After my post about our recent Ofsted visit and how we have done away with the traditional monitoring, scrutiny and accountabilities culture, I have had a number of requests to visit – and even more genuine questions about what we do instead. It seems like an obvious question – but the answer is quite complex.
If the question is: what do we do instead of all of that?
The answer is: a bunch of stuff and nothing at all
I realise that this isn’t what people are hoping for. ‘Take away observation – fine. Get rid of scrutiny – ok. Remove data targets – alright. We’ve always felt a bit off doing that. But how do we ensure that learning and teaching are strong? Ultimately, as HTs, we are responsible.’ Right? Right.
So this blog is going to be a series – which looks at some of the building blocks necessary to get rid of (or minimise) the stuff driving teachers out of our profession – and develop a culture of trust, development, collaboration, support, agency and challenge. If you’re looking for a quick fix, stop reading. It is not as simple as ‘stop observing, start xyz’.
This is cathedral building, not stone shifting. It is complex and organic. It will take time. It is less convenient. It will make you uncomfortable. It will be risky, challenging, and scary (at times). You will need to be vulnerable. But – this is the important bit – as the great Brene Brown says, ‘nothing is more risky, scary or dangerous than getting to the end of your year, role, or career and have the lingering question: what if I had actually shown up? What if I had done what I always believed was right? Would things be different?’
I should say at this point that I know it is possible to get results and Ofsted grades doing what we’ve always done. That is certain. What we also know is that we can no longer recruit enough teachers for the jobs we have, are haemorrhaging teachers out of the job en masse, and morale in schools is at all time lows. Our people feel micromanaged, controlled and confined. Worst of all – they feel like we don’t trust them. The beautifully intelligent Maya Angelou once said, ‘when you know better, you do better.’ So, this is not a series to make values judgements on schools or school leaders – 7 years ago, Three Bridges was no different to your average school: a written marking conversation for every lesson in every book, planning scrutinies, book scrutinies, 3-6 graded lesson obs per year, planning scrutiny, mandatory planning proformas, etc. It is a school that in any given year has 40-50% pupil premium, 80% EAL, 35% transience between Y1-6, 96% BAME, 30% SEND, double digit EHCPs – its a challenging demographic. When I arrived in 2012, 58-65% of children met L4 by the end of Y6 (the 3 years prior to my arrival). 40% staff turnover was normal. We changed because what we were doing was glaringly ineffective – and better was possible. So, we were there, too. I should also note a this point that this is a process – Rome wasn’t built in a day. But to build Rome, the vision of its beauty and brilliance needed to be shared from the start. Stopping what you’re currently doing tomorrow is probably the worst thing you can do – show them the cathedral – and build it together. Nothing is worse in a school than rushing to succeed. There is no rush – this isn’t a sprint, its a marathon.
Wherever you are, start there. Maybe your results are fine and Ofsted is happy. Maybe not. This is about something deeper than results and Ofsted grades – its about revolutionising and reclaiming our profession. And the fact that you’re even reading this means you probably feel like I did – better is possible.
The best place to begin is at the beginning.
PART 1: Collaboratively Building a Coherent, Clear and Compelling Instructional Programme (especially in English and maths)
This sounds like a pretty basic idea. But the reality is – having visited hundreds of schools, hosted thousands of school leaders and teachers from across the country – this is often a glaringly absent cornerstone in many schools. Here are some simple questions: What does the instructional program for __________ in your school? What constitutes incredible learning? Is there a clear framework for teaching? Does this framework differ based on age or stage? Is there a resource base/scheme of work?
Can everyone in the school articulate this?
My experience is that most schools are unable to coherently and clearly articulate their compelling frameworks of instruction. Teachers are unclear. There’s a big gap between what we hold as leaders and what they know as teachers. Phrases like Quality First Teaching or Inclusive Practice get thrown around – but when you dig beneath the surface, everyone is on a different hymn sheet. No one seems to be able to agree. This isn’t to say that we should have robot teachers – but collaboratively designing and agreeing what incredible instruction looks like is a vital first step in removing uncertainty and creating clarity and ownership amongst staff. This should be based on a healthy mixture of experience and research.
If we cannot agree what effective instruction looks like, everyone by default is ‘doing their own thing.’ Some successfully – many less so. Observation is crucial and necessary here – as we need to provide feedback to teachers about their effectiveness in order for them to improve. We haven’t made the instructional programme clear, so they will learn it through observation successes and failures – feedback. Those that don’t pick it up need to go/be replaced, and those that are quickly adaptable are successful and often get promoted quickly – without complete clarity regarding what it was that made wah they did great. Saying their results are good just isn’t clear enough.
At Three Bridges, we started over. No one could clearly describe what great reading instruction looked like – so we flipped the script. Rather than disseminating what great teaching and learning looked like through post observation feedback session, we collaboratively designed the instructional programme together. We looked at research and talked about our experiences of what was ‘sticky’ for the kids and tried our best to align research to practice. We identified that which we were already doing and the things that we weren’t – and practiced. Then we came back together a few weeks later to discuss our strengths and struggles. After a term of collaborative development, we designed our framework together. Everyone got it – had tried it – had succeeded and struggled – and worked with other teachers. We applied the same approach to writing and mathematics (and later our entire curriculum). One of the blogs in this series will explore how we continually refine and improve our instructional programme – but , suffice it to say, we constantly refine and improve it. What maths looked like 4 years ago and what it looks like today have a similar core – but its wildly different in practice. More refined, more nuanced, laced with the experience of failure and success.
This is the beginning of regular observation becoming obsolete. When the instructional programme is collaboratively designed, you don’t need to monitor for best practice, compliance or consistency. Everyone is wholeheartedly trying their best and actively seeking out those that they believe can support them. They are seeing immediate impact in their lessons – children more actively engaged, learning visible, what the children are producing has dramatically improved, less low-level behaviour – and most importantly – a new, shared discussion about learning that wasn’t possible when there wasn’t a common language. This isn’t to say there is NO place for observation – but the frequency and stakes can really change. I am in and out of lessons all the time – about as often as they are in and out of each others lessons – but never with a laptop or notepad.
Teachers want to do well. They want their children to learn. They deeply believe in teaching as a transformational profession. It is our responsibility as leaders to create the conditions under which they can truly flourish – and collaboratively designing the instructional program is a crucial first step. When all teachers can answer: What does the instructional program in ________ look like/sound like in the school? What constitutes incredible learning? What is the clear framework for teaching? Does this framework differ based on age or stage? Is there a resource base/scheme of work? Where does what I’m doing fit in the sequence – last year they _____ and next year they’ll ______. When this is consistent across the school through a collaborative design and refine process, the traditional observations, feedback, grading all become redundant.
PART 1B: And What If I Need To Move Them On?
Many of you might be thinking – ‘OK, we can do that – sounds exciting. But – what about poor performance? How do we move someone on if they just aren’t cutting the mustard? We have done everything we can – but its not working out? Observation is one of the only tools we have to move on struggling teachers.’
Having a document base that sits in the background – of everything happening in the school – is important. If I am in and out of lessons, and have concerns about what I am seeing (it does happen!), I record it. But not everyone needs to see it. One of the greatest attributes we can have as leaders is ‘pause’. Not every difficulty needs to be addressed immediately (unless it is VERY serious) and its likely that it doesn’t need to be me that supports it (or you!). When something appears ‘off’, I log it, speak to the team leader, and they take an informal look. If it was a one off, they report back and say its nothing to be concerned about. If it is something that needs addressing, it is often addressed at the team level first – no finger pointing or anyone on the line. A general discussion about a particular standard with everyone bringing a great example – keep things positive. Then collaboratively design the standard together. A couple of weeks later, lets look at our most improved example. Again – no threats. Just collaborative development – growth from the middle. 95% of the time, this sorts out most instructional/standards issues. In the 5% of time when it doesn’t work, we have an evidence base of what been done to support and develop (team meeting, co teaching and planning, open lessons, obs another teacher, etc) and now they have a more formal meeting and support plan with all the normal timelines and expectations. But, if I am honest – this rarely happens anymore. When someone has decided what excellent looks like – they feel a part of the process (done with, not to) – then we know its not will, its skill. And that is often fixable. If its not, they improve or they go. The kids deserve nothing less.
That is step 1 in moving away from the BS – collaboratively designing the instructional program so that everyone can coherently, clearly and compellingly discuss what learning and teaching looks like in each subject. Observation as we know it begins to become obsolete. And believe it or not, teachers start requesting observation – from colleagues and management – to reflect on and improve their practice. Go figure. 🙂