Imagine a system where the skill and knowledge level of an individual was judged not on their work over the course of a whole year, but on three short snapshots, taken at a time to suit the system, judged against a narrow set of criteria that hardly reflect the breadth of what we’re trying to achieve in schools. Imagine that we made significant decisions about those individuals’ successes and failures in school based solely on the outcomes of those snapshots.
I’m not talking about Sats tests here – although the comparison is worth noting – but the bizarre systems of teacher observation that exist in so many schools. Ever since the introduction of more centrally-dictated performance management and appraisals, we’ve had the accompanying brouhaha about what can count towards appraisal judgements and what can’t – and that’s not the end of the oddities.
Hands up if you know exactly where you’d find your appraisal targets from last year. Bonus points if you looked at them more than twice since they were written – although it doesn’t count if you were made to. Special goody-two-shoes points if you’ve been using a highlighter to regularly track your progress against them.
As each new year begins, virtually every school in the land begins the same process of setting out documents, scrutinising the teachers’ standards and trying to remember what dates their training was on back in the spring – if you were lucky enough to have some CPD, that is. Yet in how many schools is the process really having an impact?
One of the things that constantly surprises me is the insistence that some teachers and their unions have about limiting observations to a set number each year. I think it’s indicative of the broken nature of our appraisal system. Instead being seen as a system by which teachers’ good work is recognised and rewarded, it is seen as a punitive drive to catch teachers out.
In that case, you can understand why reducing the number of occasions on which you can be caught out makes sense. But if the system really worked, might it not be seen more positively? After all, shouldn’t a good school leader already have a very good idea of how effective their teachers are, without the three pre-arranged observations?
If we accept that headteachers – or their appointed team leaders – can and should be visible in school, seen in classrooms and aware of what’s going on in them, then shouldn’t that evidence itself be seen as a valued element of the appraisal? After all, who hasn’t been the victim of “best-laid plans” and watched as their scrupulously planned observation lesson went rapidly down the drain?
Surely nobody would want to be judged on three performances each year when the stakes become so high? But what does it say about our view of our leaders and of the system that so many people see appraisals and observations as a stick to beat teachers with?
I try not to blame Ofsted too often, but I do think this is one area where their contribution is part of the problem. All the time inspectors are expecting to see evidence of “robust” performance management linked to salary progression, there is a risk that headteachers will feel the need to be seen to be robust – what better way to do that than to ensure that you’ve caught someone out at some point?
It’s frankly crazy that we have a system that encourages leaders to ignore what they know of someone’s performance and focus instead on three snapshots. If that’s what we do, then the system is broken.
Michael Tidd is headteacher of Medmerry Primary School in West Sussex. He tweets @MichaelT1979