Sunday, 17 November 2013

Grading lessons to deny pay progression is unacceptable

"Dear Parent/Guardian, if your son/daughter fails to pay attention in my class, it could cost me £2,000"

Surely no school would dream of denying a teacher annual progression up their pay scale in such an unfair manner? Surely no school would want to poison the relationship between children, parents and teachers by imposing such a draconian policy?

Unfortunately, this imaginary letter is not such a far-fetched exaggeration. It is, in summary, what is effectively written in many school pay policies, including the disputed model policy issued by my employer, Lewisham Local Authority.

How can that be so? Firstly, because the National Association of Head Teachers  model pay policy, on which the Lewisham policy is based, states that "to move up the main pay range, one annual point at a time ... Teaching should be ‘good’, as defined by Ofsted"

Secondly, because the 'Ofsted definition' being used by schools (and expressly set out in some school observation policies) describes, amongst other things, the following description of a lesson; "Pupils find the strategies and tasks interesting. Most concentrate well and pay full attention to the teacher. However, some may lose interest and need to be reminded to concentrate by the teacher". 

However, that description, where a teacher uses interesting tasks and strategies and where most pupils pay full attention, is not a description of a good lesson. It is one that can't even be described as "satisfactory" any more, but one that "requires improvement". 

In short, if, despite all a teacher's efforts, despite all the various other issues that might be impacting on a particular child on that day, despite all the challenges that a particular class might present, if a few children lose concentration, the teacher has failed to meet the standard for pay-progression.

Some Heads will protest that they wouldn't apply the policy as crudely as that - but then why insist on such a crudely written policy?

Such policies are also based on a 'definition' which inspectors themselves say should not be applied to individual lessons.

For example, Mary Myatt, an adviser and inspector who should know a thing or two about teaching and learning, has written the following on her blog: :

ome schools take the judgement on the quality of teaching from the inspection handbook and apply this to individual lessons. But it wasn’t intended to be used like this. It is not a tick box, it is a descriptor which is used to make a judgement on the overall quality of teaching in the school. Not, repeat not, for individual lessons".

In, she writes, "the Ofsted schedule makes clear that a wider range of indicators must inform the judgement on the quality of teaching. ‘Inspectors must not simply aggregate the grades awarded following lesson observations’ (School Inspection Handbook Sep 2013 p37)"

Training provider, David Didau, '@LearningSpy' on his blog, goes further and rightly talks of "the mistaken belief that you can recognise great teaching and learning just from looking".

In he spells out that "The weight of critical opinion would suggest that grading lessons is both unhelpful and unreliable".

'@LearningSpy' refers to the research by Professor Robert Coe, director of Durham University’s Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, who "has declared that schools inspectors in England are basing their verdicts on evaluation methods which may not be reliable  ... Coe even goes so far as to suggest that classroom observation might be the new Brain Gym. He questions both the validity and impact and points out that there isn’t even one single, solitary study that provides real evidence that observations lead to improvement in teachers’ practice. Who knew?"

In Prof Coe "suggested that ratings given to lessons by observers could be 'influenced by spurious confounds'. These included the charisma and confidence of the teacher, the subject matter being taught, students' behaviour in the classroom and the time of day. He questioned whether the observation ratings could be consistent given so many variables. He also listed a series of "poor proxies for learning", arguing that outward signs such as busy and motivated students and a calm and ordered classroom do not necessarily always mean that students are learning effectively and could reproduce correct answers independently".

'@LearningSpy' concludes with a recommendation that schools should "Stop grading lessons. You don’t need to do it. The excuse that Ofsted force schools to judge lessons is just that".

I don't know what view Mary Myatt, David Didau and Robin Coe take about trade unions and strike action. What I welcome is that they are confirming what teachers already know from their everyday experience - that observations are inevitably subjective and that judgements can be arbitrary.  They certainly shouldn't be based on a completely inapplicable so-called Ofsted 'definition' of a 'good' lesson.

Yet 'Ofsted observation gradings' are widely being used in an unfair and destructive way to justify putting teachers on capability procedures and imposed 'support programmes'. When Gove's legislation allows it at the end of this academic year, they will also be used to block teachers' pay-rises too. This invidious practice has to stop. 

Of course, we all want to be 'good' teachers. However, firstly, as these educators all explain, judging the quality of a teacher can only be based on a wide range of factors. Given the vast range of different schools, the range of expertise and specialisms of staff and the many different pupil cohorts within any one school, and the range of needs and backgrounds in any one class, it is never going to be a simple judgement to decide who is 'good' and who isn't.  

What we can all agree is that, with appropriate resources, reduced workload, mutual respect and support, which could include properly-constituted peer observation, then we could all be better teachers. However, divisive performance-pay will cut across supportive teamwork and any honest discussion of strengths and weaknesses. It will be used to arbitrarily block pay-rises, especially when school-budgets are under pressure. It also has to be stopped.

Any school pay policy that is based on the NAHT's 'good' teaching 'as defined by Ofsted' is dangerous nonsense. Unfortunately, it seems that it will require teachers taking strike action to stop this nonsense demoralising teachers, and to prevent both the unfair denial of pay and the damage to education that will otherwise result from such divisive policies.

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