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'Grading lesson observations puts barriers in the way of innovation'

Andrew Harden, head of further education at the University and College Union, writes:

It was unsurprising that Ofsted chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw, described a recent pilot of ungraded lesson observations in schools as "incredibly popular". We expect a similar project underway in colleges to deliver similar results.

How we move forward in both schools and colleges with regards to lesson observations, and their role in assessment, feedback and development of staff, should be informed by the results of these two pilots.

We know exactly what staff think of graded observations thanks to the work done by Matt O’Leary on behalf of the University and College Union (UCU). His extensive report surveyed over 4,000 UCU members and raised serious questions about graded lesson observations’ fitness for purpose. He found that an overwhelming number of lecturers did not believe graded observations were the most effective method of assessing staff competence and performance.

However, they did not want to see lesson observations simply discarded. They wanted a root and branch reform. We know staff don’t like graded lesson observations and we know the ungraded pilot in schools was a success.

Investing time and effort into improving the lesson observation framework, and making professional development the focus of observations, will result in increased trust and confidence at both an individual and institutional level.

You cannot rely on a graded lesson observation to make assessments of the overall performance of lecturers. The opportunity for improvement and professional reflection is virtually eliminated by the high stakes nature of a graded snapshot of what is around one 800th of a lecturer’s teaching time.

Grading lesson observations puts barriers in the way of innovation and creative teaching. The experimentation necessary to continually develop and improve professional practice becomes too risky.

The move away from graded observations in schools is a positive move and the attitude in FE is already moving in the same direction with a number of colleges using more collegiate models of lesson observations. We know Lorna Fitzjohn said she was surprised that managers in FE wanted to keep graded lesson observations and we understand some college leaders and managers will feel uncertain about departing from the graded approach they feel comfortable with.  

Getting lesson observations right as a tool for improving teaching and learning in a college requires a relationship of trust between managers and those being observed. Managers need to trust that real and sustainable improvements in teaching and learning can be achieved by allowing lecturers to reflect on their own practice. Lecturers need to be confident that when they are observed it is not to catch them out or label them with a number which is supposed to represent the quality of all of their teaching.  

After a number of years with lesson observations prompting local disputes, UCU commissioned the O’Leary research to trigger a broader conversation across the sector. If trust is required to design lesson observation policies that really work, then the best starting point is a conversation informed by research. To that end we hope Ofsted will publish full details of the school and FE pilots of ungraded lessons.

On our part, in order to make lesson observations work UCU recommends:

•       removing the use of grades and exploring alternative models of observations
•       removing the automatic link between observations and capability procedures
•       prioritising the professional development of staff - including meaningful support for lecturers where particular development needs are identified
•       formal allocation of timetable hours for observations - including pre-observation planning and post-observation feedback
•       a portfolio approach to assessing performance - lesson observations should not be the only or main indicator of performance
•       introducing statutory training and qualifications for all observers

Lesson observations can be a powerful tool as part of a range of techniques for developing professional teaching practice when used in a supportive and trusting atmosphere. Putting CPD at the heart of lesson observations will allow lesson observations to play this vital role.

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