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

Beyond Special Education

Beyond Special Education

By Simon Knight

As part of a panel at the London Festival of Education I had the opportunity to discuss the nature of transition beyond special schools for young people with special educational needs and disabilities. This addressed not just the pragmatics of a person with complex and highly individualised needs moving from one education setting to another, but also the broader issues around the opportunities available beyond education.

A statistic which I mentioned as part of the discussion was that, according to the Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities (2011), 65% of those with a learning disability would like to be employed and yet only 6.8% (Department of Health 2014) are. It made me think about how much effort and financial support is being given to addressing social mobility for those from challenging economic backgrounds, through organisations such as the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, and yet how little is given to those with a learning disability. Neither group chooses to face the challenges that they do, yet as a society we seem to have only committed to support some. Hardly an example of equality of opportunity.

However there are things which can be done to try and ensure that those with a learning disability have a better chance to realise the potential that they build within themselves through their education. There are things which can be done to challenge the perceptions of a society which sees the potential in the poor more easily than it does in the disabled.

One area in particular which may have a profound effect is the extent to which Special schools feel compelled to reflect a mainstream paradigm when it comes to communicating our young people’s capability to those beyond the school. We continue to focus on the accreditation of skills and knowledge through certification, which may have limited currency within the wider communities in which we exist. I suspect many employers would find it difficult to understand the difference between Entry Level 1, 2 and 3, or potentially to know which order they go in in terms of complexity. How many employers are familiar with the successes contained within a personal progress qualification?

One area in which we can take greater responsibility within education is to critically evaluate the quality of the accreditation we use and the extent to which it is understood by those beyond school. We need to ensure that accreditation accurately captures and articulates what has been learned and achieved, rather than just determining what is to be taught. Our young people are inherently unique and that must be reflected in whatever certification they leave us with. It makes me wonder whether schools might serve their students better by creating bespoke approaches to achieving this, rather than relying on commercially available tools.

We also need to ensure that what we teach within the school setting is transferable to environments beyond the school and the supportive structures which we put in place to scaffold success. The completion of targets may provide a professional feel good factor and lead to the creation of OfSTED friendly data sets, but the acid test of what we teach is the extent to which it can be applied elsewhere. A failure to do this is to create false expectations on paper which cannot be realised beyond school and is an abdication of our professional responsibility to prepare those we work with as best we can for a rich and varied life.

A further area for consideration is the extent to which additional information is communicated to other agencies and organisations. The emergent EHCP provides a potential opportunity for the successful integration of services within the administrative processes which surround the young people we work with, but this has yet to be realised. Until those lines of communication are better constructed we need to ensure that what we know is shared in a way that is unequivocal.

This may go some way towards challenging the culture of low expectations, which can at times exist, amongst those less familiar with the capacity to astound that young people with a learning disability possess. There is a relatively new technological tool which can be used to do this utilising multimedia, demonstrated below in ‘Shane’s Wiki’, that leaves no doubt as to the unique characteristics and capability of the young person. Making effective use of tools such as this may work to better ensure that the momentum a young person builds through their education is not lost in transition.

Sharing Shane’s Wiki from Rix Research and Media on Vimeo.

We also need to challenge the extent to which special schools and those who attend them are absent from the broader education discourse.

Whilst significant amounts of money and intellectual energy have been expended revising the legislative and administrative systems which govern special education, little has been spent on the provision itself. It seems that the young people we serve are marginalised by consecutive Secretaries of State for Education failing to speak on their behalf, when we have Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Schools failing to analyse the inspection outcomes of special schools, when we conflate education and social care by having the Minister responsible for special educational needs entitled ‘Children and Families Minister’. We need to ensure that people with a learning disability are politically visible.

Finally we need to challenge the preconceptions of a society which is fearful of difference and ensure that we as schools do everything we can to be active participants within our communities, bringing them into us as much as us going out into them. After all it’s not just schools which have a duty to be inclusive.

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

The era of the stand-alone school is over.

The era of the stand-alone school is over.
by Russell Hobby

Via @gapingvoid

Via @gapingvoid

The constant change in schools makes it hard to plan ahead. What new wheeze will come down the line from Whitehall next? How will the inspection framework change? Who will even be in charge in six months’ time?

Policies and politicians come and go, but schools remain and so do their students. There is every possibility that no one will have a clear majority in Westminster in six months’ time. Schools can fill the vacuum and establish the sort of system they want to see, or they can leave it open and face another round of micromanagement. Let’s make some predictions:

There will be no more money. In fact, there are more cuts to come. A fair national funding formula is receding into the distance and few people are talking honestly about the nature of funding for small schools. There is a minimum cost to running a school, regardless of its size. Pretending that the solution is to amalgamate small schools into hundred-strong chains to make them cost-effective is a fantasy.

It will become harder to recruit as the economy picks up. The risk of working in a challenging school is high and will remain so. It deters many people from bringing their talents to the places they are most needed or from stepping up to headship.

The old local authority is never coming back. Some have weathered the storm well and continue to offer valued support to their schools. But they have done this only by reinventing themselves.

Increases in autonomy will not be reversed. We will not see an end to academies and free schools even if we do see a deceleration; we will not see many school powers returned to the state.

We will place even greater demands on governors. Our structures of governance are ill-designed to bear this load. It is increasingly a professional non-executive director role in terms of expectations but not in terms of resources and support.

The three As that underpin major changes in education are austerity, autonomy and accountability. If you assume that there will be more of all three, you probably won’t go far wrong. This is not a full list, but I wanted to highlight these trends because they point to an inevitable conclusion: the era of the stand-alone school is coming to an end. And we should not mourn it.

Collaboration, not conversion

I believe it will be a central task of every school leader in the next five years to create a tight local network of schools, with strong mutual accountability, shared support services and the regular exchange of staff for professional development. Many have already begun this task but all will need to complete it.

I am talking about more than mutual support. This will need to be a federation or trust with enduring structures and, often, shared governance. You’ll note that I have not yet mentioned the word “academy”.

We should start this project now, seeking fellow leaders with shared values and visions, joining together voluntarily rather than being forced into unwilling collaborations developed in pursuit of cost-efficiency.

This is not a counsel of despair. Leading within a trust of like-minded leaders is an inspiring way to work. Headship is a lonely job; this makes it less so. Trusts create job opportunities and, although we may still struggle to get people to take the risk of headship, offering senior roles with support will encourage people towards the top. A wider canvas opens up opportunities for specialisation, too; it is easier to justify a science or sports specialist across half a dozen primary schools, for example.

I think these groups should be small – half a dozen to a dozen schools, ideally. This is not an argument for an authority-wide community trust, which sounds like old wine in new bottles.

So what about academies? I’ve nothing against them but I do not believe that the groups I’ve described above need to begin as academy trusts. That puts the cart before the horse. The academy movement, as it developed, has come to mean three things: accountability, autonomy and collaboration. The government got the last two the wrong way round. It offered (and imposed) autonomy while hoping for collaboration. It should have offered collaboration while hoping for autonomy. The beauty of the trust model is that it also provides a healthy form of accountability, as a mutual professional obligation to your partners rather than to government.

What can be done to ease this vision into reality? Much lies in the hands of individual headteachers: they can do this now without waiting for a national programme. The government could help by switching incentives away from academy conversion and towards building trusts. There are various approaches out there – the cooperative trust model is well-used and liked, for example. Perhaps Ofsted could offer a shared judgement for management and leadership for schools in trusts, at the same time as providing separate judgements for achievement in the individual institutions. It could license or accredit peer reviews to replace some inspection in high-performing trusts.

Whatever the national manoeuvres, this is a decision for the profession. We have paused for breath between waves of intervention. Let’s shape the future rather than react to it.

Russell Hobby is general secretary of the NAHT, and a NET Leading Thinker.

Originally posted on TES – January 30th 2015.