Free article: Making performance appraisal an objective and helpful process

Published: Monday, 09 December 2013

Performance appraisal is crucial to school improvement, but many schools are still without a rigorous and transparent way of carrying it out, says Keith Wright. Here, he analyses the challenges and outlines key principles that underpin it.

Summary

  • Performance appraisal is one of the main tools for supporting and developing staff.
  • However, the process must be seen to be objective and transparent.
  • The demands of Ofsted should be borne in mind in relation to performance appraisal.
  • The use of evidence in appraisals will be even more crucial when pay is performance related.
  • Transparent, robust and fair performance appraisal will stand a school in good stead.

Good performance appraisal is one of the main building blocks of a successful school, along with targeted continuous professional development (CPD). CPD should make a proper contribution to school improvement, meaningful self-evaluation and development planning that is driven by leaders and staff.

However, if you get performance appraisal wrong the school could be on shaky foundations for many reasons.

The process

Performance appraisal is a key process – it is one of the main tools for supporting and developing staff so that they can deliver the most effective teaching and learning possible for students. A good process is structured, systematic and involves reviewer and reviewee. It sets clear objectives and timescales, is clear about expectations and measurements, and the staff member being reviewed knows that the process is the same for them as it is for their colleagues.

A good approach identifies areas for stretch and development. If there are performance issues with a staff member, these can be identified quickly and an intervention, such as appropriate CPD, can be put into action. Talents and strengths can be identified and resources put in place that will help quickly to develop that person. Good performance appraisal develops and supports your people and helps them deliver the best for your pupils.

The need for transparency

This all reads well on paper, but these processes are nothing unless they are seen to be objective and transparent. A performance appraisal process that is not formal, structured and out in the open can easily be open to criticism.

Most of us can pluck one or two examples from our career histories of colleagues being fast tracked to promotion when it was not at all clear to us why their performance was deemed to be better than our own. When the criteria against which people are being judged are not clear, or perhaps even shrouded in secrecy, then resentment can build in the staff room. The overall effect can be corrosive and ultimately bad for pupils and bad for the school.

The demands of Ofsted

While school leaders should always be concerned about the effect of performance appraisal on school performance and staff morale, they also need to bear in mind the demands of Ofsted. The body now wants schools to give a full account of the school improvement processes, which ultimately has a huge impact on pupil attainment. It wants evidence that the senior leadership team (SLT) knows the school’s strengths and weaknesses, that leaders are immersed in self-evaluation and that development plans are focused on improving teaching and raising achievement. Good performance appraisal plays a crucial role in binding all of these elements together.

Performance-related pay

If that does not make a strong enough case for school leaders to embrace a transparent and rigorous performance appraisal approach, then the prospect of performance-related pay being introduced into our schools should.

Some in the teaching profession might think that such a move will lead to colleague being set against colleague in the battle for a pay rise. Meanwhile, headteachers will have their own worries because they will be expected to set pay levels within schools based on performance. Headteachers may also be concerned that putting the ultimate decision on pay levels within broad bands will leave them open to accusations of favouritism. Some are already saying they do not need the extra burden of fixing what was, essentially, not broken. At all levels of the school, many will feel exposed by performance-related pay – or, at the very least, be unsure about its impact.

The risks exposed by performance-related pay are even starker when you consider the broader issue of the information management ‘gap’ that exists in the vast majority of England’s schools. Many schools still do not have a systematised and transparent way of managing staff performance, nor do they have a rigorous approach to the areas of school development planning, self-evaluation and CPD. While Ofsted criticises schools for having less than robust evaluation processes, how can they hope that schools will be able to validate decisions around performance-related pay with any degree of objectivity and accuracy?

Headteachers often find it difficult to determine where their staff are in relation to meeting the requirements of the new teacher standards in the current performance appraisal arrangements. The same applies to teachers, which is understandable given the sheer volume of standards multiplied by the number of staff – it is an administration nightmare. This is concerning, especially when we know that these very same standards will be used to judge performance-related pay.

Using evidence in performance appraisal

When headteachers and SLT colleagues are in a position to make decisions about pay based on performance, it is absolutely vital that these are justified by evidence which is benchmarked against uniform standards. If it is done in any other way they could be accused of inconsistency or favouritism.

Teachers also need to know exactly where they stand in this. They and their colleagues need to be as well informed as the school’s leadership when they enter the performance appraisal process. If they have evidence that they have met the standards expected of them then they will be in a strong position in pay negotiations. Teachers need to know that, where they lack confidence in the decision making of those in authority, they have the necessary mechanisms in place to produce their own compelling evidence base.

The appraisal itself

A good performance appraisal process should:

  • be productive for more than just the appraisal process – it must be part of the bigger picture
  • be clear and transparent so that everyone knows what they should be doing and why they are doing it
  • be consistent in terms of process and procedure but be flexible enough to cater for individual roles and responsibilities
  • promote objectivity – facilitating fair and equitable dialogue contributing to a feeling of confidence for all stakeholders
  • be scalable so that it has the capacity to grow and flex with the development of the organisation
  • be ‘future proof’ – evidence entered today must automatically carry forward and be presented in context so that today’s valuable contribution and effort does not become redundant.

Performance appraisal that is transparent, robust and fair is part of the bedrock upon which any successful school is built. Performance-related pay is coming, we can be sure, and it will test even the most solid and progressive performance-appraisal approaches. But if schools underpin their performance appraisal with the broad principles outlined above then they will be in good shape to meet the challenges that are ahead.

Toolkit

Use the following item in the Toolkit to help you to put the ideas in this article into practice:

About the author

Keith Wright is managing director of school information management specialist Bluewave.SWIFT. He has worked with hundreds of schools during the past decade supporting institutional leadership and management. For further information go to www.bluewaveswift.co.uk

This article was first published in the August 2013 issue of School Inspection + Improvement Magazine.

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