Lesson observations? This head gets the teachers to assess themselves

Quality assurance in schools is too reliant on top-down procedures that have a negative impact on teacher wellbeing, says this head

Liz Robinson

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In my experience, of all the negative aspects of teaching that impact wellbeing, it is monitoring and accountability that really gets to people the most.

We exist in a system with highly public and (at times) punitive accountability frameworks, where Ofsted and data drive the agenda for schools. Heads have become so used to this approach to "top-down" holding to account that it has become totally normalised for them.

And this is where the problem occurs for teachers. Despite resenting and reeling under the pressure of the accountability approach, heads all too often go on to recreate it within their own institutions.

The traditional view of "monitoring", or to give it a less pugnacious name "quality assurance", is that it is an activity carried out by a few people at the top of the school. A range of "formal" and "informal" approaches are used to gather evidence in order to make judgements about the quality of an individual’s practice. Thus, those few senior staff set themselves out as the ultimate arbiters and custodians of excellence in the school.

If we want to think about how we can re-engage and motivate teachers, we need to challenge this way of working.

Getting the balance right

There is a challenge as leaders to find a balance between accountability and trust – one of the many finely-tuned judgements we have to craft. On the one hand, we are public servants who have a duty and responsibility to ensure quality and value for money in our schools; on the other, we are lead learners, modelling our belief in adults as learners and committing to provide professional development opportunities.

We have been trying to find that balance. Through thinking about what really motivates people, we have redesigned our approach, abandoning top-down "monitoring" and creating a bottom-up, self-evaluating "quality assurance" model.

Instead of a small group of leaders at the "top" of the organisation making judgements about the work of everyone else, we have found a way for teachers to take responsibility for their own practice, explicitly linking their own learning to their understanding of where their practice needs development.

We began by making sure that we were all absolutely clear about what excellence looks like, across subjects and in relation to all aspects of learning. This process has been critical in having a system that the team really believe in.

Following on from that, we created a simple self-assessment format that includes the agreed criteria. Teachers are then asked to colour-code themselves in relation to each aspect: purple for exemplary practice that can be shared with others; green for fully met; yellow for partially met; and red for not yet met.

The teachers then bring this self-assessment to a quality assurance meeting, along with their books, planning, assessments and anything else they wish to offer.

The meeting then gives an opportunity for the teachers to show other colleagues evidence to support their own judgement. The meeting always includes looking at work from vulnerable groups.

Better quality assessments

Through working this way since September, we have seen a marked change in both the efficacy and effect of quality assurance. We find that teachers are now highly attuned to their own practice and make very accurate assessments of their own strengths (which is a skill in itself), as well as the things they need to work on. Feedback from teachers, as well as leaders, has been overwhelmingly positive, highlighting:

  • Impact on practice: the process supports teachers to take responsibility and pride in their own professional learning. They feel more respected and less scrutinised.
  • Empowerment and morale: the process feels totally different for teachers – they are in the driving seat and are able to articulate their practice, rather than being "told" by others.
  • Efficiency for leaders: both the quality assurance and feedback is done at the same time and written up during the meeting. It saves time and reduces workload.
  • Accuracy and depth of information about teaching: we have never had such finely-tuned "live" information about our practice across the school. This enables us to radically tailor support and development for individuals and groups of teachers.
  • The professional learning that happens through the process: in unpicking the self-assessment judgements, leaders are making explicit the questions they ask and the thinking they do – aspects that are usually "hidden" when monitoring goes on behind closed doors.


It is a simple but profound shift; to empower and enable teachers to tell leaders about their practice, rather than vice versa. Given the push to support pupils to take greater responsibility for their learning and assessment, it seems only right that we push for ways for this to be a reality for the teachers, too.

In this way, we have created a more "horizontal" approach to accountability, with colleagues having open conversations about aspects of their practice, rather than being subject to judgements made by others. The increased professional respect and engagement goes a long way to support teacher retention, and is something I urge others to consider.

Liz Robinson is headteacher at Surrey Square Primary School in London

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Liz Robinson

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