I’m not sure that an article entitled “in defence of book scrutinies” would be very popular, but stick with me, please. I think scrutiny of pupils’ books has had a bit of a bad rap over the past few years, which is a shame, as it is really important.
Discussions about book scrutinies are usually pretty negative in tone and it’s not hard to see why. Recently, I saw a question posted online about how often book scrutinies take place in schools; the responses ranged from “twice a year” to “two to three times a week – we’re a ‘requires improvement’ school”. Talk about a range.
I would seriously question any situation where everyone’s books are being hauled in by the senior leadership team three times a week. In that particular case, are the school leaders really looking at those books every time? Or is it just being done to keep tabs on teachers?
That extreme example aside, I don’t think that the frequency of book scrutinies is the real issue. Like most things in school, it’s how it’s done – and what happens after – that really makes the difference.
A change in culture
The notion that book scrutinies shouldn’t take place, or shouldn’t take place too often, is problematic. If the RE leader of a school wants to know what the learning looks like in their subject, they need to look in the books. Sure, that’s not the only thing that they might do to get a good picture, but it’s a significant part of it. Otherwise, how can they do their job? Subject leadership runs the risk of becoming farcical if looking at books is off the cards. The truth is, I love looking at work and, when I combine that with talking to children, I get a really strong picture of the learning in a subject.
If teachers feel that a book or work scrutiny is just about “checking up” on them, then it’s probably not being done well, and this is a sign that a change in culture is needed.
Where book scrutinies go wrong is when the focus shifts to criticising teachers instead of monitoring the learning and the impact of what leaders are doing on learning. It seems ridiculous to even say it, but we leaders should be interested in children’s learning – really, really interested. But, as with any form of feedback, the process ultimately needs to be constructive and useful.
Having the word “scrutiny” in the name might not be helping the situation much but, really, the name is a distraction. Call it a “book scrutiny”, a “book look”, a “review” or whatever you like. Regardless of what you call it, leaders looking at children’s work is hugely important. Just keep the focus on the learning.
Claire Lotriet is assistant headteacher at Henwick Primary School in London. She tweets at @OhLottie