Less judgement and more development

Lesson observations can be an effective tool for school improvement when used as a CPD tool. Ofsted should take note, says Keith Wright


Five years ago lesson observations were widely regarded – by the observed and the observers – as a tool of judgement.

That’s changing. Increasingly, schools are using lesson observations not as a policing operation but as a developmental process. The accent is not on pulling teachers up on their practice but on using observations as a professional development aid, highlighting areas for development that can then be supported through mentoring and CPD activities.

This ‘QA partner’ approach works in schools that have strong leadership and management. And as more and more schools fall into this bracket this approach to school improvement will become commonplace. That will make Ofsted’s use of lesson observations as an inspection tool look increasingly outdated because when observations are about judgement they make the lesson being observed wholly artificial. When the stakes are so high teachers optimise the lesson for judgement rather than developmental feedback. The focus is on avoiding mistakes that will mark them down, rather than being open about their practice. Nothing is learned that will help that individual – and the school – improve.

I think this is becoming the predominant view. Recently the right leaning think tank Policy Exchange singled out observations as “unreliable” and likely to lead to conclusions about a school’s effectiveness that were neither “valid nor reliable.” Research by the Gates Foundation, highlighted in the white paper we published on CPD in association with the Teacher Development Trust, showed that a single observation of a lesson is less than 50 per cent reliable.

Many of the school leaders I talk to want to use lesson observations as an instrument of CPD rather than judgement. At the round table event which informed our white paper we discussed a wide range of professional development topics. Leaders agreed that in most cases lesson observations were most useful when they were used in the developmental sense.

Rob Gladwin, assistant headteacher at Manor Academy, Nottinghamshire, was one. “Staff become fixated with observations,” he said. “That can’t be the be all and end all of them becoming effective practitioners. There are better ways of delving into what’s happening. Observations should be used much more helpfully as a nest bed of personal growth.”

David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust, added: “When we get teachers observing and planning together that is very powerful. Co-observation is really developmental. It develops trust.”

There were similar views when I met with a group of Leeds school leaders earlier this year. One of them was Don Rolls, performance manager at Royds School Specialist Language College, Leeds.

“The observer should be another pair of eyes…it can work really well if the observer asks the teacher what they want them to focus and comment on,” he said. “They can then build the observer’s recommendations into their next lesson. Over a period of weeks their practice improves because of supportive observation.”

I think Ofsted would do well to learn from the approach many schools around the country are taking with lesson observations. This would help the inspection regime play a more useful role in school improvement. Instead of using observations to make inaccurate spot checks on the effectiveness of lessons Ofsted could instead ask the school to give it a complete picture of the progress teachers have made over time, using a record of the school’s own lesson observations as a guide. If things need work it would be for the school to discuss with Ofsted how they could be supported over time to make improvements.

This ‘QA partner’ approach sounds like it should be time and resource hungry but these hurdles can be overcome when technology, in the form of modern online school improvement management systems, are brought into the equation. These systems will allow schools to quickly capture and manage every school improvement process – including detailed lesson observations.

Lesson observation is shedding its old image of being a tool of judgement and is increasingly being seen as an aid to school improvement and personal professional development. If the inspectors take note there will be no looking back.

Keith Wright is managing director of school information management specialist Bluewave.SWIFT. School leaders have shared their views on the role of lesson observations in school improvement in Bluewave.SWIFT’s CPD white paper, produced in association with the Teacher Development Trust and available at www.bluewaveswift.co.uk/whitepaper.