When Ofsted announced recently that it was to scrap graded lesson observations in inspections of FE providers, many teachers in the sector breathed a sigh of relief.
After all, a detailed research project into the practice in colleges, which canvassed the views of 4,000 lecturers and was published last June (bit.lyUCULessonObservations), found that the majority felt observations were unwelcome, ineffective and had not helped them to improve.
Despite the fact that graded observations in schools were scrapped last year, it took Ofsted until May to make the firm decision to follow suit in FE.
Now lesson observation expert Matt O'Leary, who carried out last year's research for the University and College Union, has said that it is time for teachers in the FE sector to "reclaim observation" as a way to build "sustainable, collaborative communities of teaching and learning".
Speaking at the University of Wolverhampton last month, at the first national conference dedicated to lesson observation, Dr O'Leary said the sector was "entering a new dawn".
"The end of graded lesson observation in inspection is an important step in the right direction, and Ofsted should be commended for listening and responding to the views of practitioners," he said.
However, he added: "The mere act of doing away with lesson observation grades won't suddenly result in it becoming a transformative tool that wipes clean the experiences and mindsets of those staff who have come to view it cautiously - and with some justification - as a punitive disciplinary mechanism."
Dr O'Leary said that although he understood the "allure" from a management perspective of the "quick and easy nature" of attaching a number to a teacher's performance, ultimately it was the wrong approach.
"The question I hear all the time is `How can we measure and monitor quality if we're not going to grade any more?' It's a question built on the premise that the phenomenon you are purporting to measure is measurable.
"But this is not a practice that's consistently reliable, and no amount of tinkering is going to make it any more scientific. Teaching is not an exact science or a pursuit that lends itself to transparent measurement; it's a human system, not a mechanical system."
Putting teachers' needs first
This view was shared by Lorna Page, a lecturer at Lincoln College's Teaching and Learning Unit, who insisted that teachers' needs must be put at the heart of reforms. "Teaching is subjective; it's not a science, it's an art," she said.
Dr Page, who researched the subject for her PhD, said FE teachers had experienced many different types of lesson observation by different people, for a number of reasons: from Ofsted inspectors; from mentors and peers as part of teacher training; from managers as part of appraisals, quality-assurance processes and interventions; and even from students during job interviews.
But, she argued, teachers' own voices on the issue had seldom been heard. The people she spoke to for her own research were not in favour of the process.
"Teachers were not happy with lesson observation, but accepted it because they felt like they had no choice," Dr Page told the conference. "They felt like they were being told off, like they were naughty schoolchildren. They didn't understand the value and thought `Why do I keep having to prove myself?' "
She said the irony was that the teachers who gained high marks were less likely to talk about it. "Teachers who got grade 1s didn't want to share it with anyone, whereas teachers who got a grade 4 told everyone because they weren't happy about it."
So what is the answer? One possible solution was proposed by Dr Phil Wood of the University of Leicester's School of Education.
"Classrooms are complex systems; a lot of learning is hidden," he said. "If we use lesson observation by itself we end up with a partial, incomplete view. It has to be part of a series of perspectives on teaching and learning."
Dr Wood, who leads the university's master's programme in international education, suggested that an alternative model to consider could be lesson study.
The technique, which started in Japan more than 100 years ago, focuses on trying to improve classroom standards by moving the focus away from teachers and on to the process they are involved in.
In this collaborative approach, between two and four teachers come together to identify a problem in the classroom. Having found this "learning challenge", they jointly plan a lesson with a small number of students, using techniques that might overcome the problem.
Dr Wood explained the process: one of the teachers delivers the lesson while the others observe the students, then they meet up afterwards to evaluate the learning that took place.
If parts of the lesson did not work, it can be remodelled and taught to a parallel group. That way, teachers improve their practice collaboratively by focusing on learning, Dr Wood said. "In observation, how much of what I'm seeing is actually about learning? If you ask teachers `Can you describe what learning is?' they have problems articulating that."
Lesson study, he said, should be used as a tool for enhancing teachers' professional capital. "I would argue that observation is crucial, something we could do a lot of but something we could give back to the profession as a tool for their development and growth, and not a stick to beat them with," he added.
In his speech, Dr O'Leary said it was time to change the focus of lesson observation in FE.
"For too long, the emphasis on observation has prioritised the sorting of teachers rather than supporting them," he said. "Now is the time for rebalancing the scales. If we want to make a real sustainable difference, supporting rather than sorting and sacking teachers is where we ought to focus our efforts."