Seven Thousand Hours

First state the premise:

Children learn more effectively with more effective teachers.

Now, I know there are many other elements that go to make up how effective a child’s learning is, but this post is about teachers, so let’s concentrate on that.

So the question becomes how can we make teachers more effective? Again, I know there are many aspects to the environment that goes towards making an effective teacher, but I want to drill down to just one – effective leadership. And I’m going to state as a further premise that “Teachers are more effective if the school they work in is effectively led”. I’m hoping this is not a premise many would argue with.

So what I want to discuss here is what should leaders be doing to make their teachers more effective. And by the way, this is an opinion piece, based on my own experiences and observations over the past twenty-odd years from inside the classroom and from outside the school. I don’t claim what I say would be effective in all cases (for example it is clear that NQTs require a different environment to twenty year classroom teachers) but I do believe that as a matter of principle what I suggest is more likely to be effective than doing the opposite.

Lets take a typical (yeah, I know) secondary school. Nine hundred students, five year groups, six sets per year group. That’s somewhere in the region of 40,000 lessons each year (that’s somewhere north of 100,000,000 secondary lessons per year but that’s another post entirely). What can a leadership team do to best ensure the effectiveness of 40,000 lessons per year?

What’s our first thought when we think of this problem, lesson observations? So, say 50 teachers, 3 obs per year, total 150 observations. When we consider the time and effort that goes into the lesson observation process and then compare that 150 lessons to the 40,000 we start to understand not just how inadequate it is, but how relatively costly it is.

So there is clearly a place for observations. If they are genuinely about learning. They have to be focused so the teacher being observed can understand if there is anything they can genuinely do to be more effective, but I’d suggest that the outcome from the lesson observation should be something different from the traditional observation report directed at the teacher and what they need to do. I’ll come back to this.

The most valuable thing in a school is time. Anyone who has watched the recent School series will have seen the amount of time senior staff spend on what are individually insignificant events. This time cannot be recovered. Well, actually, that’s not true. It is recovered by the teacher (because most school leaders also teach) involved doing their own marking or preparation at home in the evening rather than in school. But again I digress.

What I’m getting to here is a view that the amount of time required to micro-manage an organisation (and I guess a few people would object to the idea that lesson observations were micro-managing) far outstrips the amount of time available in a school for management. Again, in our typical secondary school there might be somewhere in the region of 7,000 hours of management time (this includes Heads, Deputies, Asst Heads, HoDs and HoY. The lesson observations above would take up around 500 hours of that time. And that’s to barely scratch the surface. Trying to micro-manage 50 teachers to peak effectiveness will not work.

So if micro-management is not the answer, what is?

I’ve come to the view (maybe belatedly, I don’t know) that the main role of management in schools has to be not micro-managing teachers to make them more effective but to removing the barriers that prevent those teachers making themselves more effective. Think about it logically. Schools spend inordinate amounts of money selecting the right teachers for position. They are qualified people with agency. Schools have an over-arching accountability system that permits them to assess which of their teachers are teaching effectively and can act accordingly on that data. So whatever time is left out of that 7,000 hours after managing the daily issues with children, and suppliers, and buildings management, and catering, and parents, and Local Authority or MAT interference, sorry, oversight is probably not best spent trying to micro-manage teachers.

Instead, improve and streamline the systems teachers use everyday so they work to the advantage of teachers, ensure behaviour management systems support teachers as well as students, ensure IT systems save rather than suck time, have a marking policy that supports teaching rather than supports the management of teachers.

I do understand that one of the issues that often prevents this approach is funding. If a teacher says “If I had X, which costs £100, I would be more effective. Just give me X. Now.” this often can’t happen because doing X involves real pounds rather than several hours of meetings to change the way the teacher does things instead of needing X. The meetings can of course happen because the time doesn’t involve real funding, the time is stolen back from the teachers and school leaders non-school life. So rather than spend the £100, the teachers time is stolen and they have to work in a way that is less effective for them. This is why reductions in school funding, even at the margins, makes a huge difference to the effectiveness of a school. Despite what Ofsted say they can’t see.

Dammit, I wanted to write something that wasn’t about funding!

And back to those lesson observations. By all means do them if you have to. By all means provide feedback on what the teacher could have done to improve their effectiveness. But also report on what management could have done, what barriers could they have removed to assist the teacher in being more effective.

If more effective teaching makes for better learning then making schools easier places for effective teachers to be effective in has to be at least as efficient an undertaking as trying to make an individual teacher more effective. Removing one whole school barrier to effectiveness improves the effectiveness of all the teachers in the school, impacting on 40,000 lessons. This has to be a better approach.