'Too often lesson observations alienate teachers, belittle them professionally and compound the stress in the profession'

The approach external agencies take to school improvement must be more collegiate and less confrontational, writes one celebrated headteacher

Colin Harris

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So your school recieves a disappointing inspection. This is bad enough, but what inevitably follows is the arrival of the "hit squad". Whatever confidence left in the establishment is quickly eroded by the battery of observers, clipboards in hand, who appear with the sole aim of improving the teachers. What generally happens, however, is the opposite: "Death by Observation."

I am not denying that school improvement is crucial and that working to improve the quality of teachers and teaching is core to this mission. However, my problem is that too often the approach of the powers that be seems to focus solely on observation as the only way to get there. And yet this is generally an approach that is both flawed and ineffective. 

In fact, I would say that in many ways it is obsolete. Normally it involves the same individuals, walking the same "learning walk", feeding back the same information. Time after time.

What other profession would do this to its most valuable and important asset, its practitioners? 

These are the people who have been trained and have achieved professional status doing the very job that they're being observed in. I was a good teacher, I believe, but without doubt the majority, if not all, of my teachers teach far better than I did.

While life has changed since I was in the classroom, the way you get the best from teachers has not. Observing them and often criticising them is not a recipe for improvement.

Peer-support offers so much more: working alongside, being supportive, offering direction if needed: encouragement and praise in equal measure. This model allows colleagues to grow professionally, and individuals feel part of the team, not like someone who is there to be knocked down. If it is done right, they feel they are all in the process of school improvement. Other aspects of staff development naturally come into the debate, and so data can be discussed, successes celebrated and failures analysed.

Throughout all of this, the children are kept fully in the centre of all thoughts, and let's face it, this is why we all became teachers in the first place.

Many teacher observation practices start by alienating the teachers. They belittle them professionally and undoubtedly compound the malaise and stress currently in the profession. There is pre-observation stress, then the actual observation and then the inevitable post-observation "rating", all of which can send many over the edge.

How pathetic to adopt an approach which is based on subjectivity.

Let's go back to ensuring that observations are an integral part of continuous professional dialogue. Let's focus on the children, looking at their successes and seeing how as teachers we can get all pupils to reach for the stars. How can we make, also, every learning and teaching opportunity the best?

If we adopt this approach then headteachers, Ofsted, local authorities and academy chains may need to analyse, perhaps even research, how institutions can actually change. It is certainly not achieved by someone holding a clipboard. No, it's by creating a staff team willing to look at their individual teaching, confident that when they speak they are not shouted down, bullied and undermined, confident they are putting their pupils at the very centre of the existence of the school.

I'd welcome a hit squad targeting that as its mission.

Colin Harris is headteacher of Warren Park Primary School in Havant, Hampshire 

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Colin Harris

Colin Harris

Colin Harris led a school in a deprived area of Portsmouth for more than two decades. His last two Ofsted reports were “outstanding” across all categories.

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