Watch and learn: the new way to observe

11th December 2015 at 00:00
Managers cling to graded observations despite eye-opening research findings

Two years ago, I submitted the final version of my research report “Developing a National Framework for the Effective Use of Lesson Observation in Further Education” to the University and College Union (UCU). You can take a look at it at

The UCU research captured the views of thousands of FE staff and to date represents the largest and most extensive account of the topic of lesson observation, not just in FE but in the English education system as a whole. It therefore seems like a good time to reflect on the key messages from that report and what lessons have been learned since then.

The research raised serious questions about graded observation systems and the extent to which these systems were able to achieve their purported goals. The overriding message was that not only were they failing to assure and improve teaching quality, but the reductive and punitive ways in which observations were often used was responsible for a catalogue of detrimental effects that were impeding improvements in teacher learning.

The report has subsequently triggered debates about the continued use of graded observations across education, and has led to a growing number of providers changing their practice. It has even resulted in a switch in Ofsted’s policy on lesson observations in inspections.

Despite all this, many practitioners contend that such developments have not changed how senior managers often view the use and purpose of observation.

How can we measure and improve quality if we’re not going to grade any more? Even though we’ve switched to ungraded observations, teachers still want to know what grade they would get, so what’s the point? These are just two comments repeatedly voiced by senior managers in recent years.

Such comments exemplify what I have referred to previously as “normalised behaviour”. In other words, staff have become institutionalised into associating observation with a performance ranking exercise, regardless of the context or approach. They are unable or unwilling to conceptualise the use of observation outside a performative context and see an umbilical link between their classroom “performance” and attempts (because, let’s face it, that’s all they are) to measure it.

I can understand the “reward” incentive of this for some teachers, although I’m convinced that such mentality does little to foster a collegial and collaborative culture in the workplace. I’m not opposed to the notion of competition per se, but I firmly believe that there is a time and a place for it, and observing practice in the classroom is not it.

From a management perspective, there’s undoubtedly an attraction about the reductive nature of attaching a number to a teacher’s performance. Some senior managers are fearful of moving away from graded observations. It would mean casting aside the spurious “grade profile” comfort blanket to which so many of them have formed an emotional attachment, as a means of measuring and managing teacher performance. But more importantly, such a move would mean that they would have to get involved in managing and supporting real staff rather than spending all their time managing and manipulating performance data. And I’m not so sure some of them are equipped to do that.

Since incorporation, the divide between what classroom teachers and senior managers in FE do has widened so much that many managers have become removed from the realities of what it means to be a practitioner. Managers simply do not have the skills or knowledge base to support improvements in teacher learning, even if they wanted to.

But do not despair. There is hope. There are FE staff out there who are beginning to redefine and reclaim observation as a powerful tool for teacher growth, upon which sustainable and collaborative communities of teacher learning can be built. And what unites them all is a desire to use observation to support, rather than sort, teachers.

Dr Matt O’Leary is a reader in education at Birmingham City University and is internationally renowned for his work on lesson observation

How to observe

Five key ingredients for a successful observation scheme:

Observation is used as a tool to support, not sort, teachers, ie, no grading

The focus is on the teaching and not the teacher, ie, process rather than person

Observees are allowed to decide and/or negotiate the focus of the observation

Explicit training and preparation for observers in how to record and deliver feedback

Clear links between feedback and feed forward and implications for future practice.

Grade expectations

In September 2014, chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw revealed that Ofsted would no longer be grading lesson observations in schools, after a pilot in which the practice was scrapped proved to be “incredibly popular” with teachers.

But the inspectorate held off on making a decision in FE because of a split in the sector, with many managers in favour of retaining graded observations while the majority of teachers wanted them removed. After further pilots, in May Ofsted finally revealed that it would also be scrapping observation grades in FE inspections. The new policy came into effect in September for the start of the 2015-16 academic year.

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