What a performance: how to prove your worth

8th September 2000 at 01:00
Using pupil assessment data as a yardstick for teacher performance may sound like it could spell trouble. But, as Gerald Haigh finds out, when handled correctly the results could benefit everyone

IMPORTANTLY - and understandably the trainers are at pains to emphasise this - there's more to performance management than just running a system of performance related pay. So, while there may be plenty of debate about the effectiveness of PRP, what is beyond dispute is that if you just tack PRP on to an existing institution, expecting it to motivate people, then you are likely to be disappointed. PRP will only have a chance to work if it's one part of a whole-school policy of identifying the ways by which teachers can be helped to improve their work.

What that means, logically and inevitably, is that schools are going to have to consider how they can use pupil assessment as indicators of teacher performance. Good, reliable and valid pupil data should provide the information that will help teachers to plug gaps in their expertise and will also enable them to learn from each other's strengths. Managing all of this - interpreting data, counselling, advising, instructing, organising - is performance management. Nobody pretends that it's easy. But it's time to do it.

At Ashlawn School in Rugby, pupil performance data is already being used to inform classroom practice. Says deputy head Jackie Heffernen, "It's a way of making teachers more effective - it's being able to reflect on what you've been doing and then make the improvements - it's a gateway into pedagogy."

What this means in practice is that, for example, pupil assessment data might show up differences in performance between one maths group and another - and if the data is sophisticated enough it will pinpoint the particular bits of the maths curriculum where the differences lie. Carefully handled, as an Ashlawn document states, "Data becomes information."

The next step is for the head of department to look at the reasons for the difference, and if any part of the answer has to do with teaching style and effectiveness, then the issue has to be tackled. That, though, is only the start of the process. As Peter Rossborough, Ashlawn's head puts it, "The data will show up the differences. Identifying the problem is easy. Providing a long-term solution is more difficult - but good management won't shy away from that."

Clearly, if teachers are going to be comfortable with this, then the way the school is managed becomes crucial. Says Jackie Heffernen, "We want the staff to be well disposed towards the data. We want the actions we take to be in no way threatening or undermining. We can't make any abrupt or wrong decisions based on the data."

The expectaion is that teachers will be able to use information professionally and positively - to accept that there are areas that need improving, and to look for ways of doing it.

The key document for reviewing pupil progress at Ashlawn is the Steer Pack (Setting Targets External Examination Review). In its original version this was a detailed analysis of external examination achievement. It was used to review the performance of teaching groups and, following on from that, to set targets for the following year. Thus there was a clear link between pupil and teacher performance - each department, and then each teacher was able to see the gaps, set targets and work on them.

Not content with that though, the Ashlawn senior team set out to make the Steer Pack more effective. "In that first form," says Jackie Heffernen, "It was retrospective - looking back at exam performance."

This was useful enough, but what was needed was a way of providing data more quickly and regularly, in time for teachers to act on it as the teaching year went on - to create, as Jackie Heffernen puts it, "A management tool for teachers to use in a dialogue about pupil performance."

The Steer Pack has now developed into a detailed and sophisticated resource. Relying heavily, but not exclusively, on pupil data from the SIMS Assessment Manager module, it provides a means whereby the performance of teaching groups and individual pupils can be closely monitored as the year goes on. The introduction to the pack says, "As a result of completing the activities and using the tools that we will continue to develop, teachers will be able to demonstrate that, as a result of their teaching, tutoring and leadership, their students achieve well relative to their prior attainment."

Importantly, underpinning the Steer Pack is a structure of targets for pupils, with easy to understand charts and graphs that show clearly what had to be done, and when. For example, there is a Student Tool to Enable Progress (STEP) which invites the pupil to ask "Have my levels improved?" "Why have I made progress in some areas and not others?" "Have I reached my spring term target?" There then follows a set of documents which guide the pupil as he or she discovers the answers to these. Crucial to this exercise is the form tutor, whose role at Ashlawn, as at other secondary schools, has metamorphosed from that of pastoral friend into that of academic tutor, able to keep an eye on the whole spectrum of a child's attainment, using across the board assessment data.

The implications of this for performance management and the setting of targets for teachers are very clear, as are the strategic issues for school management teams.

Ashlawn School ashlawn@rmplc.co.uk

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