The hard sell

19th October 2012 at 01:00

Imagine you have been asked to evaluate two lessons.

In the first, the teacher briefly describes volcanoes and how they are created, then issues a set of worksheets. The children read the information, look at the pictures and answer short questions, selecting from a list of possible words or phrases on the sheet. Summing up the lesson, the teacher reads out the correct answers and the children tick them if they have got them right.

The second lesson is part of a topic about insects. The children are learning about bees and why they are important to us. The teacher shows them a chunk of honeycomb and they learn about hives and honey-making. By drawing tessellated shapes, they learn why bees build their cells in hexagons. They learn how a bee extracts pollen from flowers, they examine a bee's legs and pollen sacs through a microscope and they watch a short film about workers, drones and queens that shows how vital each are to the nest. They write and draw colourful pictures and start to make models of bees using a variety of materials.

It doesn't need an experienced head or senior manager to tell which would be the better lesson. In fact, even a student teacher should realise that the first example would be pretty tedious for children.

Fortunately, it's years since I have seen a lesson like that, but there are plenty of companies out there who seem to think that heads need a great deal of electronic help when it comes to lesson observation. Even in retirement, I still receive daily email notifications from consultants, agencies and consortia who want to sell me a piece of computer software that will make evaluating my teaching staff a doddle, the implication being that teachers haven't got much of a clue about whether their lessons are any good.

The latest package to arrive in my inbox tells me that the company's software will collate and analyse "overall and aspect" judgements, draw graphs of staff performance, track and identify areas of weakness and disseminate information using an infinite number of variables. This sounds about as interesting as the worksheet lesson I described above.

This kind of software can only lead to piles of monitoring sheets and hours of work from managerial, office-based staff inputting the stuff into a computer and trying to decide whether the results are telling them anything meaningful. Which, in turn, means less time for senior leaders to chat to staff, encourage their individuality and offer them help.

The software also apparently identifies continuing professional development needs. Funny, that. Most teachers I know are capable of deciding which courses will help them to develop and improve.

A friend of mine works in a secondary school and his senior management team has just handed him a list of criteria for planning, undertaking and assessing his lessons. After every session, he is expected to go through the sheets, ticking the effectiveness of what he has taught against five complex standards. Incredibly, there are 50 points to consider. It amazes me that whoever compiled the list couldn't find something more useful to do.

I sometimes feel the aim encouraged in education today is to get out of the classroom and as far away from the children as quickly as possible. After all, it's a lot easier to sit behind a computer, writing twaddle for other people.

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher. Email:

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