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Accountability, Leadership

Why We Can No Longer Afford the High Cost Low Trust Surveillance Culture

It would be good to think that the toxic culture that currently pervades too many of our schools is coming to an end.  I sense we have a way to go; there are still a lot of different practices that need to be replaced; it’ll take time, courage and wisdom.  The costs in terms of people lost from the profession and the waste of money on things that don’t work or matter can no longer be afforded.

The slide below is one from a presentation that I’ll be giving alongside Ross McGill (@TeacherToolkit) as we talk about Rethinking Leadership.

Graded Lesson Observations

It will become another iconic Dylan Wiliam quote, “Learning takes place over time whilst a lesson occurs at a particular time”.  My current favourite definition of learning is from Make It Stick (2014) Brown, Roediger & McDaniel, “… we mean acquiring knowledge and skills and having them readily available from memory so you can make sense of future problems and opportunities”.

The difficulty of making judgments about the quality of teaching in a lesson is we can’t be sure what pupils will retain in their long term memory over time; what most observers want to see, learning, won’t be apparent.  Allied to that, teachers having a natural fluctuation in the quality of lesson they teach; teachers tended to be more highly graded when observed teaching higher attaining classes and observers have biases and vary in what they think good looks like.  Serendipity has a massive part to play in the lesson a teacher is seen teaching and what grade an observer awards.  The whole process is emotionally charged; teachers can believe they are the grade given, “I’m an outstanding/inadequate teacher”.

Thinking about an average size secondary school with 70 teachers being observed twice a year with the write up and feedback could easily equate to 350 of work (five hours per teacher) of senior leadership time in addition to the distraction and stress for a classroom teacher.  For a senior leader, teaching three days a week, the 350 hours equals over half a year’s work to generate unreliable data that you can’t really draw any valid conclusions from.

A simple, cost effective alternative might be to ask, “What area of your classroom practice would you most like to develop this year?  Why have you chosen that and what would be the best way to help you develop?”

Frequent Aggregated Grade/Level Data Drops

I’m now pretty much of the opinion that most of the aggregated data schools collect every six weeks is pretty much garbage; certainly once it’s been converted into a single letter or number to enter into a school’s management information system.  The letters/numbers entered assess too small a part of the subject syllabus/curriculum to mean very much and the regularity of collection fails to account for the fact that pupils don’t make massive jumps in grades/levels every few weeks.  Pupils learning and subsequent progress is not linear but can be static, dynamic, stuttering over the course of a year.

There are substantial time restraints on teachers when collecting the data regularly (schools can request it as often as six weekly); standardisation and moderation are likely to be minimal or non-existent.  The conclusions senior leaders want to make about attainment and subsequent progress between two pretty unreliable data points appears increasingly as a fool’s errand.

The time taken per data drop for a teacher across multiple subjects/classes could equate to 20 to 30 hours of marking and data entry.  With six data drops a year we are talking between 120 to 150 hours per annum.  Back to our seventy staff school and that is 8,400 to 10,500 hours.  Or put another way, the full directed hours allocation of seven to eight full time teachers.  Add in the time of senior leaders agonising over and analysing the data and the high workload and financial costs become apparent.

Another option would be to reduce massively the number of formal assessment points required by the school (low stakes testing can be as much as you like) and keep the data dis-aggregated; that is, in a format that is useful to the teacher.  “What don’t your pupils know that they should because you have taught them it?  How could you best fill the learning gaps the pupils have?”  This may also provide some evidence for consideration by the teacher about what s/he does or doesn’t teach well.

Performance Pay

Teaching is cumulative; we build on pupils’ prior learning whether from home or a previous teacher.  Teaching is complex and complicated; its quality is unlikely to be influenced by whether there is more cash on offer.  The exception, according to Professor Becky Allen, might be highly competent teachers who are particularly unmotivated or disinterested and can’t be bothered teaching as well as they are able to; I honestly don’t meet many of these.

Add back into consideration the problems of using graded lesson observations to make determinations and the whole annual performance pay saga becomes really problematic.  Maybe we should just allow teachers automatic progression up the pay spine, unless there is a capability issue that is being looked into.

We’ve never had annual performance pay but this year we’ve decided to consult on removing the pay bar we had between M3 & M4 and the pay bars on the Upper Pay Spine.  Once we’ve taken pay decisions off the table we can just concentrate on all getting that bit better and serving our pupils well.



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