When mike kent, head of Comber Grove Primary in Southwark, south London, criticised the bureaucracy and form-filling involved in performance management (TES, October 10), he raised an issue troubling many heads. How has a process that should be central to effective school leadership become, in some cases, a hindrance to it?
Talking to heads around the country, a consensus emerges that while a clear framework for formally recognising good teaching and supporting struggling teachers is welcome, the process has become swamped by bureaucracy, as circular upon circular advising on the latest methods of handling the process land on heads' desks. As one put it, many are now "unable to see the wood for the trees".
What is evident, too, is that effective leaders take the structure of the framework and adapt it to their needs, dismissing the box-ticking.
Allan Foulds, chair of the professional committee of the Association of School and College Leaders and head of Cheltenham Bournside School in Gloucestershire, is not surprised at the frustration heads feel about the pile of circulars.
"Schools need to be sensible about the amount of paperwork they do. They should be confident that their quality will come through without masses of paperwork behind it," he says. But he believes that the performance management framework, judiciously used, is a valuable tool.
"Leaders should minimise the burden by delegating - I engage with a team of eight subject leaders, each of whom reviews no more than six staff - and identifying training opportunities.
"It is important to keep the focus on quality of teaching and learning, and to see the process positively. It is helpful to have the framework provided by performance management guidelines, which gives entitlement to training," he says.
Heads who use performance management processes effectively point out that schools do have the freedom to decide for themselves how they collate the information they gather, and leaders should have the confidence to take advantage of this and resist bowing to fears that there is a set format for performance management which involves screeds of paperwork.
Brian Lightman, a past president of the ASCL and head of St Cyres School in Penarth, near Cardiff, says: "Pro formas are not prescribed centrally; schools can draw them up themselves. The important thing is to have something down on paper, otherwise you've just had a chat."
George Lloyd, one of the National College for School Leadership's national leaders of education, who help struggling schools, has little time for what he calls unhelpful and unnecessary paperwork.
"I firmly believe that if you feel strangled by a weighty tome of words you won't get on with your job," he says. "The whole point of this is to run a school effectively, and if there is unhelpful and meaningless paperwork, I won't do it."
Mr Lloyd is head of Wycombe Grange Pupil Referral Unit in Buckinghamshire, and oversees hospital teaching provision, home tutors for chronically and terminally ill children, and supports 32 schools locally. He acknowledges it is easier for him to take this position on paperwork, as an experienced head in a school with an excellent reputation and exceptional relationships among staff, than it would be for a young leader or one leading a school out of difficulty. But it would be inaccurate to say he does not undertake performance management. It is at the heart of his school.
"I have close familial relations with my staff," he says. "We all meet together at the start and end of each day, which gives plenty of opportunity for self-criticism and reflection, and I make time for individual dialogue."
Mr Lloyd does not dismiss the formal process entirely. "I have seen schools in the transformation stage need a degree of formality, but it's the grinding nature of the process which can be so negative," he says. "Young staff do need a more targeted approach, but not just more paperwork."
As far as target setting goes, he is a great believer in a sheet of paper and bullet points. "Our school development plan is a sheet of A4 and six clear, bold statements, pinned up in every classroom," he says.
Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argues that the greatest burden of performance management falls on smaller schools - often primaries - where there is neither the time, nor staff resources to spread responsibility for it among senior managers.
"The size means the responsibility rests on the head because there is simply no one else. We need to look at system management and shared resources for primaries," he says.
One London primary head, who declined to be named, lays blame on a one-size-fits-all mentality.
"I run an outstanding school, but performance management procedures are inappropriate. I don't have a big senior management team - they all have plenty of other calls on their time - and so it's one more thing to be squeezed into my already bursting timetable," she says.
Mr Brookes says that, in his experience, the value of performance reviews lies in the opportunity to have a dialogue about the dynamics of the classroom and school, and to coach colleagues into a better view of themselves and their capacities. He is dismayed by the negative tone often given to the process by its formality.
"Like a pre-nuptial agreement, once you have to reach for the rules, the relationship is in trouble."
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An opportunity to reflect, plan for the future and recognise excellent contributions
THE COMPREHENSIVE SCHOOL HEAD
South Hunsley School in Melton, near Kingston upon Hull, is a large 11-18 comprehensive, with an impressive array of extended school facilities and links to the community. Chris Abbott, the head, is responsible for 249 staff, of which 113 are teachers.
She says that while the process of performance management may seem a huge job, it offers her a vital opportunity for a dialogue with members of staff that she would not always have the time to speak to individually. The key is to simplify the way that it is done.
"Sometimes you do feel 'Oh, it's a lot of work', but it really helps staff to have a conversation with you, plan for the future and reflect on things for which there is little time normally."
Ms Abbott also believes it is important that excellent contributions are formally recognised in a written report. The school's chair of governors reviews performance management reports and sends a letter of thanks to outstanding performers.
But Ms Abbott believes that tight limits need to be set for the written report. "I keep targets down to a couple of lines," she says.
"We are also trialling a central electronic system to cut down the paperwork generated.
"The most soul-destroying thing with conventional record-keeping is that if the person doing the performance managing changes, or if the sheet of paper is lost, then the work has to be duplicated," she says.
"The new system is also more flexible, allowing the reviewer and the reviewee to have a dialogue outside the meeting."
The independent school head
"The state sector has had very good ideas, and the performance management framework is one of them, but in the past five years it has got overwhelmed by bureaucracy," says Kevin Riley, head of John Lyon School, an independent school in Harrow, north-west London. "It started well as a framework, but now you can no longer see the wood for the trees."
Mr Riley believes that balancing consistency and flexibility is the key to effective performance management. "Form-filling misses the point, to make someone a better teacher," he says.
He believes that while a forceful, confident head can streamline the process and make it manageable, many spend too much time on it for fear of repercussions, either from unions or the state, if things go wrong.
He also believes that linking pay and appraisal has brought complexity and uncertainty to the process.
"Good teachers get extra pay after their review, and at the same time are asked to show that they are continuing to improve. That's very hard to prove in a written appraisal if they are not ambitious to climb the ladder to senior management," he says.
Independent schools do not have the same obligation as state schools to undertake performance reviews, but it is seen as good practice. John Lyon School follows an annual cycle, with teachers reporting to line managers and Mr Riley appraised by an external team which reports to the governors.
"In any school, it's vital to lead from the top, but it is essential that the management process is done with a light touch, and with devolvement to line managers," he says.