As the educational world concentrated on A-level results and the effects of changes to exam structures were debated, I found myself struck by something quite different.
Tes reported last Friday on a school where pupils are acting as “mystery shoppers” to report on teachers.
In a balanced piece, Susan Johnson, headteacher of Longfield Academy in Darlington, County Durham, was quoted as saying that staff had nothing to fear and that the “secret shopper” technique was part of a whole-school strategy aiming to “celebrate success and promote sharing of good practice”. She claims that staff feedback has been positive, not least because pupils tend to applaud the quality of the teaching strategies they receive.
In contrast, staff have taken the matter to their unions, which describe the practice as “corrosive”. Tom Bennett, founder director of ResearchED and the DFE’s behaviour management guru, similarly describes such practices as “unhelpful and unhealthy”.
Two (understandably anonymous) Longfield teachers scorned the reassurance from senior staff that there was no pressure, observing that “the minute you hear the words ‘observation’ or ‘secret shopper’…you’re terrified”. There followed some less convincing arguments about how children aren’t experts and can’t identify why a teacher might do something.
So who’s right? And what about “celebrating good practice and taking pleasure in it”? We all know some teachers are so infuriatingly brilliant that any pupil feedback they receive will be uniformly glowing. Life’s not as simple as that for everyone, however. Most of us are less than perfect and have off-days, too.
How Pupil Voice can help
I’m not against using pupils to help improve practice. Back in the days of the London Challenge, School Councils UK – of which I was a trustee – ran a fascinating and valuable piece of work involving Pupil Voice in which pupils acted as observers with the entirely positive aim of helping their teachers.
They discussed beforehand what aspect the teacher wanted them to watch. “How much do I pay attention to every individual student?” was a common one. Other tasks involved simply tracking the teacher’s movement around the classroom. These negotiated collaborations, carefully pre-planned, proved highly successful and contributed to the general improvement in, and sharing of, best practice, that characterised the success of the London Challenge.
Of course, there were difficulties. When the scheme was launched in one particular staff room, a few teachers were indignant. “I’m not having kids watching me teach!” one exclaimed.
Notwithstanding the irony of that complaint, therein lies the difficulty. Pupils watch us all the time and they have a right to expect great teaching. They certainly judge their teachers, but should that judgement be formalised into some kind of performance assessment? That appears inevitable – to teachers, at any rate – when organised by a school’s senior leadership.
An old-school approach
Some teachers are brave enough to ask their pupils to complete questionnaires, asking how well their teaching works for them, what strategies would help them more, what doesn’t add value. It’s splendid when teachers have the confidence to do that, but is it fair to require every teacher to do that?
I think not. I certainly wouldn’t advise that such questionnaires, essentially dialogues between teacher and class, be shared with senior leaders. The process then becomes a form of assessment, performance management, arbitrary judgement and control.
I confess I’m old-school in this. I can already hear my critics warming up and am bracing myself for the consequent Twitter-storm. “Stop mollycoddling these snowflake teachers!” they’ll insist: “Tell them to “man up!” I disagree. The job’s already tough enough without adding further pressure.
The philosophy that’s always worked for me is one based (I hope) on understanding people and being compassionate. We get the best out of teachers – and any other employees – by understanding their human frailties as well as applauding their great strengths. We forget that at our peril.
Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationist and musician. He is a former headteacher and past chair of HMC. He tweets at @bernardtrafford
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