Black spots

1st November 1996 at 00:00
OFSTED's grading of teachers is confidential to the inspector, head and teacher concerned. But what is the next step when a teacher is weak? Maureen O'Connor reports.

Teachers were not overwhelmed with joy when OFSTED decided that registered inspectors should "grade" staff on a seven-point scale. And staffrooms have only been slightly mollified by the news that the lowest grades, six and seven, are not being handed out with the Smartie-like generosity Chris Woodhead, the chief inspector, might have anticipated.

Even so, the system is now in place, and headteachers are being informed about their staff in a way which is quite new. OFSTED's Form C1 leaves space for only a sentence or two of "evidence and evaluation" of the lessons observed and a prominent black box for the grades awarded. The inevitable question then is what do headteachers and governors do next if the black boxes are not encouraging?

OFSTED itself is extremely careful in its approach to the passing on of what could be damaging information about a named individual. Comments are confidential to the inspection team, the head and to the teacher - who should also have been given some verbal feedback on the day of the inspection. Heads are warned that the inspectors' conclusions should not be used as the only basis for disciplinary action, something which is reiterated by the National Association of Head Teachers, which many primary heads belong to.

The NAHT is still concerned about the new system and its effects on relationships in schools. It has no problem with OFSTED's offering advice to heads about staff, but objects to a grading system based on a "snapshot" of a teacher's performance. The snapshot approach, it suggests, is as dangerous for the complacency it may encourage amongst teachers graded one and two, or even those who have hauled themselves unexpectedly up to grade five on the day. Equally, it may discourage those who have fallen short of their best. Either way, it suggests, heads should be offering support before condemnation. Competency procedures should remain a last resort.

In practice, headteachers who have been through this mill seem to be taking a supportive approach. NAEIAC, the National Association of Educational Inspectors, Advisers and Consultants, suggests that they should turn to their LEA advisers, or in the case of grant-maintained schools, to independent consultants, for help and in-service training.

Independent adviser and consultant Bill Laar, who has visited a number of schools to advise them pre and post-OFSTED, agrees. He is not surprised that few teachers are attracting the two lowest grades. "Anyone graded at that level would be so inept that any inspector would be asking why a head was allowing children to endure their efforts. I don't think there are many that bad, " he says.

While helping schools to prepare for inspections, Mr Laar says he has only once come across a teacher so poor that he was worried the school might fail the inspection on her account. "I simply told the school to remove her, temporarily at least."

After the inspection, he suggests that schools can take remedial action which will improve teacher performance. It will take time, he says - but not too long for the sake of the children. "Help which takes months is legitimate, years is not."

Handling poor or mediocre teachers who have run out of inspiration, he thinks, is a greater problem for the primary head than for his or her secondary colleagues. Staffs are smaller, relationships closer, there is no senior management team to take some of the strain and non-contact time is inadequate. That is why he thinks it is essential for a head with problems to seek outside help - either from the LEA or an independent source.

"New strategies can be taught but it often takes an outsider who is willing and able to work in the classroom alongside a teacher for a short time. Mediocre teachers can take off with the right help and encouragement."

A head who took Mr Laar's advice in her "sink estate" school agrees. She objects strongly to the grading scheme, because staff may simply put on a successful performance for the inspectors. She believes improving teaching skills is a whole school issue and is one to which she gives a high priority.

"I think if we want to improve the quality of teaching, we need a critical friend from outside. And it has to be someone who is trusted by staff, someone they know can roll up their sleeves and do the job him or herself."

She invited an adviser into school who, she felt, was completely trusted by her staff. The whole exercise was conducted under the umbrella of "appraisal" rather than inspection, and the adviser worked with every teacher.

The adviser gave a confidential written report on strengths and weaknesses to every teacher, which was copied to the head and which asked the staff to respond. "Some of them read their letters and winced, but within a short time most people were discussing the contents with friends," the head observed. She too received a report which included some advice on resourcing which, she says, was extremely helpful.

The adviser came back later to make specific suggestions for improvement and to initiate whole school discussions. "I think the whole secret lies in persuading teachers to work for their own improvement. The approach has to be non-threatening and encouraging, not punitive. There is no point in walking into a school and devastating people with criticism. The approach to teachers has to be the same as the approach to children. If you want them to have high expectations then they must also have high self-esteem. The two things go together."

The head's job, she thinks, is to monitor progress and keep things moving. "It has all been very low key, but we are on an upward curve and improving on our previous best. We are getting there, and that is very exciting."

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