Don't put off those pressing questions

Get started on performance management without delay, writes Susan Tranter.

There's always so much to do at the start of the school year - getting the classrooms organised, compiling pupil lists, allocating seats in rooms, handing out stock cupboards full of exercise books - on and on it goes. But it's never too soon to get cracking on performance management. So before the summer holidays become a distant memory and the end of last term fades forever, it's important to get yourself focused during this critical early phase.

We arrive at school full of trepidation about what lies ahead. But there is a happy flip-side to this apprehension: the prospect of a bright new start. Whether we realise it or not, we will have learnt a tremendous amount from the mistakes we made last year, and, whatever stage we're at in our careers, we can all feed that wisdom back into our practice - right from day one. For team leaders in particular, there are five essential things to bear in mind in these early weeks.

Reviewing performance. At our school, the head and I meet during the first three days of the new term. We discuss each department's results in relation to the targets agreed the previous year. What went well? And why? How can the successful strategies be shared with others in the school?

Setting targets. The meeting must produce agreed targets for next year. This is particularly important with Year 11, because their GCSEs will be "our" results as well as theirs. Agreement on targets is vital, not least because it reinforces the accountability of the heads of department and the co-ordinators, and helps to cement the partnership between school leaders and subject leaders.

Plan of action. Expectations should be clear and manageable. In our case, the whole-school target is realised through the combined performance of the departments, while each department's performance is realised through the results of individual classes. Leaders of subjects will work out targets for classes and have meetings with the class teachers to discuss these in detail.

Consulting the experts. An excellent read over the holidays was Louise Stoll and Dean Fink's Changing Our Schools (Open University Press, 1996), which accuses many schools of being stuck in the 1960s, of addressing the needs of the "male as earner", assessing solely through written exams, and with learning cultures that go no further than books and teacher talk. The authors describe a modern education system that is full of contradictions, in which there is greater accountability and yet more flexibility:a "work harder, work smarter" culture. Understanding how we arrived at this professional juncture is important; the past can help to direct us in the future. In any case, reaffirming your school's performance objectives will help staff to stay focused on what's ahead.

Spreading the word. Remember that all this effort early in the year will pay dividends later, and that all the agreed expectations should remain clearly in view to all members of staff. Agreeing clear objectives for new team members is particularly important, as is reminding other teachers that their targets should be regularly reviewed throughout the year. But it's also important to remember that any performance management system walks a fine line between fostering the professional growth of teaching staff and merely monitoring them for the sake of it. Aim for a realistic approach - one that is rigorous and sets genuine challenges, but that is in keeping with professional (and human) limits.

Performance management should not be an add-on, but should form an integral part of "the way we do things here". Certainly, it's not something we just call to mind when the pay review comes along. This is about making sure we all appreciate that everyone has a role in the achievement of individual pupils, departments and the school.

In the end, "waiting a few weeks until we're settled in a bit" will do nobody any favours. The time to start is now.

Susan Tranter is deputy head at Matthew Arnold upper school in Oxford

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