Who's watching you?

As of September, lesson observations will no longer be limited to three hours a year. Will a surveillance culture pervade the classroom, where even pupils are asked for their views on lessons and teachers are not trusted to do their jobs? Stephen Exley reports. Illustrations George Hardie

Stephen Exley

As her pupils filed out of the class for their mid-morning break, Anna* was preparing to head to the staffroom of her north London primary school when she was approached by a woman.

Her visitor had been sitting at the back of the class throughout the lesson. She was, Anna knew, a parent who had volunteered to listen to pupils read.

But this wasn't all the woman had been doing, it transpired. While Anna was aware that this was the mother of one of her pupils, she had no idea what the woman's day job was.

"I am an Ofsted inspector," the visitor explained. "Here are some notes I made on your lesson. I've graded it satisfactory."

Thankfully for the somewhat stunned teacher in question, this wasn't a proper inspection; the woman had merely decided to "helpfully" offer some professional advice.

But concerns about lesson observations are by no means restricted to the rare occasions when Ofsted comes calling.

Chloe* was partway through a media studies lesson when she spotted a member of the school's senior management team slipping into the back of her classroom. Realising that it must be part of one of an increasing number of unannounced "learning walks" around the school, Chloe carried on as usual. But when she was approached by her colleague afterwards, the dressing-down Chloe received left her speechless.

"I was told that the lesson wasn't interactive enough, that the pupils needed to do more peer- and self-assessment and that, if they were working in silence, how could I assess what level they were working at?"

All, one might assume, fair criticisms. All bar one small point - the pupils were watching a television clip during a practice AS-level exam. "God knows what I'm supposed to do if I'm not allowed to recreate exam conditions for them once in a while," Chloe adds.

This is one of dozens of horror stories posted on the TES forums about lesson observations - many by older teachers who haven't been desensitised by the plethora of observations experienced by the current crop of trainee teachers.

Since the coalition came to power, ministers have been quick to slash red tape wherever they find it, repeating the mantra of cutting bureaucracy and freeing up professionals to get on with their jobs.

A year before he became education secretary, Michael Gove, then shadowing the post, told TES of his plans to scrap the three hours per year limit on classroom observation. "It's absurd that heads should be legally restricted from entering classrooms in their own schools," he said. "We need to trust professionals if we want to get the most out of our education system, and that means scrapping regulations like this."

Last June, Gove again insisted that teachers had "nothing to fear from lesson observation", adding: "Not only (is) learning from other professionals the best way to improve, (but) confident performers should relish the opportunity to show what they can do."

In September, Gove's long-promised observation reform will finally come to pass. Governing bodies and local authorities will be free to decide for themselves on the amount of observation time that is appropriate for their staff.

A fear of `macho management'

But with trade unions desperate to protect what they perceive as the professional autonomy of their members, anxiety over the amount of observation they are subjected to, and the manner in which it is conducted, is greater than ever. At the annual conference of the NASUWT teaching union in Birmingham at Easter, general secretary Chris Keates ratcheted up the rhetoric even further, describing instances in which her members have reported that pupils have been used covertly as "surveillance tools to spy on their teachers". Concerns have also been raised by teachers in the FE sector.

Delegates at this year's University and College Union annual congress in Manchester complained of a growing culture of "macho management", with teachers being aggressively micromanaged and bullied through observations, especially in cases when the college had recently been criticised by Ofsted.

Instances of lesson observation becoming punitive, rather than supportive, are on the rise, Keates believes. "It's getting worse, there's no question about that," she tells TES.

So, with paranoia about being watched - justified or not - becoming more prevalent among teachers, just what benefits do lesson observations bring? And what do schools need to do to make them a force for improvement rather than a source of resentment?

In light of Keates' description of some schools as behaving like "authoritarian regimes", a quick run-through of the practices employed at Dene Magna School in Gloucestershire would be enough to bring even the most confident of NQTs out in a cold sweat.

Belying its sleepy surroundings on the edge of the Forest of Dean, the school has long strived to be at the cutting edge of pedagogical practice. Ten years ago, it became one of the first in the country to introduce an observation suite, where school leaders, staff and visitors could discreetly position themselves behind a two-way mirror to watch lessons being conducted in the adjacent classroom.

But when Stephen Brady became head in 2009, he began to realise that the once-pioneering facility was starting to show its age. "It was a great thing; in its time, it was perfect," he says. "But it just wasn't being used - it was someone's classroom. It's artificial, it doesn't work. If you want to watch their practice, you have to be in the room they are in."

But with teachers even less likely to relax if they can see a colleague sitting in the corner of the room scrutinising their every move, Brady came up with a less obtrusive alternative: remote viewing.

The school has invested in a moveable camera that can be deployed in any classroom, capturing and recording the lesson in all its glory. It can even be viewed live. "I can watch from my laptop, home in and zoom around," Brady enthuses.

But if you think that sounds daunting, it's not just the senior leadership team who could be watching. As well as the maximum of three hours of observation by school leaders - until September, at least - the expectation at Dene Magna is that each teacher will be observed 13 times each year by their peers or - even worse, Keates might argue - pupils.

To a sceptical outsider, this may sound like overkill; a perfect example of the kind of Big Brother regime that the unions fear.

The school argues, however, that the reality is quite different. In a survey of its teaching staff, 100 per cent of respondents said that they found lesson observations to be a positive experience, while 98 per cent said the same about the school's coaching system. Even the pupil coaching programme was welcomed by 92 per cent of respondents.

In its most recent Ofsted inspection, Dene Magna was described as "an outstanding school in all respects". "A high proportion of staff and students have regular training in coaching, which is a highly effective way of improving the ethos of the school, the personal development of the students and the quality of teaching and learning," the report says. "Adult and student coaches work across the whole school community. A particularly impressive feature is the way in which the views of student coaches are used to help teachers to improve their practice, an initiative which the teaching staff who were approached during the inspection spoke of very highly."

So just how has the school made a virtue out of classroom observation?

The reason for this success, Brady believes, is that behind the observations lies not a climate of fear but a culture of nurturing. "It goes down well with staff," he insists. "It's one of the best ways to improve staff performance - watching each other. If people are teaching the same students as you, it's a good reflection of your progress from your peers."

The school has invested in five other cameras that can be set up in classrooms, allowing teachers to film themselves and learn from their own mistakes.

And the key reason for the warm response, Brady says, is that the observation and coaching programme is self-led. At the start of the year, teachers review themselves on different aspects of their teaching, and where they think their strengths and weaknesses lie. They are then teamed with other teachers with complementary skills to help both parties improve.

A similar approach is taken with pupil coaches. While teachers are expected to get involved, it is up to them to invite pupils to work with them, and identify specific areas of their teaching that they require some feedback on.

"It's not about threatening them," Brady insists. "Students don't grade the lesson. That's not for us. Some people run with it. If you're new to the school, it can be a bit daunting. But we started the programme in 2001. The staff have become involved, they have seen the benefits of lesson observation and peer observation. They have stayed. Sometimes the experienced staff are some of the best at engaging with it.

"The coaches are giving training. It's not about saying, `that's a good lesson' or `that's a bad lesson'. They work on specific elements chosen by the teacher. They offer an open-ended question, probing and encouraging the teacher to think about it themselves. The coach doesn't have the answer, the teacher has the answer. It is designed to help the teacher find the answer."

Waiting for light bulb moments

The goal, Brady says, is to help teachers trigger their own "light bulb moments" and use the feedback to instigate self-improvement. "They wouldn't do it if they felt they were being forced into it and were spied on, but it is non-judgemental and part of the developmental process. That's the way it works. It is to coach, not judge. Teachers shouldn't be scared. It's an opportunity to learn. It's not about learning from - learning with, that's key."

As the NUT rep for Haringey in north London, dealing with members' concerns about lesson observations takes up a lot of Julie Davies' time. In her experience, it is how professionally they are carried out which dictates how well staff respond.

"Drop-ins are the worst," she says. "In a well-run, confident school, teachers don't mind them, but we had a dispute at a school a few years ago. The head had big files on people consisting of grades awarded after she had done little more than put her head round the door. The only reason it came to light was that she was daft enough to show the teachers. It probably goes on elsewhere without anybody knowing.

"If lesson observation is carried out thoroughly, it's actually quite hard to justify doing much of it. You have to meet and agree a focus, observe the whole lesson, give verbal feedback within 48 hours and provide full written feedback within five working days. This has to happen in directed time, so has to be covered."

The main problem, Davies suspects, is the amount of time that the whole formal process takes. "Multiply this by the number of teachers in the school at three times a year each, and it looks like a colossal waste of expensive time. What happens is that some heads just decide to observe the teachers they want to intimidate.

"It's probably the source of most stress for teachers and yet observing one another could be a really healthy thing for improving teaching. Teachers work mainly alone, without members of their own profession witnessing what they do. Doesn't that seem strange for a collegiate profession?"

As head of Woodside High School - one of the schools in Davies' Haringey patch - Joan McVittie is a passionate advocate of constructive lesson observations. But through her other role - as president of the Association of School and College Leaders - she is acutely aware of the sensitivities around the subject. And it is the philosophy underpinning the practice at a school that influences how observations are received by teachers, she believes.

McVittie feels it is vital to differentiate between mandatory observations to ensure standards are high enough, and observation used as a medium for supporting a teacher's development.

"If there's an issue of capability in the classroom I must deal with that through the appropriate channels. But this is about teachers improving. Not getting feedback from colleagues is like going to the theatre and the audience being asked to go out silently at the end.

"Schools are working really hard on developing their teachers. It's not about the performance of teaching, it's about making sure teachers are improving."

One of the most important goals, McVittie believes, is to make observation part of normal classroom life rather than a cause for concern. "When a teacher is under stress, the lesson becomes more didactic, they go into autopilot. For older teachers, that's how they were taught to teach: the pupils sat in rows, the teacher writing at the chalkboard. Some older teachers revert to that style."

Keates agrees it is the "culture of the school" that dictates whether the observations become a vehicle for intimidation or improvement. "I have nothing against an observation that's supportive and developmental, but everything is turning into monitoring. The problem is when they are coming in and ticking boxes, all identifying what's negative rather than what's positive. This week, a teacher told me management had introduced videoing every single lesson by every teacher, so they could show Ofsted. It's quite ridiculous."

And the NASUWT's ongoing "standing up for standards" campaign of action short of a strike - intended to ease the pressure on teachers being asked to take on too many duties that are not legally required of them - has focused on what the union regards as bad lesson observation practice.

Members are advised to "refuse to be observed teaching by anyone who is not a qualified teacher" and to "refuse to accept any classroom observation which was not agreed and recorded in the planning statement at their annual performance management review planning meeting", or which exceeds the three hours per year limit.

This approach has ruffled feathers among a number of headteachers, Keates admits. "We are finding there have been a few situations where heads are unhappy, which is a sign something is changing, that something is being abused."

And the "totally absurd" practice of involving pupils in covertly observing their teachers is one of the NASUWT's biggest concerns. Among pieces of evidence collected by the union's members - and seen by TES - is a "teaching and learning questionnaire" handed out to pupils at schools run by the E-ACT academy chain. Several statements are listed, to which pupils have to respond by stating whether they are true "always", "usually", "occasionally", never" or "not sure". These include "I enjoy my lessons", "I am treated fairly and equally by my teacher" and "I am given clear and specific written and verbal feedback on how to improve my work".

Another form handed out to pupils at several Brighton schools asks them to rate their teacher out of 10 for overall performance, then to list the teacher's "strengths" and "suggestions" for improvement.

At the NASUWT's annual conference, Keates warned that pupils were effectively being given "formalised Ofsted training" on how to rate their teachers. This "debilitating" monitoring, she claimed, "erodes teachers' self-esteem and gnaws away at their professional confidence".

"They have been given a form to fill in, with no consultation with the teacher at all that the practice is going on, and in fact it's only being discovered when the teacher asks the child why they are not concentrating on the work in hand," she added.

It is not the principle of inviting feedback from pupils that is Keates' worry per se, she insists; it is when it becomes "covert practice" used to damn, rather than support, teachers. "There has to be dialogue. We are not saying students shouldn't be engaged in how lessons are taken forward. There is nothing wrong with asking them, `What did you think? What can we do better next week?'"

She contrasts this with the emerging trend of "take-outs", in which pupils are singled out mid-lesson, and asked to leave the classroom and give their verdict on the teacher's performance. "This is not about student voice, not the proper meaning," she says. "This is about students being used as management tools for monitoring teachers. It fundamentally alters the relationship between students and teachers. It is blatantly undermining the position of teachers, and disrupting the students' education."

McVittie, however, views a well-run "student voice" programme as a key part of school management. "It's about looking how to shift the focus back on to the children. All our staff encourage feedback from children, asking the children: `What worked well? What could I have done better?'"

She is happy to admit to using pupils to observe lessons as a matter of course. But, McVittie insists, the experience is positive for both parties. "The members of staff have to say, `Would you like to come into my class and have a look? What can I do to make it even better?' It's also prestigious for the pupils who get involved. It's a really good dialogue between teachers and students, and establishes a huge level of trust."

While lesson observation can undoubtedly be a valuable tool for professional development, it seems that some schools still have work to do to reassure the sceptics.

* Names have been changed


Official observations of teachers in England are currently limited to three hours per year, under rules that came into force in 2007. They are supposed to be used to assess a teacher's overall performance and to make plans for their future development. Teachers should receive written feedback and be told of any concerns. The three hours does not include casual observations when heads "drop in" to lessons for short periods. Extra observations are also permitted if teachers are struggling with their performance or if schools are in special measures. In September, the three-hour limit will be scrapped.

From the forums

What teachers think about being "spied on" by pupils:

TDALEY26: So, if the students are busy rating the teacher's performance, how are they actually learning andor participating in class? Answer. they aren't.

Peter99: Didn't this sort of thing go on in East Germany? Disgraceful.

Siegen81to82: Those who favour student voice have abandoned not only the teacher-student relationship but also the adult-child one. In their Pollyanna fantasy world, it is a good thing. They also think it is something new. They have obviously been nowhere near (William) Golding's The Lord of the Flies.

Daisyslot: Do the kids who show particular ability in "spying" get a GCSE or a BTEC for it?

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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