See the benefits

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Michael Matthews describes how his school improved when teachers began watching each other at work. When the need for closer monitoring emerged from the Office for Standards in Education training courses our county advisers had all been on, we agonised over what it meant, how it should be done and whether we could fit it in alongside so much else. In fact it has led to what may prove to be one of the most exciting staff development initiatives we had ever experienced.

Like most schools, we had in place a complex structure of annual faculty reviews, development plans, statistical evaluation, staff appraisal, consultative meetings and reports to governors. What we needed was a more frequent check-up on policies in action. But how were we to fit it in alongside everything else?

We decided that the key was observation within classrooms. Or rather yet more observation because we already had a lot. There was appraisal, of course, and our induction programme for newly qualified teachers and some faculty teams had built mutual observation into their annual cycle.

Also we had our well-established Visitation Programme. This involved the headteacher visiting a faculty's classrooms for two weeks and seeing every teacher teach and every year taught.

We did not want to give up on any of that, but could we add monitoring on top?

Appraisal had brought observation into every classroom and there was some evidence coming out of the national pilot schemes that the teacher observing gained more than the teacher being observed. We have roughly three appraisees to every appraiser. If the latter gained more than those they observed then we were confining the benefit to only a quarter of the staff.

In fact those who did the most teaching - and who therefore ought to benefit most - never observed at all. Now we were thinking of imposing yet another set of observations through monitoring. Was this to be done by the same increasingly burdened middle managers?

Our solution was to turn the whole process on its head. If observation was so valuable, then start from there and fit everything else in. And if observation was beneficial to the observer, then turn all teachers into observers.

So began our "observation initiative" by which every teacher now has the right to observe and be observed every year. Line managers remain responsible for appraisal, but the appraiser is no longer necessarily the observer. Each faculty team draws up a network of observation, ensuring that each of its members both observes and is observed.

The observation report is then fed as evidence to the appraiser who includes it in the appraisal write-up. We have replaced a two-year cycle which contained two classroom observations with an annual cycle containing one.

So much for appraisal, but what about monitoring? Within our annual planning process, faculty plans are drawn up and priorities established. These priorities then form part of staff appraisals. Monitoring therefore takes place automatically as every teacher is involved. Instead of adding to the work of middle managers by imposing a further burden of observation on to the shoulders of the few, we have actually reduced this, but at the same time we have spread the advantages over all.

In addition each faculty has a senior management team member linked to it so the visitation principle is retained, but that too is spread across more staff than previously.

There is a danger that with several demands upon it we may be expecting too much from a single observation. So we are currently talking with our county advisory team to plan some training in observation techniques. We want to avoid merely undertaking an internal OFSTED every year with its soulless and dubious marking of lessons, but clearly OFSTED-trained inspectors do have much to offer us. If we can tap into their expertise with a view to improving practice then we will be retrieving some of the benefit we used to get from the old HMI teams.

In summary, the advantages are: * all staff observe a colleague so staff development is maximised; * observation, the time-consuming element, is spread wide; * all teachers in a team monitor the faculty priorities and so all are all familiar with them; * this in turn reinforces ownership of these priorities.

We began this in the autumn term last year and it is nearing the end of its first cycle (all appraisals finished by the May half-term holiday). Random sampling among colleagues has indicated that, though complex, its operation and purpose are understood and senior managers are seeking evidence as to how far development plan priorities have been observed in classroom practice, how far teachers feel enriched by their observation of colleagues and whether good practice has in fact been spread.

This will come back to me formally via the annual faculty reviews this term. Meanwhile the results of the findings will inform the observation training planned for the beginning of the autumn term.

Michael Matthews is head of Deben High School, Felixstowe, Suffolk

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