Just more hoops to jump through?

2nd June 2000 at 01:00
How do plans for next year's performance review shape up? Michael Duffy reports

It has been a long, long year. Teachers have coped with inclusion, wrestled with Curriculum 2000, dealt with literacy and numeracy at key stages 2 and 3, written their bids for external funding and completed those all-important threshold applications. What are the chances, come September, of a new school year without new policies and initiatives - a year when teachers can concentrate, at last, on teaching?

The answer is, of course, "not great". In September the performance management system comes into force. Maintained schools have a term in which to agree a policy - and put it in place. The policy has to be under way by next February - every teacher (except those in their induction year or on contracts shorter than one year) will have set their objectives with their team leaders and the annual performance review cycle will have begun to roll.

That cycle of planning, monitoring and review is at the heart of the new regulations. Its purpose, the Government stresses, is to establish a shared commitment to high performance - improved learning for pupils, improved support and recognition for teachers. It is seen as a fundamental part of the school's target-setting and evaluation procedures.

Technically, it is not linked to pay, but information from the performance review process will be used, as this term's explanatory documents from the Department for Education and Employment say, "to inform pay decisions". As the process depends on teachers judging teachers, that is a potentially controversial stipulation.

But the indications are that in most schools the new requirements won't be a major issue. At best, they engender a sense of confidence - a belief that the benefits will outweigh the problems and that there is nothing here with which the school can't cope. At worst, there is a gloomy resignation - "Just more hoops," says one teacher, "for us to jump through."

Why, then, has there been such a relatively low-key response? Part of the answer lies in the Government's tactics. The introduction of performance management after the threshold arrangements for performance-related pay (an Alice in Wonderland order of events, said its critics) now looks more shrewd than hasty. The majority of eligible teachers signed up in principle when they handed in their application forms.

But there is also a historical reason. The new regulations replace those that introduced appraisal in 1991. Most teachers welcomed that initiative, but it was carried out in such a bureaucratic and artificial way - as if appraisal were unconnected not only to pay but also to pupils' learning and the school review - that it fell into disuse in many schools.

But it did change the climate. Teachers began to expect, even welcome, lesson observation. The professional isolation that had for so long bedevilled teaching - the "my subject, my classroom, my problems" syndrome - began to break down. Appraisal brought big benefits to schools where teachers believed they owned the process.

The new regulations pay lip service to that perception. The Government says the new requirements will increase job satisfaction and raise levels of expertise.

There is an optimistic recommendation that all levels of staff should be involved in developing the school's performance management policy. In practice, though, the level of prescription means most schools will adopt the model policy the DfEE has thoughtfully provided.

So what exactly will performance management involve? The regulations say governors are responsible for putting the policy in place and the head for carrying it out. A team leader will be identified for every teacher and, over what will become an annual cycle, the two will meet to set and record objectives, monitor progress and review performance.

The head's review will be carried out by governors with the help of a suitably trained external adviser. The other reviewers will be senior teachers, co-ordinators or heads of department. None will handle more than four or five reviews a year. Everyone will be reviewed.

The objectives set will depend on the role of the teacher being reviewed. They must, however, cover pupil progress as well as developing and improving the teacher's professional practice. They must be clear and challenging - "neither too comfortable nor dauntingly unrealistic", say the guidelines - and they should be flexible There must not be too many, and certainly not too few. Fewer than three, we are told, "would look very odd" in the context of these requirements.

An annex to the guidelines gives some sample objectives. A Year 5 primary teacher, for example, might be required to develop ICT skills in class teaching, to plan appropriate materials, and to increase the percentage of his or her class capable of meeting the demands of the literacy framework. A secondary maths teacher, for example, could be asked to update teaching strategies, to set up a maths club, and to maintain the GCSE performance of a class deemed slightly weaker than last year's group. The objectives are recorded on a standard "individual plan" that includes, significantly, a space for notes of in-year discussions about the teacher's progress.

Classroom observation, in other words, is built into the scheme - and the guidelines contain a useful and uncontentious pro forma to help structure this. The plan also includes a list of the development and training needed to achieve the targets - an important recognition that professional development (and, by implication, appropriate resources) is fundamental to the package.

At the end of the year the team leader and the teacher meet to review performance against the recorded objectives and to discuss and confirm objectives for the coming year. It is important, the guidelines say, that this review should recognise the teacher's strengths and achievements and take into account any factors outside the teacher's control.

The review has to be summarised in writing and given to the teacher. Teachers may (but are not required to) add their own comments to it. The review is confidential and should not be used as the basis for competency or disciplinary actions, which will follow separate and established procedures.

And that is the essence of the process. Shorn of the prescriptive detail that accompanies all statutory regulation and carried out as part of a whole-school process of self-review and systematic and targeted improvement, it could come to be seen more as an entitlement than an imposition. Review, after all, puts the reviewer on the line, not just the teacher being reviewed - support and resources promised must be seen to be delivered.

In most cases, moreover, teachers and reviewers will have no difficulty in reaching genuine agreement over targets. The guidelines provide for this to be recorded where they don't, or where "factors outside a teacher's control" may affect the process.

And schools that have time to construct performance policies reflecting their own circumstances and style may be able to counter some ofthe rigidities the framework appears to impose upon them.

For example, the neat and tidy pyramid of line management it presupposes - the "Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite'em, little fleas have lesser fleas, and so on ad infinitum" model doesn't reflect reality in many effective schools, where teachers will be members of many teams.

What about the year tutor team, responsible perhaps for delivering a pastoral and guidance curriculum that may be fundamental to the school's standards and values? It's not easy, in this framework, to see how its importance could be recognised.

There is also a resources issue. Performance review takes training and time. Even four reviews will take, with the necessary classroom observation, around 20 hours of the reviewing teacher's time. The Government has so far provided two extra training days (one of which has been used for threshold training) and has promised an extra pound;20 million a year in the standards fund to pay for the process. Schools know that such funding tends to be remarkably elusive. Without it, there will be little chance of the positive response the Government is seeking.

But the seeds are there. The departmental head who wrote to The TES recently to say he was resigning because he was not prepared to play a part in determining the salaries of his colleagues unwittingly put his finger on the issue. "The head of department," he wrote, "is someone who is willing and able to take on all or most of the administrative burden and to shoulder the position of taking the flak, the bad kids, and keeping discipline if required." Nothing, you note, about better teaching and maximising learning; nothing, certainly, about classroom observation. His is an outdated and inadequate definition, and few schools and even fewer teachers would now accept it.

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