Thought Leadership:
Graded Observations - Guilty as charged

With graded lesson observations in the dock, accused of being wholly ‘unreliable,’ the jury’s verdict a for gone conclusion, were left waiting for the judge’s sentence. Meanwhile, I was a) reflecting on my professional experience of graded lesson observations, b) wondering when grading became part of the process, c) what might replace graded lesson observations and d) whether or not lesson observations should be a part of Performance Review (did you notice the removal of “graded”), and e) whether or not lesson observations (graded or otherwise) should be a part of the Performance Review / Performance Related Pay and f) if not, what should be included and g) how will the removal of lesson grades impact on how the Quality of Teaching is qualified, and h) If Ofsted is looking at “lessons across the curriculum, across the school” and making a judgement, and most importantly seeing “if the headteacher agrees with us [Ofsted]” how with this marriage of great minds actually work? There we’re probably more questions, and you can therefore have some pity of my poor car pool, edu-junky colleagues.

Being Observed on PGCE

I had to think long and hard about my own professional experience of lesson observations. I am not 100% sure that PGCE mentor graded individual lessons. Mentors did grade “us” – by us, I am referring to “first phase” and “second phase” “PGCE students.” More commonly known as “teachers in training” or “trainee teachers” nowadays, I’d prefer “teacher.” Right, as for my first full lesson observation, I can only offer scant details. I can tell you it was whilst on my first PGCE teaching placement at the famed Lancaster Boys School. It was a rugby lesson, it was lower school boys (obviously, I am/was a male PE teacher, and it was/is an all boys school) and it was bloody cold. I had a lesson plan inside a A4 pocket wallet (as directed be our mentor, in case it rained) folded over in the back of my crispy new navy blue weather-proof tracksuit bottoms. Not that I could access it. I had been collecting an icy rugby ball, off of the rock solid, frosted ground, as demonstrated in our “Lesson Warm-ups” session, inside the brand new, heated, 3 basketball court, Sports Hall at Loughborough University. That morning, I couldn’t feel my hands, my feet or…..

Did the pupils make sustained progress over time that lead to outstanding achievement? I am not sure. I very much doubt it. As for the SEN pupils, the disadvantaged and most able pupils, I don’t believe we had that type of contextual pupil information on our classes back then. Did I have consistently high expectations of all pupils. I hoped I did. Did I plan and teach lessons that enable pupils to learn exceptionally well. I really wanted to write “yes,” but the truth of the matter, was “no.” And if I had sighed at my own disappointment, my breath would have hung in the air in front of me. Did I “systematically and effectively check pupils’ understanding throughout lessons, anticipating where I may need to intervene and doing so with notable impact on the quality of learning.” I asked pertinent questions, from the huddle, a boy grunted. I checked the pupils understood what they were expected to learn. Another grunt. Did that have a notable impact on learning? Regrettably no. Was there any consideration given to literacy and numeracy. No. Did I have the authority to lead and were the pupils engaged and did they show high levels of commitment. In the most part, yes. You see, the PE dept had the most amazing relationship with the boys. PE lessons (playing football or rugby mainly) and extra-curricular sport thrived. Turn up Saturday mornings at the school and you would see somewhere between a hundred and hundred and fifty boys playing football or rugby. A full complement of PE teachers and staff from across the school urging on the next drive, run or tackle. Misbehave in PE lessons, no Saturday sport. It was that simple and always enforced. And I do mean enforced. High quality marking – not in PE. Plenty of verbal feedback, mainly to encourage the boys to keep moving, incentivised by their need to keep warm. Homework – none, unless you consider the implicit direction of their timetabled teacher Mr Sands for them to be at team practice Wednesday, “Without fail. Those of you that can’t throw and catch – learn. Don’t be late.” Well-judged strategies? Given the boys were absolutely freezing cold and begging to go in with fifteen minutes left of lesson, I missed the mark here. The lesson plan was exemplary, it reflected our model “Rugby Scheme of Learning” provided by the University, with a clear and significant absence of common sense!


Did I get feedback. Yes. “Get them in bloody sooner.” My areas for improvement. “You’re not much of a rugby player are you. Use the boys that are to demo for you.” Was my lesson graded? No. Were my lessons ever graded? No. Did we get a teacher grade for the placement? Yes. 1-5. Mr Sands gave me a 3. Whatever that meant?

Being Observed as a Teacher

My first post, I can’t recall being on observed, or being on probation, or attending NQT meetings even. I left for America in late June, almost at the end of my first teaching year. I didn’t realise I had to serve NQT year until I returned to take up a post at Tauntons College. Apparently I had completed the required number of days employment as an NQT. No report, no graded lesson observations, no lesson observations.

The first time I can recall needing lesson evidence was when I was preparing my Upper Pay Spine file(s) and by this time I was leading a department of six. The information required was all achievement evidence for the classes I “solely” had taught. Onto my next leadership role as Head of ICT and Whole School IT at Hamble Community Sports College. I was observed at interview. I didn’t receive feedback. My line manager was the Headteacher, I don’t recall being observed, however I did improve results three fold (from 23% to 79%) in one 5 full terms, and doubled the GCSE Equivalent weighting for more than half the pupils. Perhaps he thought he should just left to get on with my job. Promoted to Assistant Headteacher the following year and moved to the English department, I was observed teaching by my Head of Department. I was thankful, it was my third subject and I needed the support. Teaching was “Good.” Feedback focused on what I had to do to “keep up” with the team of subject specialists. Mark, plan, feedback, teach, repeat. The results that year for my teaching groups were more than comparable. I kept up.

The following year, I was observed by our new Principal and Ofsted followed shortly after. The new Principal was very thorough. She asked to see my markbook and my planning. She watched the full lesson. She spoke to the pupils. Feedback was equally thorough and covered the four Ofsted areas. If only I had “modelled” my writing ability to the class… Ofsted then arrived, with Patricia Metham HMI, self confessed language pedant, author of the Ofsted report, ‘Learning: creative approaches that raise standards’ and National Lead for English. At that time I was in my eyes, proudly an “English teacher in training,” working very hard to develop my English expertise. This is all true, but I was very inexperienced, and we had self confessed, language pedant, Patricia Metham HMI visiting.

I was not observed on day one and my day two teaching consisted of the lowest ability set Y11 groups on each half of the year. What could go wrong? Patricia arrived mid Period 1 and she stayed for the second half of a persuasive writing / marketing lesson. She apologised, she did not have time to offer feedback though I distinctly remember she was professionally supportive. Her only words were that she thought it was “a real shame, that a very good lesson was spoilt by your reinforcement of gender stereotypes.” I had recommend cursive fonts and pink pastel colours for female products. What was the stink about pink? For all intents and purposes, for a low ability GCSE English set, and most other humans on the planet, pink (currently) signals femininity, and with that, all of the stereotypical characteristics of being female. I was merely suggesting that in choosing pink, the pupils would be signally their products to be “female friendly.” I did not mean to insult potential female consumers and alienate male ones. She must have taken offence to the cursive font? Flippancy aside, she was of course right. Her feedback clearly stuck and left me wondering if constructive criticism is more powerful than fluffing the professional ego.

Finally at The Wellington Academy, leading Teaching and Learning, I have always asked my Curriculum Area Leader or Head of Department to observe my teaching. If not the Curriculum Leader for English at the Academy, the Head of English from our Sponsor, Wellington College and my conversations with Tom are treasured as they are rare. (Is that key benefit of observation, conversation?) Not because I was particular interested in the grade, but in their ability to help me be a better English teacher.

Dismissed by my confidence in the fact that graded lesson observations were flawed, in that they fell well short of representing a teachers every day practice, didn’t precise real their wider contribution to the school, and were wholly unreliable, it was trusted online colleague @Domnorrish that prompted me to investigate if they offered a positive contribution? That, I should look beyond my own experience (and that of Wayne and Garth) in that I might uncover a positive or a benefit? (That’s what online communities / blogging can offer teachers, views and opinions beyond your own.) It is entirely probable that a skilful and compassionate lesson observer has moved many a teacher forward in their practice. That passing grade (satisfactory and now good) or a grade higher than the one expected, has the boost the confidence of a teacher. I fear, that more (many more?) have left teachers deflated, even questioning their roles as teachers. Even ‘Good’ teachers, that had hoped to be accredited ‘Outstanding,’ were left drawing in a depth breath and wondering if all that extra performance preparation, and planning, and resources, and updating your teaching file, and, and, and, was worth it. Let’s not dodge the bullet, as Dom quite rightly fired at me, grading was not, in fact for, the teachers, but for those accountable for the Quality of Teaching. Which, may, in fact be the root of the issue? Ouch, that’s darkened the tone of the post.

The one outright and clear benefit of any type of observations, graded or not, belongs to the observer. I am supremely privileged to be in a role that enables me to see teachers at work almost everyday and in a role that expects I observe my colleagues. As a Senior Leader, and to a lesser extent as a Curriculum Leader, that opportunity and responsibility never escaped me. To that end, I have pilfered more ideas than I have shared, and always start my feedback with “Thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to observe you with you class today.” There, a short break in the clouds, let the sunshine through.

What will the future hold?

Answers on a post card. Or if you can wait a day or two I will at least share with you what we are planning to deliver. And yes, I need to get back to you and answer A-H.

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