Free article: Monitoring and coaching through lesson observation

Published: Thursday, 05 February 2015

John Viner explores ways to develop a culture of continual 
improvement in teaching through lesson observation.


  • The revised Ofsted inspection handbook takes a holistic approach to lesson observation.
  • If the development of teaching is a core function of school leadership then it is time to adopt a new approach that takes the 
long view.
  • A culture of continual improvement takes time to develop but can be highly effective.
  • Lesson feedback needs to become more sharply focused on what went well and the specifics of improvement.
  • The teachers’ standards are an effective benchmark and development tool.

The latest revision of the Ofsted inspection handbook, which subsumes the supplementary guidance that supported its predecessor, makes very clear the relatively recent policy that Ofsted does not grade lessons, nor does it grade teachers. This, then, is a good time to review how school leaders use lesson observation to raise pupils’ achievement through linking observation to improving performance.

This move away from grades is arguably an inevitable evolution of the story of lesson observation. When Ofsted began, there was a seven-point scale used in lessons to judge teaching, response, attainment and progress. Three of these points were grades of inadequacy. Thus a teacher could be judged as excellent, very good or good, but could also be graded weak, poor or very poor. We have travelled a long way since then and it is now accepted wisdom that teaching is more about learning than style and more about outcomes than inputs. The reluctance to grade is also a necessary consequence of performance-related pay: Ofsted does not wish to get drawn into the defence of a teacher who is unlikely to be rewarded for exceptional performance but who pulls it out of the bag for Ofsted and turns in a wonderful lesson. Those days are gone.

However, as the Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw said at the Royal Society of Arts in 2013, ‘headship is about the leadership of teaching first and foremost’. The re-ordering of the handbook to place leadership at the top may signal the increased importance of leadership in securing effective and productive teaching and learning. School leaders therefore need to have a clear focus on how they will promote outstanding teaching in their school. This is what the post-war management gurus labelled ‘Kaizen’ after the Japanese philosophy of continual improvement. The word often preferred by HMCI is ‘relentless’, but ‘continual’ means the same and lacks the punitive undertone. Good leadership is as much about good followership, and good followership results from a shared vision rather than fear of failure. The drift, therefore, is away from grading and towards coaching; less about monitoring than mentoring.

It is important to appreciate that, while Ofsted may not grade teaching, schools may need to have some measure of effec-tiveness. For performance management, for school self-evaluation and for clarity of professional discussion, school leaders will want to be able to use some form of quality measure. However, we need to pay attention to the view of Mike Cladingbowl, Ofsted’s National Director of Schools, who said, ‘Although I hope all this is now better understood by schools than it was, I am still concerned that ineffective and unnecessary lesson observation is going on in too many of our schools.’

So this is about making lesson observation effective and accepted. There could be said to be four key elements to planning a strategy of effective monitoring and coaching:

  1. Teaching can only be graded over time.
  2. Teachers need to know what they are doing well.
  3. Teachers need to know how they could improve.
  4. The teachers’ standards offer a clear set of benchmarks.

Grading teaching over time

Cladingbowl offers useful recommendations for 
teacher evaluation:

  • ‘evaluating teaching in a school should include looking across a range of children’s work, establishing how well children acquire knowledge, understanding the teachers’ own views, observing direct practice, and checking on the views of children and parents and carers.’

This six-fold strategy describes what many schools are now doing; lesson observation is a necessary part of the picture but is contextualised by reviewing pupils’ work, both resulting from the lesson and over time. This work should show progress and continuity and the teacher’s marking should clearly guide pupils’ improvement. There is no substitute for listening to pupils; talking to them about the work they have done and are doing will quickly help to assess whether teaching is resulting in learning. As Sir Michael Wilshaw says, ‘nothing is taught unless it’s learnt’. Ongoing professional discussion is now a crucial part of coaching for improvement and there is a greater than ever expectation that teachers have good pedagogical understanding. To understand if teaching is effective is to understand impact, effect and outcomes. A one-off observation may tell you something, but it is not the whole story.

Knowing what went well

If we are to turn monitoring into coaching then school leaders will need to create a positive climate where lesson observation is seen as ongoing and developmental. In schools where the climate has been judgemental and punitive, this change may take some time. Teachers will always hear the bad news so it is important that feedback is shaped around celebrating the good stuff as well as finding improvements. Celebrating the positive gives us permission to develop it further.

Knowing what to improve

Moving away from those observations that cover every minute detail of a teacher’s pedagogy, developing a commitment to Kaizen means that small steps towards improvement are the most manageable. Whether a teacher is strong or weak, it is best to focus on one or two improvement points at a time. Be clear about them, identify strategies to support the teacher’s develop-ment of these points and make them a focus of the next observation.

Using the teachers’ standards

The teachers’ standards offer a clear identification of the fundamental elements of successful teaching. They offer a benchmark for all schools, a starting point from which to build a team of skilful practitioners. They help leaders to ensure that they are balanced in their observations and advice and, above all, that they have a shared language which all teachers can understand.

Performance management is a function of lesson observation, not its sole purpose. Where a culture of Kaizen can be developed, effective observation becomes an accepted – even welcomed – strategy. Evidence from New York’s ‘Uncommon Schools’ network shows that observing teachers little and often, with a clear focus, leads to rapid and sustained improvement. Perhaps it is here that the future of lesson observation lies, rather than as the termly whole-lesson blunt instrument it has become in some of our schools.

The lesson observation in the Toolkit is framed around the four elements of subject knowledge which are, according to the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Authority (QCDA): subject knowledge per se, subject-related pedagogy, understanding how children and young people learn and promoting pupils’ positive attitudes to learning. Brief notes are all that is required, written around the teachers’ standards.

The follow-up record in the Toolkit is a record of the support and intervention a teacher has received. It confirms that this is a two-way process and, if necessary, can be used as evidence for performance management or capability procedures.

Further reading

  • Why I want to try inspecting without grading each individual lesson, M. Cladingbowl (Ofsted, 2014)


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

About the author

John Viner has taught in both primary and secondary schools, with a long history of successful school leadership. He is now a 
full-time writer, inspector and adviser.

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