PART 2 – Building Trust in a Culture of Skepticism – MONITORING & SCRUTINY


Even typing those words makes me feel ill.

Lets first think about the sorts of things we monitor and scrutinise:  books, planning, learning environments, displays? Road traffic? Lots of things, I’m sure.

How do we typically do this: collect in books, have planning collected in folders, complete the ever-popular learning walk.  Sometimes with colleagues, sometimes without.  All of this takes a great deal of time – for teachers and senior staff.  Someone asked me last week how I have time to fit in everything – because I got rid of the BS.

Now, let’s think about WHY we feel the need to monitor and scrutinise our professional people – all of which I understand and can think of times it would be useful.

a – its about performance.  I feel that if I don’t have my eye on what’s happening, performance will decline or derail.

b – its about consistency.  I feel that if we are not checking up on teachers, they’ll deviate from the ‘game plan’

c – its about standards.  I feel that while they may be doing their very best and following our instructional programme, it still may not be good enough.

d – its about cpd.  I feel that when I intimately know what teachers are doing, I can plan better cpd for them.

My question isn’t: are these ‘whys’ important – I don’t think there is anyone that would argue that performance, consistencies, standards and development are bad goals – what I am hoping we can begin to ask ourselves through this series is: is there a better way/a less invasive way/a way that emits trust rather than strength/a way that puts our professionals at the centre rather than the edge?

In virtually every situation, the answer to those are YES.

An important factor in leadership is where you look first.  I have heard lots of leaders look outward – performance is poor because the teacher has poor subject knowledge (I know there is a good argument for this in secondary, but this is a primary HT remember!).  Or the ever-popular ‘pace.’  Things are just too slow.  I am sure we could all think of a million other reasons why a lesson has gone awry.  However, its rare that I hear introspection.  This isn’t going well because we missed some opportunities for support.  This seems less strong because they haven’t been inducted well, haven’t been involved in lesson study, open lessons, team teaching.  You see where I am going.  When we point fingers at teachers, teachers learn to point fingers at children.  It is the worst kind of culture.  A ‘within someone else’ culture.  Now – sometimes the teacher stunk.  It happens. Sometimes I stink.  However, when things are off the first thing we should be doing if we want to build a culture of trust is assume that the teacher is doing everything they can to be great.  So when its less so, the only finger pointing that should happen is back at ourselves.  Is there a way we could support better?  Develop them more sustainably? How can we #LeanIn to this teacher to help them soar?  Performance is about hiring the right people (intelligent, passionate, committed, aligned professionals) and then placing them in the very best soil to grow – which means surrounding them with experienced, selfless, supportive educators that understand adult learning.  This requires some modelling and training, too.  But far more often than, teachers flourish when they’re in the right soil.

Consistency is less an issue when the instructional programme is clear.  As an example, we have anchor charts in our school – A1 paper hanging on washing lines that are co-constructed with the children during the lesson that hold the key learning.  It would be impossible to come to Three Bridges and not be immediately struck by this consistency.  However, we don’t have an ‘Anchor Chart Policy’.  I have never conducted a learning walk and fed back to teachers about them.  At first, it was a collaboratively designed, intentional instructional approach.  (I use that work on purpose – intentional – nothing happens by accident at Three Bridges!) But now – even staff that weren’t around for that decision years ago – they all do it.  Often the things we’re looking at for consistency – don’t need a policy or playbook.  How do they know where the staffroom is – they follow the crowd.  It’s important to them that they eat collectively – so they watch closely and follow the lead of others.  When it doesn’t take hold – ask WHY.  Don’t enforce – seek first to understand.  Is your expectation meaningful?  Do they feel its meaningful?  Has it been explained to them?  Typically, when things aren’t consistent its because (and it means its likely us that needs to change, not them!):
a – the teachers find it a waste of time
b – its never been clearly explained and agreed
c – it was a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist anymore
d – its time:impact ratio is off (marking is a great example of this…something you can spend hours on and get very little return from)

Leading an #IncredibleSchool means being open to change – yourself.  Its hard to lead change in a school if people feel you are unwilling to change your views.  When you show them the blueprint of the cathedral you’re building – and the extension in the third year is on the kitchen, but they think it should be on the living room – be OK with that.

When thinking about standards, the key question is often about skill or will.  Skill we can often fix with the right supports.  Will is harder. I often imagine myself in a scenario where they have tenure – and no matter what, cannot be fired.  It changes things.  I have to think about push and pull – how can I get them to come with us?  My default setting is that we rise together. Instead of observation, consider micro-views.  2 minute lesson looks.  If the instructional program is clear, you’ll know immediately upon entering a lesson what success looks like.  In 2 mins, you can listen to teaching, talk to a child quickly, take a look at a table of books.  Doesn’t take much more than that.  No notepad, no clip board, no laptop.  Just a friendly visit.  And if things are problematic, a behind the scenes document that supports the development of the teacher – at pace, with humanity and humility.

CPD should rarely be reactionary.  Strong leaders know their staff and can anticipate where new things will be a struggle and where struggle will be for people that are new.  If we are constantly responding to what’s wrong, we’re never moving forward – always stuck chasing our tails.  Expect that some concepts, strategies or approaches are going to be more challenging and plan it in.  Don’t wait for things to go wrong and try to recover.  Have streams of development – streams for new staff and those for more experienced staff.  Involve as many people as you can in school and staff support – doesn’t just need to be those with titles.  Know your strengths and develop areas of struggle.  In race car driving, when you see a crash you don’t slow down – you hit the gas.  Middle level leaders can support and broker CPD for todays challenges – we need to keep our hand on the heart of the school and our eyes to the sky.

Books: is there a way that books could be consistent and high quality without collecting them in and feeding back?  Is there room in your school for a walk-in clinic, where teachers can self-refer?  Teachers are often their harshest critics.  Do teachers feel threatened by the scrutiny/do they do extra prep for it/is it a true reflection?  What if teachers all brought their worst example to a team meeting and then brought their most improved back a few weeks later, so everyone could have a laugh, time to collaboratively think/reflect/plan for success and then share it?  Perhaps this improves consistency and standards without being at gunpoint. Everyone wants to succeed – have we given them the chance?

Planning: how clear is the instructional programme?  Who are they planning for?  What if the plan is great but the lesson is not?  Are teachers getting time to plan together? Are they able to rehearse questions with each other and anticipate common questions/misconceptions?  If the school has a clear instructional programme, the sequence of the lesson and its components should be clear – and time is best spent thinking about deeper questions, like: what is it I want them to learn (responsive teaching), how will I know if they have learnt it, what will I do if they already know it, what will I do if they struggle to learn it?

When decisions are made collectively about the basic expectations in the school between teachers and leaders, you’ll find that compliance monitoring and scrutiny becomes obsolete.  Books, planning, environments, displays all start to become routine.  I know at Three Bridges, despite my intervention, it actually becomes quite competitive and collaborative.  A display needs changing – teachers from across the team swoop in and get it done in 45 mins (with the mind of out doing the one down the corridor!)  Most follow the crowd – if its meaningful use of time.  If expectations are not being met, its often better to ask WHY first – chances are if you’ve been doing something the same way for a long time, it needs to change – not them.

If you have created a culture where teachers have a true voice, you’ll see commitment soar. No need to monitor as closely or corporately.  Teachers are their own biggest critic – give them a low (or no!) stakes opportunity to learn, improve, grow – and watch them take off.  Self-referral, professional growth partners, coaching conversations, research lessons, lesson study, teacher research groups – these are all more powerful mechanisms for standards, consistency, performance and development.  I’ll talk more about them later in the series.


  1. Absolutely perfect. Being saying some of this for years while other parts made me think ‘oh yeah, wow’. And the beauty of all of it is that it can be applied to other corporations, not only a school. A brilliant read. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wow! Just turns things on their head. Nothing new, but a new way of looking. So radical and exciting! And clearly feasible and effective!


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  5. A really thought-provoking analysis of alternatives to the high-stakes accountability that is a direct cause of the crisis in teacher retention. During my years as a class teacher, I spent hours on time-consuming preparation for book scrutinies, lesson observations and learning walks, knowing full well that I was contriving a fake picture of what was happening in my classroom, but fearful of the consequences of not doing so. In hindsight, an absurd state of affairs.

    Learning from my own experiences, as a leader now at a primary school in Tower Hamlets, I am aiming to develop a school culture based not on fear, but on collaboration and trust. Our teachers now scrutinise learning together as year groups, with the aim of highlighting areas where they can improve and support each other as professionals. We are moving away from high-stakes lesson observations, to a model grounded in peer-on-peer support and coaching, focusing on areas that teachers highlight as in need of support and development.

    As we make these changes, it is both inspiring and reassuring to hear of the successes that you have had.


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