Thoughts on lesson observations #6 | Subject leader without portfolio

As a Special school we organise our approach to lesson observation on fairly traditional lines. They are generally conducted by the Senior Leadership Team and Subject Leaders, with a focus on staff appraisal and the monitoring of subject based learning, supplemented with peer to peer observations for particular purposes.

Recently I relinquished my role as a subject leader. I no longer have a responsibility for the monitoring and evaluation of a particular subject and yet as a Deputy Headteacher I still have responsibility for monitoring and evaluating this aspect of the school’s work. I am also mindful that not observing lessons on a regular basis would leave me at risk of being further removed from the reality of classroom practice.

So as a school we took the decision to reflect on the areas where formal observation is less likely to occur and consider how best to evaluate the quality of what takes place. We created a subject leader without portfolio.

In our 4- 18 context there are a wide range of areas of learning which are not subject specific but are still significant priorities for individual children’s development. These are not necessarily areas such as behaviour or the pupils’ social interaction skills, which form part of more formal observations within the classroom, but rather things such as: how adults support transitions between one location within the school and another during unstructured times; how teachers reduce the amount of adult intervention when encouraging pupils to work with a greater degree of independence outside of the classroom; or how we evaluate variances in approaches to supported social interactions during play, when pupils are supported by a wider range of less familiar staff.

So as we begin exploring this approach, here are a few examples of areas which may need further investigation.

Extension activities

This is part of the week where children are expected to work with a greater degree of independence on tasks which have been successfully completed 1:1 or within carefully structured subject based lessons. The expectation is that they will demonstrate an ability to generalise their learning without necessarily being directly supported by an adult. The importance of this time in the week is that it helps to reduce the risks of dependency upon the adult and introduces a wider range of resources, materials and expectations around the learned concept or skill.

Arrival into school

Our responsibility for learning starts the moment the child steps off the bus, ensuring that they arrive in the classroom ready to work. But beyond that transition from the informal environment to the formal one, there are many skills associated with the process of getting yourself safely and appropriately to the classroom. Can you navigate a busy environment, do you respond to spontaneous social interactions in the same way you do to expected social routines, are you able to avoid unnecessary distractions, and do you make well judged decisions about the order in which things need to be done?

These are all aspects of what we teach in the classroom, but are we evaluating as effectively the nature of these interactions as they take place elsewhere?


For us, ‘play’ is a perennial concern. Not just the notion of learning through play and learning to play as elements of the taught curriculum, but the quality of what happens during break time. Here we generally have a broader range of children interacting with one another and a broader range of adults responsible for this. We are also likely to have a less generous staffing ratio than within the classroom. Yet this is a vital part of the school day in terms of developing our pupils’ capability to interact, communicate and negotiate successfully, and one which we are aware we could be doing better.

Choosing Time

This is an opportunity earned by pupils at the very end of the day to select a particular resource or activity to share with peers or use by themselves. This provides opportunities for a greater degree of self-direction and choice with regards to social interactions and the extent to which attention is sustained. Adults are often focused on supporting pupils with their personal care at this time, reducing the staff ratio and requiring a greater degree of independent participation from the children.

Although the above are areas which may appear to have less tangible impacts upon the attainment within the classroom, they are material to the creation of a culture where learning permeates the environment and where an atmosphere of calm and purposeful activity prevails. It also allows us to make informed, conscious decisions about where we may wish to increase the degree of variability and independence, ensuring that we are equipping our pupils to cope with a wider range of adults and other children responding in unexpected ways.

In taking a structured approach to the reduction of structure, we are aiming to ensure that our pupils are equipped for life beyond the school in its broadest sense.

Continuing the analogy of the surgeon and the scalpel, do we as schools need to be less focused on the major organs, and ensure that we address the patient as a whole?

Simon Knight is Deputy Head of Frank Wise School, Banbury, and a NET Associate Director.

The schools March 2015 Ofsted report is worth reading.

Open letter to the new Secretary of State for Education 9th May 2015

Dear Secretary of State,

I have had the privilege of working with many of your predecessors and their Ministers over the past 25 years. Distinguished politicians have their framed photographs on the wall in the foyer of the Department of Education, dating back to the early post‐war years. Your photo will one day join them. Your influence over hundreds of thousands of everyday lives will be significant during your term in office, and perhaps beyond.

Education has featured rarely in the national election campaign. At local level on the doorstep, voters spoke only of having a good local school – that was their proper message. The British public has also rejected the idea of politicians ‘weaponising’ the National Health Service. Might you be a pioneer and establish a parallel National Education Service, with a view to taking the detail of education practice out of the political arena? What a legacy that would be.

The distinguished brain surgeon Henry Marsh titled his recent autobiography Do no harm, a singular message he wishes to pass on to all doctors. As the new Secretary of State, please make sure the first question you ask your DfE and political advisers is: ‘Do we need a new policy in education?’ (It seems likely doesn’t it that the government will have bigger fish to fry in the coming parliament.)

There are two key areas of education policy and practice where we need your legitimate democratic leadership:

  1. Establishing a fair funding system for primary, special and secondary schools across the country
  1. Securing a sustainable stream of good entrants into the teaching profession.

Concentrate on these two pivotal issues and you will win plaudits from 25,000 headteachers, voters, and fellow politicians. If you subscribe to the self‐improving school system, you might do little else, besides being a careful and thoughtful guardian. Don’t be tempted to put your indelible stamp on the Office with further initiatives. Rather, leave in five years’ time (Theresa May is a model to follow) proud to have done no harm.

If you stray beyond the two areas above, please opt for sustaining and embedding what has been legislated for in recent times: all schools good schools; raised levels of accountability and pupils’ achievements; the new curriculum and examination arrangements; pupil premium funding.

Finally, daring you to be different in just one direction: suspend Ofsted inspections of good and outstanding schools for one year; afford headteachers the space to shape that self‐improving, self‐ regulating school system. Then go visit a hundred schools and ask their views.

I’m sure the profession, governors, pupils and parents wish you well in your new Office of State. With a little more time, I would have written you a shorter letter. Less is always more.

Yours sincerely,

Roy Blatchford, Director, National Education Trust

Thoughts on lesson observations #5 | Spot Coaching

It certainly feels like a brave new world. My colleagues and I have rightly exercised caution in the first few weeks of piloting ‘spot coaching’, but we know why we are doing this. I have also reminded them that the old way of observation was far from perfect and to remember those colleagues bruised by feedback and judgement received long after the moment had passed.   All too often I felt a quantified lesson grade distracted from any qualitative feedback, irrespective of whether the feedback was deemed to be of any use or not.

What is different now is that feedback is purposeful, developmental and (critically) nearly always provided in the heat of the lesson. However this is not at the exclusion of an extended conversation after the lesson (often better for the exchange during the lesson). Such instant feedback provides the teacher with the perfect opportunity to re-work, trial something new or embrace an opportunity to digress to deepen pupils’ thinking in the ‘here and now’.   That may require a little more courage and faith in oneself to speak up or interject when it might be safer to remain silent, but the silence is over in the ‘new world’.

We have a duty as leaders of learning to help our colleagues move their practice forward. If we worried excessively about the possible consequences of our words on others then we would never open our mouths and we would cease to lead. I held on to this very thought when recently observing Year 7 scientists researching forces at various ‘learning stations’ in a rotational group activity. The sight of one pupil’s insufficiently statically charged balloon falling to the floor as other pupils’ balloons remained steadfastly attached to the wall, resulted in much hilarity from the rest of the class.

The teacher initially joined in the laughter, but instead of capitalising on this moment she then sought to bring the class back to order and move them on. I was like a gazelle across that classroom to catch her ear and whisper that she should make much more of this event before resorting back to plan. My colleague then expertly explored why this event had just occurred with the whole class. Her skilled questioning probed their understanding of the different roles played by the relative forces involved. This even prompted some pupils to ask more searching questions on the effect of gravity on Earth and in space. It was wonderful. A productive conversation continued after the class left, during which my colleague confirmed that she would not have otherwise seized that moment.

There have been more occasions when I have intervened discretely, talking in whispers and then standing back, than not. But there have been times when I have found myself playing a more active ‘team-teach’ role.

On one occasion, enrolled as the ‘teaching assistant’ by prior arrangement with a newly qualified teacher, the successful re-working of a Year 9 technology lesson owed much to a relationship built on trust and mutual respect with all ‘distance to power’ removed. Carefully considered and sensitive use of language and action quickly established this fact with the pupils and always actively sought to build the confidence of the teacher. Here was an example of collaborative teaching without prejudice or judgement, but plenty of running commentary and feedback. My heart sank a little when I was later asked for the written feedback; I dutifully wrote up some notes of our conversation and politely explained that, ‘I don’t really complete observation reports anymore.’

On rare occasions, I have felt no compulsion to utter anything at all – the moment never arrived. Not necessarily an indication of the quality of learning observed, but rather due to a greater need to take stock and retreat for further thought and contemplation – but always with the intention of returning again soon.

I visited one colleague three times in the space of three days before I was ready to intervene. On this occasion, I was intrigued by her framing of a Year 8 science practical experiment, setting pupils up to test the hypothesis: The shape of an object determines how quickly it can move through a liquid. I returned a little later, by which time the teacher had brought the pupils back together to sum up their test findings in the context of the original hypothesis. This was my moment. I quietly put it to her that she should then swiftly challenge each individual to write their own new and improved hypothesis. She executed this supremely as evidenced by the articulacy of pupils’ findings – the justifications of their concluding thoughts post-experiment – expressed through the fine statements they composed in the last ten minutes of the lesson.

‘We are not judging them so they are now actively seeking out feedback and advice,’ said one senior colleague recently. There are few things more encouraging than when colleagues engage with others in a dialogue about their own classroom practice. ‘A paradigm shift?’ questioned another senior colleague.

The next step is to roll out our new ways of doing. Establishing a new classroom observation protocol to reflect the ‘new world’ is essential, especially if we are to safeguard colleagues from clumsy interferences from well-meaning and high spirited headteachers! More importantly, we need to build up the team of active coaches and empower as many colleagues as possible to provide high quality ‘on the spot’ feedback and frequently engage in meaningful professional dialogue.

I am left in no doubt that immediate feedback, in the same way that a tennis coach or dance instructor provides, has powerful potential as a professional development tool in teaching. Our recent work has been exhilarating. I hope never to grade a single lesson again.

Keith Grainger is Principal of Garth Hill College in Bracknell, Berkshire. He has been teaching for 23 years.  

Collection of posts on lesson observations

Here is our growing collection of posts on the subject of lesson observations from our leading thinkers.

1. The surgeon and the scalpel

2. Fanning the glowing embers.

3. The clearing fog

4. Changing the silent process of judgment.

5. Spot coaching.

6. Subject leader without portfolio.

Feel free to share your opinion of lesson observations in the comments section below.

Thoughts on lesson observation #4 | Changing the Silent Process of Judgement

Many years ago, I attended a training session for those new to mentoring PGCE students. As I saw this as recognition that I was now ready to teach the teachers, I approached this challenge with appropriate reverence and solemnity.

Part of this training included observation protocol. It included such wise advice as to make sure you did not interrupt or speak to the teacher and to sit silently in the lesson. I absorbed this guidance, never questioning what appeared to be a long established protocol. Those who had observed me as a student had always sat mutely in my class, scribbling furiously in their silent process of judgement and now it was my turn to judge.

As every English teacher knows, the greatest impact you can have on a child’s writing is when you intervene at the point of writing. Intervention after the writing is complete is not as effective and it can be soul destroying. Imagine you are 11, have written two sides of A4 for the first time in your life, only to be told after you have finished that you have done it wrong! Instead, if the teacher had paused this youngster after half a side, assessed what was written so far and offered guidance, then success would have been, if not assured, then at least a greater possibility.

So now imagine sitting opposite a colleague who is giving you feedback on a lesson, helpfully suggesting a number of things you could have done slightly differently to enrich learning. Having sat on both sides of this conversation, I have been either frustrated that  we are discussing something that is now fixed in time and I cannot improve, or feel like the old man in the Harry Enfield sketch: ‘You don’t want to do it like that, you want to do it like this…’

Wouldn’t it be better if the observer piped up in the lesson?  To have removed the shackles of silent judgement? To intervene at the point of teaching?

The tremendous benefit of having an active observer is that you are often so busy running the lesson and managing the multitude of micro-moments which all combine to make a lesson, that you miss out on opportunities for forensic analysis until the moment has passed. An active observer would be able to work with you during the lesson to highlight any tweaks that could be made to deepen pupils’ understanding, or to gently nudge learning towards excellence.

For this paradigm shift to happen there need to be some ground rules. And we are busy working on them!

You and your active observer need to establish a clear purpose for the observation and identify parameters for the active observer’s role in your lesson. Are you happy for them to interrupt you in front of the class to push the lesson in an unexpected direction? Are you brave enough to? Or would you prefer for them to wait until pupils are working to have a quick discussion about learning points? Are you comfortable enough to allow pupils to notice you are working on your own professional development and therefore improving their learning?

Essentially, this collaborative professional development in a lesson must be reinforced by discussion and reflection after the lesson. This active observation will enhance, not replace, the post-match analysis. What it will enable you to do is have a richer, deeper learning conversation about pedagogy and practice. It will replace the feeling of ‘if only you had said something at the time, and then I could have done something about it’.

Active observation is going to take some getting used to. It may mean mistakes on both sides while we find what works. But if we want to make progress, we need to challenge the status quo. After all, when you learned to drive your instructor did not sit next to you mutely watching you veer in to oncoming traffic, only to catch up later, huddled in a silver blanket by the side of the road, to consider WWW and EBI.

Kate Dutton is Assistant Principal at Garth Hill College, Bracknell, Berkshire

Thoughts on lesson observations #3 – The clearing fog

The clouds that contour the Brecon Beacons whenever I walk along Offa’s Dyke provide a flip metaphor for the fog of the educational landscape. I spend many weekends walking these wet cold mountains: an escape from the electric hum of London. The high winds on the ridges are a natural antidote to the world of work: of Shadwell, Wapping and Aldgate. This recent Easter, the peaks have seemed more than 200 miles away from lesson observations, marking, and spreadsheets.

In school, we continue to talk post-Ofsted about how we “do” lesson observations and why. Increased team sharing of best practice seems instinctively the next move forward for us. We work with the principle that explaining how to improve delivery and provision within lessons is more important than defining it in a snapshot moment.

Databases of judgments and labels (which we have) perhaps do less to improve the quality of an individual’s teaching than collaborative and democratic planning and review. Our individualised Improving Learning Programme has strong impact in this way. Providing staff with a co-planner and reviewer of their choice and using IRIS Connect software, but giving also time and space to reflect is imperative.

It is also a complex conversation to un-teach judgement, to un-teach our comparative self which marks ourselves against each other. As recipients we want to know where we are and often where we are in relation to others. This impetus to judge and to define comes through fear of the hard hand of external judgement. Of course it is disingenuous to say we can throw away lesson judgements completely. However we do it, when we walk into a room we make a judgement unconsciously. Whether it is on a score of 1-4 or “promising” to “fine”, there is a decision made of the quality we see. From that comes reflection on what is needed for the whole team of staff and what steps to take next.

Mutual coaching and peer-review, allied to better research, form part of the maturing vision that all schools are developing. It mirrors, of course, wider thinking by researchers who have long argued that we should be less interested in ‘accountability’ and more in professional improvement.

We are all discovering that the scoring of teaching quality formerly used by Ofsted and aped by schools only measures what Robert Coe calls “poor proxies for learning”. There persists an unwillingness to accept that observations are limited in scope and worth. A culture of tyranny and rank ordering of teachers doesn’t allow you to go beyond being a satisfactory school. The problem is partly the two competing aims generated by lesson observation appraisal cultures: between what may actually be needed and what needs to be seen to be done. This clash is keenly felt by professionals. Despite a desire to focus on dialogue and mutual commentary, teachers and leaders still find it difficult to step outside the scaffold of judgment.

The long horizon afforded during my Brecon walks reminds me that judgments about lessons and staff are always decisions about people. Judgment labels people. It is unhelpful at best, and at worst can retard development and pupil progress. Observations of others’ performance and the systems we use to do this have to be considered, intelligently-informed and emotionally cogent. In almost all cases, improving teaching is a long-term goal, not a quick fix.

But what about accountability? Coe’s research highlights the inadequacy of lesson observation judgements in this regard. Both the reliability of judgements and the validity of observations are problematic. We have attempted at Bishop Challoner small steps to ameliorate these effects. Our regular cycle of observations is all now paired. We have done this for three years and the ethos should be of shared evaluations. Research by Kane (2013) seems “unambiguous in suggesting the importance of having more than one observer. The gain in reliability from adding another set of eyeballs is more than twice as large as that of adding another observation from the same observer.”

Observing to judge and observing to advise are subtle distinctions, challenging to implement, but we must grow a more sophisticated professional development world.

As the sun brightens during my walks over Brecon I notice again the shape of the valleys here, reminding me how things are rarely mono-causal. Lesson observations have to be done with an awareness of our flawed ability to make judgements. It is hard not to think that more research is needed in UK school contexts about the impact of punitive lesson observation regimes both on the core ethos of the school and on the standards agenda itself.

Nick Soar is Vice-Principal and Head of the Girls’ School
Bishop Challoner Catholic Federation of Schools

Thoughts on lesson observations #2 | Fanning the glowing embers

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.