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Accountability, Leadership

Book Scrutiny, the New Tyranny for Teachers?

It was an accident waiting to happen.  As soon as I heard an Ofsted Inspector saying, “You can tell so much from looking at pupils’ books” the alarm bells started ringing.  The word “only” had been missed out.

In truth you can only tell so much from looking at pupils’ books but beleaguered or overzealous headteachers and senior leaders were already on it.  The amount of times this #SLTchat tweet was liked or retweeted alarms me.  It clearly hit a chord and there is the obvious worry that teachers, in some schools, are being beaten up by the new tyranny; book scrutiny.


Our desire for improvement has led to some really low, collective and individual, moments of madness.  We should have learnt our lesson from the exposure of the limitations of graded lesson observations.  Some leaders did, others just moved onto the next silver bullet.  Despite our desire to find the all-encompassing single efficient method of judging the quality of teaching it doesn’t exist.

“Each measure on its own is not good enough. But all have different strengths and weaknesses, so collectively they can provide something quite reliable. If we do it well, it has value.”

Coe (2016)

Lesson observations, book scrutinies, pupil questionnaires/voice even examination results don’t individually allow us to make valid far reaching conclusions about the quality of teaching.  They do however provide a window through which we can look at various aspects of practice.  The conclusions that can be reached from any one perspective are limited; collectively they paint a broader picture.  This broader but still incomplete picture may be more useful when looking to develop professional practice as opposed to making cliff edge accountability judgments.

Whilst I’ve argued that book scrutinies aren’t everything nor are they nothing.  They can have a value when seen as part of a wider process.  As a school leader, whilst hugely interested in the quality of teaching, you can’t be in every lesson taught.

Book scrutinies can give you a glimpse of the curriculum covered, though less so in practical subjects.  Alongside a discussion with a teacher book scrutinies have been really useful, over the last few years, as both primary academies were beginning to deliver the new National Curriculum.  Is the new curriculum being delivered in the revised sequence and incorporating new elements?  It’s a good starting point for a discussion.

Alternatively, why not allow for peer to peer book scrutinies around a key issue like feedback to pupils.  Read more about this in Bring Your Best and Your Worst #MarkingScrutiny.

Book scrutiny used alongside assessment data as part of a reflective analysis of the year’s teaching can be hugely revealing.  Have pupils made one year’s progress for one year’s teaching (or hopefully more) and how do you know?  It’s a great question and you can read more about it in Creating a Progress Dialogue With Teachers.

As school leaders we need to build the right culture in our school if we are going to develop great teaching, assessment and learning.  Being better informed is a start but using information wisely takes our leadership to a whole new level.

“Part of the liminal world created for leaders by being more informed is managing the tension that uncertainty brings; it can’t paralyse you into inactivity but does require you to tread and speak with a greater quietness and gentleness.  Remember tomorrow you may have to change direction or eat your words.  There will be much more walking alongside people than the heroic cavalry charge of frenetic activity.  The inappropriate and incorrect conclusions, born of limited data, are a huge ethical issue for schools; it’s one of a number we need to address.”

Liminal Leadership due to be released on 17th October 2016



Coe, R. (2016) SSAT meets Professor Rob Coe: Part 1 – Proper research is what identifies great teaching. Available: https://www.ssatuk.co.uk/ssat-meets-rob-coe-1/  Last accessed 22nd May 2016



5 thoughts on “Book Scrutiny, the New Tyranny for Teachers?

  1. It is also important that schools do not go ‘fishing without the bait’ otherwise this will lead to anecdotal and unreliable evidence. http://www.teachertoolkit.me/2016/07/26/book-looks/

    Posted by @TeacherToolkit | October 4, 2016, 8:53 pm
  2. Hi – when I put our Work Scrutiny document together, I asked staff for input. Specifically, I asked all subjects to tell me what ‘Best Practice’ would look like in their subjects and that, together with the teacher, will inform feedback. They tell me what they should be doing and that’s what I look for.

    Posted by Ann Litchfield | October 5, 2016, 9:40 am
  3. It helps if the person doing the book scrutiny re-reads their own marking policy before carrying it out…

    Posted by CraftyTeacher | October 5, 2016, 10:34 pm


  1. Pingback: #LearningFirst – Reasons to be Optimistic About Assessment | @LeadingLearner - November 3, 2016

  2. Pingback: Ofsted: Inspectors without subject expertise make less reliable judgements Pippa Allen-Kinross June 26, 2019 Schools Week – teachingandlearningblog - June 27, 2019

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