- Continuing professional development (CPD) needs to be focused firmly on developing teachers.
- Giving teachers the means to organise their own professional development and support is a powerful approach.
- Lesson observations can be effective, but they should be focused on development rather than judgement in order to be effective.
- Most school leaders and teachers agree that high-quality CPD is vital to school improvement, but we are still some way from it being a reality in every school. To illustrate the point, it is worth looking at how one key CPD tool – lesson observations – is used by schools today.
To many teachers, lesson observations are a crude way of checking that they are not getting it wrong in the classroom. They are frequently associated with performance management as a way for the senior leadership team (SLT) to measure teachers against performance management objectives. Observations are therefore seen by many teachers as a high-risk ‘test’ rather than an opportunity for genuine professional development.
Although this is the case in a substantial proportion of schools, attitudes are changing. More school leaders are beginning to see lesson observations and other CPD approaches as a way to help teachers get it right.
This shift was certainly evident during discussions held in London and Leeds with school leaders. Most of the leaders gathered for these discussions held similar views about which CPD approaches truly develop staff and help them make a direct contribution to school improvement.
David Weston, chief executive of the Teacher Development Trust charity, pointed out that senior leaders tend to take one of two views of school improvement: a ‘fixing what is wrong’ approach or one where staff are ‘helped to be more right’.
He said that the most effective thing leaders do is to help staff to improve themselves. ‘This is more effective than driving. It’s about leaders helping their staff to improve themselves.’
Leaders agreed that teaching and learning groups could provide an excellent mechanism for the delivery of this CPD, including lesson observations.
Blatchington Mill School in Brighton and Hove and Manor Academy in Nottinghamshire are good examples of this approach. Blatchington Mill’s deputy headteacher, Ashley Harrold, said that at his school they have lead professionals for teaching and learning in a subject area and teacher learning communities. ‘I split it into eight areas which I think make for great teaching,’ he explained. ‘The teaching and learning groups cover these eight areas. Staff focus on a particular area of pedagogy, and lesson observation targets are linked to these areas.’
Lesson observation as a tool for professional development can be limited in its effectiveness if it is not used in a supportive and developmental way. David Weston believes that superficial observation does not necessarily tell you much about what is going on: ‘You can see that they [the observers] have high expectations, but it is about making [the observed] understand why they are doing something in a particular way, such as achievement for learning. Until they understand why they are doing it they will never do it right.’
In David Weston’s view, lesson observations need to be more than one-offs; multiple observations are key. He points to research by the Gates Foundation, which found that a single observation of a lesson was no more than 66% reliable with a trained observer, while other research suggested that uncertificated observers could be less than 50% reliable.
An open culture where observations are used in a truly developmental way is the ideal, but it takes time to get to that point in many schools. ‘It’s hard to shift from a culture where you do not trust the senior leadership team to one in which you are sharing your weaknesses,’ David Weston said. ‘This is not widely recognised in a system where you are expected by Ofsted to make it good quickly.’
Nick Hindmarsh, principal of Dartmouth Academy in Devon, thinks it is important that the judgement element of performance management is separate from the developmental aspects of observation and other professional development. In his own school, performance management observations are done by him and two deputy heads. The heads of the faculty teams are supporters in professional development and not the judges, as he feels that separation is needed.
Maria Townsend, headteacher of Raynville Primary in Leeds, believes that secondary school leaders place such a strong emphasis on teaching and learning groups in order to use them as vehicles for professional development. A similar approach is being pursued at her school, where these groups identify and direct their own half-termly CPD sessions. She added that such peer approaches are only workable with specific training, otherwise they are not objective enough. With this in mind, peer lesson observations should be part of a teacher’s personal development as well as a way of driving school improvement.
Don Rolls, performance manager at Royds School Specialist Language College in Leeds, summed up the views of many leaders, adding: ‘The observer should be another pair of eyes. It can work really well if the observer asks the teacher what they want them to focus and comment on. They can then build the observer’s recommendations into their next lesson. Over a period of weeks their practice improves because of supportive observation.’
CPD case study: The Manor Academy, Mansfield
Big changes were needed at The Manor Academy in Nottinghamshire after it was placed in special measures in autumn 2011. A new curriculum was brought in and traditional faculties were replaced with four cross-subject learning strands. CPD was overhauled so that all staff members could contribute to the school’s improvement journey.
CPD became a non-negotiable part of the working week for everyone, says Manor headteacher Donna Trusler who, as deputy headteacher at the time, played a lead role in the changes.
Every staff member has two hours of CPD a week – half of which is spent in ‘teaching and learning communities’.
These communities are made up of staff from across the learning strands. Led by an experienced teacher, they might include a learning strand leader and deputy, two classroom teachers, two support staff and an ‘exceptional practitioner’ teacher.
‘Mixed groups make the sharing of knowledge from across the school easier,’ says Donna. ‘For example, a geography teacher might pick up a useful approach from a history teacher and she can take it back to her own classroom. In the past, this expertise might have been hidden away in faculties.’
The groups are trained to use the ‘action learning sets’ coaching approach. ‘A teacher should be able to share a concern or issue with fellow group members who don’t give solutions but instead ask questions that will help that teacher find the answer,’ Donna explains. ‘Most people have the answers within them – they just need help bringing them out.’
Measurement of the impact of CPD is crucial, and the school regularly evaluates its CPD.
Staff use performance management and CPD to identify their development needs, do the training and then connect back to that training any later improvements in their practice. As well as helping staff develop and make a real contribution to their development plan, it tells them which CPD is really effective – and which is a waste of time.
The impact of the changes at The Manor Academy is undeniable. Currently 75% of lessons are good or outstanding – two years ago it was 40%. ‘We were lifted out of category after a year and Ofsted said we could become outstanding very quickly,’ says Donna. ‘Results have also risen from 66% of pupils getting five or more good GCSEs in 2010 to 82% in 2013.’
Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you put the ideas in this article into practice:
About the author
Keith Wright is managing director of school improvement planning specialists Bluewave.SWIFT. To download the company’s free CPD white paper, visit www.bluewaveswift.co.uk