Officials at the Department for Education and Employment are conducting a review of the appraisal scheme amid speculation that appraisal could play a bigger part in determining teachers' pay or in the new fast-track procedures for supporting or dismissing staff who perform badly. Pupil exam and test results may also play a bigger part in teacher appraisal in future.
The current teacher appraisal arrangements often ignore poor performance in the classroom and do not provide an adequate check on standards and performance, claimed the recent Government White Paper, Excellence in Schools. "Targets often fail to focus on improving teacher effectiveness in the classroom and are not specific or measurable," it says. It promises more "sharply focused" appraisal based on classroom observation, linked to pupil results and annual performance targets.
A study by Professor Ted Wragg at Exeter University and others last year, based on a survey of every local education authority and more than 1,100 teachers in 479 schools, found that even the limited requirements of the present appraisal scheme are often ignored: 28 per cent of teachers were observed only once, instead of twice as laid down in the regulations, and many for much less than the recommended 30 minutes.
The research also threw doubt on what was actually being appraised in a system where it is largely left up to the teacher to decide the area of focus. Most chose school or class management: only 25 per cent focused on teaching methods, while 7 per cent chose curriculum and 4 per cent opted to be appraised on how they were assessing children's work.
Fewer than half the teachers in the survey said appraisal had affected their work. Appraisal interviews sometimes lasted only half an hour or less.
These findings were in line with a joint study by the Office for Standards in Education and the Teacher Training Agency last year. It produced a damning list of 11 weaknesses in the system, ranging from a lack of rigour in appraisal practice, to poor evaluation of the impact of appraisal on teaching quality and standards, unrealistic target setting, and infrequent or ineffective classroom observation and a failure to link appraisal to training.
Some staff reticence over appraisal is based on fear that the results may be used against them. John Bangs, education officer at the National Union of Teachers, says the union is in favour of appraisal, but only if it is linked squarely with professional development, not with pay and promotion or capability proceedings. "There has to be trust between the appraiser and the person being appraised, and you're not going to have that if there is a fear that anything you say could be used against you."
That view has supporters outside education. A survey by the Institute for Personnel and Development last year found that most people who were appraised thought they benefited from the experience, and most people doing the appraising thought it resulted in improved work performance. But 60 per cent of those interviewed thought that appraisals linked to pay "caused nothing but trouble".
Angela Baron, a policy adviser at the IPD and co-author of a forthcoming book on performance management, says: "Well-conducted appraisal can be valuable for both the appraiser and the appraisee. It gives people a chance to raise issues they may not otherwise be able to discuss. But how effective it is depends on whether you have a culture of openness. If it's OK to admit that you can't do something and you're not going to be penalised for saying so, it can lead to improved performance. But if it's a bureaucratic exercise in which people are afraid to admit their weaknesses, it can be counter-productive."
But the Government has advised the teachers' pay review body that it proposes to introduce annual reviews for teachers linked to targets for enhanced pupil performance and it seems likely that appraisal will be linked more directly to the management of schools and target setting. One idea is to strengthen the link between the appraisal process and the school development plan. Instead of the teacher being given the freedom to choose their area of focus, they would be appraised directly in relation to the development plan and targets all schools now have to produce. This, say the advocates, would give appraisal clear function in relation to the school's performance and make it more likely to lead to improvements in teaching.
A further possible reform is to make governing bodies more responsible for the appraisal process. Now, governors have only a general role in making sure the school is operating an appraisal scheme - the chair can have a say in the appraisal of a head. But the governing body as a whole, some say, should be given greater responsibility in the appraisal of the head, and possibly the deputy too.