Now just watch this

2nd February 2001 at 00:00
Dennis Lavelle started a system of peer-group obversation at his college - and saw A-level results soar.

Performance management is strong on accountability but short on practical ideas about how to increase teacher effectiveness. Systematic peer-observation is one effective way of providing this missing link and ensuring the initiative will work.

For 16 years until 1997, I was principal of Winstanley college, Wigan, a sixth-form college with A-level results that now put it consistently at the top of the league tables.

But when I arrived in 1981, the pass rate was more or less static at about 66 per cent. There was no framework for assessing the quality of teaching, so in my first years I simply observed many lessons and made notes. Later I worked with staff to formalise my experience into a structured system of paired peer-group observations.

With each participating teacher aiming initially at just one set of paired observations, we soon realised the vast wealth of experience we could tap into - we realised, too, that subjects we had considered very different actually had much in common.

We regarded a formal system of recording good practice as vital, so when someone discovered an example of excellence, we would meet to share it and write it down.

For example, one department produced effective interactive handouts. The head of department was asked to make a 10-minute presentation and other departments discussed the possibility that this type of worksheet would work for them. From these discussions we produced a code of good practice. One of the youngest teachers in the college, observing one of my lessons, politely asked: "Do you realise you're answering your own questions?" He was empowered to do that because, in the agreed code of good practice, we'didentified the importance of the "eloquent silence" and of challenging, open-ended questions.

By 1995, with the A-level pass rate at 87 per cent, staff expertise at Winstanley was recognised by Further Education Funding Council inspectors, who gave 46 per cent of lessons the highest rating, compared with a national average of 18 per cent. (In the college's recent inspection report, published on March 10 last year, the proportion of outstanding lessons rose to 62 per cent- a sector record.) The only expense involved in peer observation is teacher cover - because the observ-ing teacher must be freed from other responsibilities for the lesson.

I am currently working with eight schools run by the Church Schools Company to develop their own system of peer observation. At Lincoln Minster school, for instance, the head has worked out a system of cover "credits". Other schools are using some of their in-service training budget. We are also establish-ing rules for confidentiality, so that people can give feedback freely.

The biggest challenge is to change the prevailing culture in which - because of the isolated nature of their job - many teachers feel threat-ened by having colleagues in their classroom. One experienced science teacher in one of the church schools said she was so nervous at the prospect of being observed she hadn't slept the night before. But afterwards her confidence grew and she became relaxed enough to learn from her colleagues and pass on her own ideas. By giving them this powerful tool we will develop our teachers, who are our most important resource.

Dennis Lavelle is a director of Emeritus Training and Consultancy, which runs training seminars, conferences and school-based in-service. Tel: 01257 464 770. Email:

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