Appraisal has no teeth, not even hard gums. Our research in more than 200 schools, across four local education authorities over the past four years, bears this out. And it is a view echoed by both the Teacher Training Agency and the Office for Standards in Education.
Their recent Review of Headteacher and Teacher Appraisal finds appraisal "lacks rigour" and often fails to contribute to improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom. Teacher performance was not assessed as intended, and weaknesses often not followed up.
We found that less than a third of teachers felt current appraisal was effective in improving the quality of education. More than half felt it had not changed their classroom practices, though a slim majority did say that it had improved their skills in the particular area it had focused on.
Improving teacher effectiveness is crucial to better results in schools. Rigour is, therefore, needed at every stage. This starts with the systems that enable appraisal targets to be set based on school improvement priorities. Targets need to have clear aims and objectives within a coherent framework, but little more than a quarter of the teachers we interviewed felt that their target-setting was beneficial.
Many felt that appraisal was now too individual and had a tendency to be "too cosy and comfortable" - the focus should be broadened to encompass a whole school perspective.
Evidence from interviews suggests that most schools used personal, ad hoc methods rather than a whole-school perspective which would enable broad targets to be identified by the whole staff as part of action planning for the coming year.
Individual staff members could then modify these broader school targets to form part of their own appraisal.
Many teachers felt that one of the major weaknesses was the confidentiality surrounding the targets. The TTA review also commented that "the wide misinterpretation of the confidentiality of targets has led to a failure to ensure that appraisal is linked to school training and development plans".
Teachers felt that this misinterpretation of the "confidentiality clause" inhibited appraisal as a mechanism for devising coherent staff development policies.
Teachers often felt that their appraisal statement, along with their targets, "sat in a drawer" in the headteacher's office - they felt confidentiality should not be interpreted so literally. They said targets must be passed on, at the very least, to the manager responsible for staff development, as otherwise it was doubtful if individual targets would be met.
Neither would support be given to skills identified, training needs be co-ordinated, or any useful staff development programme devised. Barely more than half felt that appraisal was helping to identify training needs.
Less than a third of the teachers we spoke to said that their current appraisal processes had any influence on staff development planning.
Many schools seemed aware of the need for a coherent approach to management and were working hard to put in place structures that would allow the many channels of communication to feed into school development planning.
Teachers said appraisal was more effective where there was an open, consultative approach to determining targets, and where a coherent and holistic approach to the management of change was adopted. Where appraisal was perceived as separate, it was seen as a "bolt-on" burden which did little for improved teaching or learning.
If all staff were involved in the processes of devising whole-school priorities, more insights were gained into professional, developmental needs. Agreed priorities, understood by everyone, enabled individual needs to be fitted into school or departmental targets.
Helen Horne is joint author with Anthony Pierce of the research chapter in A Practical Guide to Staff Development and Appraisal, published this month by Kogan Page.
HOW APPRAISAL COULD WORK
The TTA and OFSTED review says "appraisal should be a central strand in how a school manages, evaluates and seeks to improve its own performance and that of all those working within it".
Failure to use line managers as appraisers weakened its impact on the quality of teaching. The process was often protracted, paper-driven, bureaucratic and time-consuming. Targets were not specific, measurable, achievable or relevant enough and in many schools appraisal was given low priority.
According to the Teacher Training Agency, appraisal should: * integrate with development plans and evaluation of pupil performance; * systematically assess teachers' performance of essential tasks; * assist professional development; * recognise good work; * identify weaknesses; * suggest appropriate action; * contribute to teacher competence and pupil learning; * be grounded in regular monitoring; * ensure personal targets contribute to school improvement; * support effective management and accountability.
Review of Headteacher and Teacher Apppraisal published by TTA and OFSTED earlier this year.