Happy to look in the mirror

7th May 2004 at 01:00
Martin Whittaker visits a school whose staff can reflect on their skills

Name: Dene Magna school, Forest of Dean. School type: 11-16 comprehensive. Proportion of pupils eligible for free meals: 7.6 per cent. Improved results. From 59 per cetn of pupils gaining five or more A* to C grades at GCSE in 2000, to 76 per cent in 2003

At Dene Magna school they're encouraging reflective practice - and they're doing it with mirrors. From the front of her classroom, maths teacher Annette Knight sees what look like ordinary mirrors on the back wall. But these are two-way. Behind them is a narrow room sandwiched between two classrooms where colleagues, visiting heads or trainee teachers can observe classroom practice.

The classrooms also have cameras and microphones, leading to a bank of video equipment next door, allowing lessons to be filmed and even sent via video conferencing.

While this may all smack of Big Brother, head Mark Davies says teachers are always warned if they are to be observed. And staff at Dene Magna, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, take it all in their stride.

Annette Knight says: "I love it. The power of that room is enormous.

Imagine training as a teacher, and instead of sitting in the back of the classroom in isolation, you are sitting - maybe five of you - in the observation room.

"You can really discuss the lesson as it's unfolding without disturbing anything, and without having an impact on the teacher or students. If the head comes and sits in the room, he isn't going to see any bad behaviour, is he?"

The observation room is just a small part of an innovative programme of teacher peer observation and coaching at Dene Magna. The school has had such success with the programme that it is sharing it with a dozen secondary schools in Gloucestershire and neighbouring Herefordshire under the Government's leading edge partnership programme.

Dene Magna school is an 11-16 technology college in an idyllic setting that belies the rural deprivation in the surrounding area. Although only 7.6 per cent of students apply for free school meals, the Forest of Dean has high unemployment and social disadvantage. The school loses around 4 per cent of potential pupils to Gloucester's selective grammar schools, but attracts a third of its intake from outside its area and is over-subscribed. Its GCSE results have seen a steady improvement in the past four years. In 2000, 59 per cent of pupils gained five or more grades A* to C. In 2003 the figure was 76 per cent. Mr Davies says while it is difficult to find hard evidence, the improved results have coincided with the school's work on reflective practice.

He was deputy head and acting head at Dene Magna before becoming head in January 2001. He had put his ideas on peer observation across to governors at his interview for the post and says he has since had their full support.

"My own view of leadership and school improvement is based solely around the notion of developing individuals to develop themselves, and to have a professional duty to then develop others," he says.

"And I think that's one of our biggest issues in teaching. We are in a box, in a classroom. We have a door to it and we quite often close the door. And we have an autonomy, a feeling that this is my classroom.

"My view is that it isn't. It's our classroom: it's the school's classroom and we have a professional duty to open that door metaphorically to share what we are doing with others."

How does the system work? Mark Davies began the initiative by consulting his staff on what they needed to make peer observation happen, and the first issue was time. So he brought in supply cover to allow all his 50 teachers extra non-teaching time. Teachers are allowed one extra period a fortnight for peer observation and asked to plan for a minimum of 13 sessions a year, some from their own department and some from outside.

Annette Knight, who teaches in one of the observation classrooms, has been given the role of teaching and learning coach, and becomes part of the school's leadership group from Easter. Her role is to liaise between members of staff, helping them to decide whose lessons they want to observe: it could be someone who is strong on behaviour management, for example. Teachers then sit in on colleagues' lessons.

The school has also developed a toolbox, including staff feedback meetings and sets of laminated A4 sheets on classroom practice available in the staff room. It set up a coaching system for teachers, after those being observed said they would like more feedback.

Teachers coach each other. The head, a former PE teacher, has even been coached by one of the school's newly qualified teachers.

Dene Magna's leading edge programme began at Christmas. By Easter some 60 staff from outside had visited to learn coaching techniques and take them into their own schools. The new observation room has been built to help disseminate the practice schools, and allow visitors to see and hear lessons without disruption.

What has peer observation and coaching done for Dene Magna? "For many years we have thought of ourselves as being quite radical and forward thinking, but we kept those things to ourselves," says Mark Davies.

"Every day we are getting requests from people to come in, and I think that demonstrates that we have hit the right nail. What we are doing is what most teachers and most learners want to do, which is to spend time investigating, analysing, looking at and really reflecting on learning in the classroom."

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