With a University and College Union study of graded lesson observations having reached negative conclusion about the effect they have on staff, and Ofsted revealing an FE and skills pilot in which they do not feature, David Russell looks at whether there is alternative quality measure.

Feelings can run high on the topic of graded lesson observations. Battle lines are drawn, entrenchments deepened.

On one side, in favour of graded observations, we may find managers anxious to track quality and manage performance. Alongside them inspectors hunker down, keen to retain this tool for making evidence-based judgements (though Ofsted’s recent announcement of trials of inspections without graded lesson observations is an important development).

In the opposing trench we may find an uneasy alliance. Traditionally, we have those who object to the stressful and judgmental nature of the process. Joining them recently we may find critics coming from a pro-accountability standpoint. For example, Prof Rob Coe of Durham University, who has written provocatively about the poor reliability of graded observations, and questioned their relationship to other measures of quality in teaching and learning.

So where does the ETF stand?

Our role is to lead and support professionalism in education and training, and to stimulate and challenge the system to achieve new heights. More than this, it seeks to empower the profession itself to take control of policy debate and the standards agenda.

Informed, reflective and effective practice is the defining edge of excellence in education, and it is there we should look for answers to debates about what works best.

The ETF recently funded a seminar led by the Institute of Education discussing approaches to improving professionalism, one of a series on leadership of professionalism from different perspectives. As part of this, support for research and evidence-based improvement, contextualised and practitioner-led, has been important.

Melanie Hunt and John Webber, of Sussex Downs College, reflected on their last three Ofsted inspections and set out a series of measures which, along with a culture of showcasing and celebrating good practice, led to a more collegiate atmosphere, and were effective because they were perceived to be peer-led rather than top-down.

These included establishing teacher learning communities; providing small development grants to run a series of supported experiments; handing responsibility for leading quality improvement to curriculum managers, with teachers placed on a range of CPD pathways; and seconding strong practitioners and opinion leaders as ‘development advisers’ once a-week, to support improvement elsewhere.

When asked about what the process felt like for practitioners, Melanie highlighted the importance of ‘local colour’, and giving teachers the autonomy to interpret quality in a way that worked for their own area, while John added that leadership and buy-in from senior management was key to making the process sustainable, as was an understanding that what the staff felt was going on was as important as analysis of data.

Paul Wakeling, College Principal, and Paul Nutter, Assistant Principal, from Havering Sixth Form College described how they had promoted a learning culture within the college through leading by example, demonstrating their own commitment to learning and improving their own practices, and ensuring that staff had the time for professional reflection.

At Havering, lesson observations are now concentrated into one period of the year and the grade only given if staff request it — very few do. Now people ask to be observed when they are trying something out in order to get feedback for reflection. Their challenge at this point is to involve students in the process more and to scale up the approach to all departments.

Both Havering Sixth Form College and Sussex Downs College have previously taken advantage of programmes to support evidence-based improvement and practitioner-led research.

The message we can take from both of the examples here is not about our taking a stance on lesson observations — whether to grade or not grade — but the vital importance of supporting research in the sector; instilling a culture of evidence-based improvement, and giving practitioners themselves the permission, time and resources to undertake evidence-based reflection and improvement.

David Russell, Education and Training Foundation (ETF) chief executive

Click here for an expert piece on lesson grading by former inspector Phil Hatton


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  1. Terry Pearson

    It is great to hear about the initiatives taken by Sussex Downs College and Havering Sixth Form College. Case studies such as these can provide real impetus for others to challenge the status quo.

    It is less encouraging to see the ETF sitting on the fence in relation to graded lesson observations. There are times when we have to grasp the nettle, uncomfortable as that may be, in order to make a significant difference for the better. That time has surely come in relation to stopping the dominant approach to lesson observation in FE colleges.

    There are literally hundreds of different models of lesson observation that can be used in college settings. Sadly, lesson observation in England’s colleges has grown in a very lop-sided way. Virtually all lesson observation schemes have been designed for the purpose of assessing and/or developing the person being observed. Very few have been implemented with a primary purpose of developing the person doing the observation.

    Yet, when observation is used in this way it tends to bring substantial rewards. The Teaching Squares approach to lesson observation, which was developed by Anne Wessely at St. Louis Community College in the USA, has been immensely successful and has been freely deployed right across the country. But we don’t need to look so far away to see the benefits of observer development schemes, we can simply spend a few moments talking to teachers who are training and listen to what they have to say about the benefits of watching their colleagues teach.

    Perhaps it is more important though, to finally accept the futility of attempting to assess and measure the quality of teaching through lesson observation. Independent and credible research provides overwhelming support for the stance that current approaches to grading teaching are untrustworthy and ineffective. To use an analogy, it is almost like we are trying to measure the temperature of a classroom using a barometer instead of a thermometer, and in all probability we would get more consistent results if we did that!

    It takes real courage to let go of practice that has become entrenched in the FE system. Mike Cladingbowl and Lorna Fitzjohn at Ofsted have had the courage to take the first tentative steps to ending graded lesson observations. Let’s hope the ETF don’t take too long to follow them.