Damned by appraisal

5th January 2001 at 00:00
With all the time spent checking up on each other's performance, when are teachers supposed to teach, asks Mike Kent.

Performance management - now there's a contentious phrase. Or perhaps it isn't, and, like everything else foisted upon teachers these days, we'll accept it without a murmur.

How times change. When I started my career, I was given a class of unruly youngsters and simply told to teach them. The Plowden report had just appeared, unleashing extraordinary freedom on schools. It was huge, and my headteacher, like many others, hadn't read it properly, although he was vaguely aware that keeping up with the state of the art meant having little formal teaching, or formal anything for that matter.

As there was no organised curriculum, I taught what I liked. It was wonderful, and my children learned a great deal. But even then I realised the system had faults. Ineffective teachers could get away with teaching nothing, and it didn't matter if children left school illiterate because there was no testing.

When colleges found hordes of young people entering higher education still unable to spell, educationists realised things had to change, and the national curriculum was born.

Accountability crept in, and a vast, money-eating machine called Ofsted was set up, paving the way for a deluge of curriculum innovations from the Department for Education and Employment. Again, nobody complained much - teachers simply added more hours to their working week or found a less stressful way of paying the mortgage.

This still wasn't enough, though. The curriculum was being taught, but how effectively? Hadn't Ofsted statistics proved (as only they can) that there were too many duff teachers? Appraisal, monitoring and management became the buzzwords, and over the past five years we have seen a huge rise in the numbers of those who manage and monitor, rather than teach.

"At my last school I felt worn out by endless meetings," one of my new teachers admitted to me recently. "They rarely changed anything and left me with little time to mark or prepare. I was continually monitored by people who did little teaching. Now I can put all my energy into what I'm employed to do - teach."

Pretending poor teaching doesn't exist would be facile.But the buck stops at the headteacher's door, and any competent head should have an intimate knowledge of the school's strengths and weaknesses. The problem these days is that nothing is believed unless it is written down, usually at some length.

During my most recent Ofsted, inspectors asked how often I monitored my teachers. "A great deal," I said. "I'm in and out of the classrooms all the time. Children talk to me about their work. I teach, and I know a little about most of my children. I talk to the teachers about teaching and they talk to each other."

But none of this cut any ice. The school had no formal monitoring procedure. We failed to write anything down. Senior managers weren't wandering around with clipboards, and so it wouldn't do. I pointed out that out of 90 lessons they had seen, only three were deemed unsatisfactory. That, I was told acidly, was neither here nor there.

There seems no room for individuality any more. Schools have to cut their coats to a universal size, whether or not it fits. I have taken Ofsted's advice, and on Tuesday afternoons I monitor the quality of teaching. So far, I've not seen one unsatisfactory lesson. But I didn't expect to.

It means I spend more time in the classrooms being used as an extra resource, but there's an aspect that worries me. Last year, I coached 10 less able Year 6 children in science. They were predicted to get no higher than level 3, but all, except one, achieved level 4. They were immensely proud.But this year I can't take a grup, because I'm "monitoring" instead.

Schools are allocated Standards Fund money for supply teachers, while curriculum leaders monitor their subjects, and senior managers wander about checking that everybody is teaching what they've already recorded in copious plans.

Taken to its logical conclusion, an entire staff could be running around monitoring each other and fitting into complex appraisal schedules, but God help these arrangements if somebody has the audacity to be ill. And a succession of supply teachers will do little for the stability of a class.

The lunacy of this mania for recording and writing everything down was starkly revealed by my special needs co-ordinator recently. Not long ago, all her school time was spent helping less able children, who progressed in leaps and bounds. Now, she struggles with complex forms just to move a child one notch up the special needs register, and one of her school days is spent solely on paperwork. Many schools even buy a full-time special needs co-ordinator, and, frighteningly often, they don't teach at all. They simply have no time.

The DfEE seems to believe teachers must be guided in everything, all the time, and then monitored rigorously. Yes, we'll pay experienced teachers more, if they jump through threshold hoops first. They'll need to fill in complex forms, backed up by evidence of course. And yes, the whole exercise will cost a huge amount (more than just giving all the teachers their pound;2,000 threshold money), but we can't rely on headteachers telling us if people are doing a good job. An army of examiners and appraisers can do that. They'll need training, but I'm sure our funds can run to a few consultants.

Consultants have become central to everything. Recently, I left some papers in the staffroom on courses for teachers - stress management, performance management, analysing PICSIs and PANDAs. Nothing to do with children. You name it, and a consultant can talk about it Many seem to have a standard lecture for tailoring to any topic. Target setting? Yep, that's a version of planning and assessment. Add an hour or two of group work and a plenary, and it'll run for a whole Inset day. Nice little earner.

The major players have become masters at mining gold from educational hills. Recently, at a cost of some pound;3 million, the Hay McBer management consultancy produced a huge report detailing the characteristics of a good teacher. Nobody read it, preferring to cut to the shortlist of 10 essential qualities instead.

Presumably reflecting on the ease with which money can be earned, the same consultancy has come up with another wheeze: inviting pupils to criticise their teachers, as this will apparently expose teaching weaknesses. It'll be cutting-edge technology, of course, as the plan is to base it on a website. Only pound;500 per school, and who needs a new school roof anyway?

I'm sure you can only push teachers so far (hence the ineffectual recruitment campaigns), but surely the latest performance management scheme is one thrust too many? My governors were lectured by a consultant who could hardly get his weighty tome of instructions up the staircase. Three minutes into the talk we were besieged with rules for appraising the teaching staff, poor souls, all subtly linked to threshold assessment, so we can't just dump the lot in the river where it belongs.

By the end of the meeting, governors' faces were glazed and I sat spellbound at the absurdity of it all.

Soon, perhaps, we'll be telling parents their children can only come to school on Mondays. That'll give us the rest of the week to monitor and manage each other.

Mike Kent is head of Comber Grove primary school, London borough of Southwark. Next week he joins Friday magazine as a regular columnist

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