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Innovative Practice - Working in sync

Replacing appraisals with a 'professional conversation' that puts bosses and staff on an equal footing

Replacing appraisals with a 'professional conversation' that puts bosses and staff on an equal footing

The background

The corporate influence on education spread long ago to staff management and annual appraisals. Like corporate workers, many teachers have been asked to agree personal targets that are, to use the business jargon, "specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely" (Smart).

Even music teachers can now face such goals. But Cormac Loane, deputy head of Birmingham Music Service, was keen to work out a new approach to annual appraisals that teachers would find more constructive and see as a genuine dialogue.

"For years, we had been doing performance management in a traditional way, where teachers would agree to, say, two or three targets," he says. "These targets could be to increase the proportion of pupils getting a certain grade or the numbers involved in an orchestra.

"But we had a concern that by setting teachers measurable targets we weren't actually motivating them properly or moving them forward. When you set a target, people's focus can narrow to just meeting that target."

The project

So last September, Birmingham Music Service replaced its annual performance management meetings with "professional conversations" for its 270 music teachers. These were broader one-to-one conversations about how staff could improve their careers and what support they wanted. Loane says the discussions aimed to be more grown-up and collegiate, yet also more rigorous. One teacher said it felt more like a "level playing field" than a boss-employee chat.

By having a broader conversation, Loane says, the service has found out more about the teachers' ambitions, and has heard ideas that could not be achieved by a solo staff member - such as a proposal from a tabla teacher to set up a working party to develop new teaching resources.

While the performance management meetings had been limited to salaried teachers, the new system is designed for all the service's staff, including those who are paid by the hour or have taught for only short periods part-time. Teachers can also agree different ways the service can observe their work, such as by showing them videos or doing team teaching. Follow-up conversations to agreed "visits" by the service are also professional conversations instead of inspector-style, one-way feedback.

Tips from the scheme

Teachers need to put time into preparing for the meetings and think about areas where they want to improve.

Staff who host the "professional conversations" will need special training.

Staff should pay attention to small details, such as their body language and how they position chairs, as these can alter the tone of the meetings.

Evidence that it works?

The feedback from teachers has, the service says, been overwhelmingly positive. "I felt supported, and that it was a much more meaningful dialogue," one teacher says. The fact that 100 per cent of the teachers agreed to take part, when the conversations were optional for all teachers paid by the hour, has also been taken as a positive sign.


Name: Birmingham Music Service

Oversees: 270 music teachers and a range of orchestras and other ensembles

Provides: music teachers and support for nearly 500 schools in Birmingham.

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