A nod of approval?

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Teacher appraisal seems to be having little effect on classroom practice. Phil Revell reports.

One of the key tools for staff development is being played down and neglected by schools. But a new Labour government determined to raise standards could soon be insisting on more rigour in teacher appraisal.

Appraisal was one of the first education reforms of the Thatcher government, but one of the slowest to get off the ground. The foundations were laid in the 1985 White Paper Better Schools, but delays with the pilot schemes caused the start date to be put back and the national scheme did not begin until 1991. Circular 1291 set out the elements of the compulsory scheme: classroom observation, interview, appraisal statement and review meeting.

The third appraisal cycle should now be underway. However, research has consistently demonstrated that appraisal is failing to have a significant effect on either school management or classroom practice. And in some areas it appears to have stalled.

A report by the Office for Standards in Education published last year found that appraisal was having little effect on teaching practice and that it was "too isolated from school development and INSET planning". Nearly half the schools visited had experienced delays in the second cycle of appraisal and OFSTED's report commented that "schools have clearly not always felt able to give . . . priority to appraisal".

A survey by an Exeter University team, led by Ted Wragg, came to similar conclusions. The Exeter report argued for more funding to be made available: to address training needs, to create time for appraisal and to allow development needs identified by appraisal to be followed up.

Another research study, by Helen Horne and Anthony Pierce, found that less than a third of teachers felt appraisal was effective in improving the quality of education in their schools. Teachers felt that appraisal was "too cosy and comfortable" and that appraisal statements too often "sat in a drawer in the head's office".

Appraisal also sits high on the agenda of the Teacher Training Agency, which has consistently argued for a more rigorous approach. It would, therefore, be no surprise if the new Labour administration decides to take a close look at current arrangements. The choices available range from a rigorous performance-related system to a looser, less bureaucratic system focused on individual professional development.

One option would be to look outside the education sector to see how appraisal has developed elsewhere. Clive Fletcher, professor of occupational psychology at Goldsmiths College, London, and an expert on performance management and appraisal, notes that when comparing public and private-sector appraisal schemes the first point to stress is that "much of the public sector has to run appraisal on very limited budgets". He also notes that appraisal schemes like the one introduced in schools "have been imposed directly as a result of government policy. This is certainly not a promising backdrop for setting up an appraisal scheme."

Professor Fletcher argues that self and peer review "fits the professional ethos much better than appraisal by superiors", which contradicts the TTA's preferred view that line managers need to be more involved with the appraisal process. Fletcher quotes management guru W Edward Deming, responsible for the management doctrine of Total Quality, as having identified performance appraisal as one of the "seven deadly diseases" of current management practice.

Fletcher goes on to argue: "The traditional assessment approach to appraisal, with its emphasis on comparing people and links to pay, fails to deliver on almost every count." He recommends the developmental approach identified in studies as being most popular with teachers.

One of the newer developments in private-sector app-raisal is 360-degree feedback, where senior managers are appraised by peers and by subordinates. Chris Bones, author of The Self Reliant Manager and a human resources director at United Distillers, describes how managers set the parameters they would like to see feedback on and then colleagues report anonymously to a third party who processes the information.

Chris Bones feels that the process has produced valuable results that would have been difficult to achieve in other ways. This kind of upward appraisal is possible within the definition of the teachers' scheme and could be particularly useful in the appraisal of heads. But why stop at colleagues?

Professor Fletcher notes that "student ratings of their teachers are sufficiently reliable and valid to be used a tool in performance improvement and decision-making". Whether teachers would be happy about introducing pupils into the process is another matter.

On the question of whether an appraisal system should be developmental or assessment-based, Chris Bones argues that "most of us would like to feel that our pay is related to our individual contribution in some way; this is a basic human need. An appraisal system can be developmental and it can assess performance. A system which only does one or the other is not a very positive system."

Ted Wragg feels that schools have played down appraisal as a result of overload, but if time and resources can be found the system is worth pursuing. Appraisal, he argues, needs to be rigorous and supportive: "When you have a mature teaching force, then what you actually need is a way to change deeply embedded practices, and you don't do that through directives."

Appraisal: Routes to Improved Performance by Clive Fletcher, published by the Institute of Personnel Management.

A Practical Guide to Staff Development and Appraisal by Helen Horne and Anthony Pierce, Kogan Page.

The Appraisal of Teachers 1991-96, available from OFSTED.

Teachers' Appraisal Observed by Ted Wragg et al, Routledge.

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