, looking not just at observations, but also at more information about the member of staff over the whole year, using for example objective setting, student data and other evidence put forward by the individual to provide an overview. It is becoming more of a process than an event, which makes it much more developmental.

Overall I’d say this was a positive picture, showing the move away from a system of observations that were being done largely in response to what the schools saw as the requirements of Ofsted and towards a system designed to promote teacher development.