When a school hits rock bottom, as mine had a year before I joined, there are two key tasks for the leadership and governors. The first is to rebuild the school: to nurture the phoenix as it slowly rises from the flames so that every child gets the world class education that they deserve.
The second is to show the world that we are being successful.
In the early days, when the embers of growth are barely glowing, the pressure to grade lesson observations is immense. Governors and HMI demand evidence for every small scrap of improvement over extraordinarily short periods of time, despite the overwhelming evidence that deep and embedded school improvement is a slow burn not a flash fire. And to be honest there are times when hard messages are best served by hard evidence.
However, where in a teacher there is potential and sometimes deeply hidden talent, the blunt tool of grading simply slows the growth and undermines the trust that school improvement requires. Indeed Ofsted in 2012 clearly stated that what is needed is clear ‘technical guidance’ for teachers. We know that the most effective way of developing teachers is through well-planned coaching programmes, and that the best teachers are able to review their practice against an agreed set of teaching and learning non-negotiables.
Coaching in its purest sense takes time, time that children in struggling schools simply don’t have. But developmental conversations can save time; they gently fan the glowing embers and build the reliable source of oxygen that reflective teachers need. Time spent in classrooms discussing what is going on, and reviewing the options available, means that teachers respond immediately to feedback, and apply changes with immediate effect. The result is success, promptly shared with other staff and repeated in every classroom.
We need as well to clarify the purpose of shared professional time in class by clarifying how we can best make judgements about the quality of learning in our classrooms.
As Ofsted are in retreat on the issue of lesson observations we might look to them for a lead, and judge learning on all the evidence that we have in front of us. In our school we evaluate the quality of learning by drawing together the information we get from:
- Regular conversations with the children
- Rigorous data analysis (of the data that really matters) with the evidence that backs teacher judgement
- Quality of the work in books (especially that of the most vulnerable and the more able)
- Structured conversations with teachers about teaching and learning
- all of the time spent in classes.
We call these our Quality of Learning Judgements and take all the evidence into account so we can give teachers high quality, focused feedback and carefully plan the associated support – based on their efforts over time rather than on the single snapshot of an observed lesson. This builds the trust that deep learning needs, which in turn builds faith in the leaders who are held to account for the improvement in the school.
We have the evidence that our external judges require, and for the first time in years it is rigorous and robust. Most importantly, our teachers listen to what we are saying because they hear the pedagogical discussion instead of the grade that previously managed to switch off the ability to learn and reflect in so many teachers.
So let’s get this right. Let’s make the shift from grading to coaching and bring about the change in judgements that our teachers and children deserve. And prove to the world that we are doing a great job.
Jane Ratcliffe is Headteacher of Millbrook Primary School, Oxfordshire.