I have been a primary school headteacher since 1998 and as such has seen a significant change from the halcyon days of yore where the Local Authority furnished schools with every subject consultant under the sun to develop skills in teaching and learning; to the present where we inhabit an increasing baron land where the Local Authority’s role is predominately punitive. This is not the fault of the LA but a consequence of the diminishing funding share for Local Authorities. As such, schools have been placed in a position where school to school support has become not only desirable but essential if we are to move our pedagogy forward and develop a self-sustaining education system where all thrive.
Work with the collaboration
I work in a large primary school in a small coastal town in East Kent. There are eleven primary schools in our collaboration. We formed a collaboration with a Memorandum of Understanding four years ago called the Deal Learning Alliance and have been funded by the LA to develop collaborative work between schools. Our schools had already formed close working relationships but we wanted to take this work further beyond our more pastoral work between schools into a more challenge-based developmental approach to school improvement.
A key driver to working collaboratively for me was that my school was judged in 2009 and 2012 as RI by Ofsted and I was charging towards a third RI, and a death knell for my school and career if I couldn’t demonstrate significant progress. I had converted the school to become an academy in January 2013 and as such was in need of external challenge for both my staff and myself. This problem posed a true opportunity and was the start of a powerful journey of self-improvement within a self-improving system created across our Deal Learning Alliance.
Peer observations for teachers
Before our inspection in November 2012 and converting to become an academy in January 2013, the LA undertook a ‘monitoring visit’ and gave us a two day ‘mocksted’. The outcome of the mocksted was painful for us as a school, although it affirmed the good practice and curriculum developments we were undertaking, it highlighted significant inconsistencies in the quality of teaching. Some of my most inspiring teachers crumbled when observed, they tried too hard and as such, lessons lacked integrity and children’s engagement in learning fell. It became apparent that if we were to strengthen teaching across the school, we needed to normalise observations and see lessons from the perspective of the teacher, child and observer.
It became evident that a powerful way to improve teaching would be to ask our teachers to observe practice across the school. I met with the Senior Team to pair teachers with colleagues, linking key areas of their lesson observation outcomes and appraisal targets to ensure the observations had a developmental focus for the observer, rather than a critical focus for the observed teacher. This process was based on the model of Joint Practice Development, defined by Michael Fielding and colleagues as ’…learning new ways of working through mutual engagement that opens up and shares practices with others’. (Fielding, M, Bragg, S, Craig, J, Cunningham, I, Eraut, M, Gillinson, S, Horne, M, Robinson, C & Thorp, J, 2005, Factors Influencing the Transfer of Good Practice, Nottingham, DFES Publications).
Our teachers were very nervous to begin, they had concerns their presence in another’s classroom would be intrusive and add pressure to a colleague’s workload. We asked teachers to arrange their own timetable to undertake a visit to a colleague’s classroom and that there would be a reciprocal visit the following term. During the week of the first visit, the conversations in the staff room began to fill with talk about teaching and learning as teachers shared examples of great teaching observed across the school. These conversations were affirming and morale-boosting but more importantly, a paradigm shift had begun; a self-improving system where teachers welcomed others into their classroom and desired to see the practice of others to improve their own.
Peer observations across schools
Once teachers had undertaken two rounds of peer observations across the school, we decided to develop observations across four schools in collaboration. We linked teachers who would learn from one another and created a cross-school observation round. As observations were across schools we created an observation form to focus our teachers on the key elements of practice observed. The form is we used is below and is used to harvest the outcome from each observation. We targeted an area of development common across the four schools and asked teachers to observe practice in maths. Teachers once again felt anxious about both observing and being observed across schools. Once again, the talk in the staff room buzzed with conversations about what teachers had seen across the four schools and of their experience in discussing their practice with colleagues across the schools.
Peer observations across schools had started to build professional relationships between colleagues. This opened out a shared trust between schools and a professional network upon which we could build further structures across schools. These networks have included curriculum groups, shared staff training events, Teach-Meets, shared learning experiences across schools and teacher secondments.
As teachers relaxed into being observed, their confidence as teachers grew. Teacher’s confidence in their own teaching style and that this could differ from colleagues both within the school and across schools without compromising the quality of practice was deeply affirming. Our staff had become deeply self-reflective and the lesson observation had become normalised, empowering the teachers to teach with confidence when observed; confidence to teach in their own style and align their practice to the key values shared by teachers observed across their school.
Our school was inspected in December 2014. During this inspection, teachers were observed by the team and displayed a confidence and self-assurance that was consistent across every lesson observed. As a result of the lessons observed, the quality of teaching was judged to be outstanding by the team. The interesting question is, would we have gained an outstanding judgement if we had not developed a culture of peer observations? My thoughts on this are that the development of a self-improving system through the use of peer observations both within the school and across schools played a significant part in developing a strong and consistent approach to teacher’s understanding of what great teaching looks like. As a result, my teachers were relaxed during the last inspection, yes relaxed! Relaxed through a self-confidence that they knew their teaching, although not perfect, was deeply engaging and led children to make stunning progress.
Since this journey, we have introduced peer observations for our TAs across schools and monitoring visits led by SLT from the four schools. The culture of the school to school support through Joint Practice Development has been a powerful model for our self-improving systems across schools.
This is a re-blog post originally posted by Graham Chisnell and published with kind permission.
The original post can be found here.