Lesson Observations and the cycle of school improvement

We are just past the mid point of the February half term holiday and so roughly half way through the academic year.  Our school improvement journey has progressed at great speed throughout the first half of the year and our leadership team has just finished observing every single member of staff in school.  This is a first for me.  I have never worked in a school where so much importance is placed on seeing every one teach through a regular calendar of observations before and if I hadn’t made the move to take on a DHT post in a new school then I would not have seen such an effective model for self evaluation and planning.  I would have been a much poorer headteacher as a result of missing this.

So let me be clear about this post and its message – I take no credit for the detail in the plan or the construction of it, that is down to the SLT at my current school before I joined.  What I want to share with you here is why I think the model is a fantastic example of school planning and what my next steps are as part of the process.

We are very much in the evidence phase of the cycle at the moment and I think, whether you have been in a school for 10 years or 10 weeks, the evidence phase is the best one to start in. This is where you look for as many sources of valid data as possible to give you the best understanding of what goes on in the school and what the perceptions are of it from the staff, the students, parents, governors and the local community.

We have explored a range of data sources this year and many of them are being revisited as opposed to freshly deployed.  Some of these sources include:

  • Kirkland Rowell staff, student and parent survey
  • Parent evening surveys using a similar structure to the OFSTED parental survey in the announcement of an inspection.  We do these questionnaires routinely at parents evenings as it gives us a more immediate source of data that we can compare against other year groups, or indeed the same year group a year earlier.
  • Exam results and RAISEOnline report
  • Departmental Self Evaluation reports reviewing progress against the current four aims of the school improvement plan
  • Performance management reviews
  • Lesson observation data

It is the lesson observation data I want to focus on in this post.  I have taken all the observation forms and the feedback given to staff and constructed a grid summarising the grade, the strengths of the lesson and the areas for improvement.  There is also a section for the pay scale and the recent VA of exam groups in an attempt to be able to answer the question of what are the strengths of  our most expensive and most experienced staff compared to those still learning their craft.  The idea for this came from a discussion with @Croix2000 during my NPQH placement at Sandringham School and is one of the myriad of superb procedures I picked up during my week there.

The information I am focussing on at the moment is the areas for development.  In theory CPD should address the needs of the individual teacher and not fall foul of the usual, poorly thought out CPD campaigns that have been so beautifully described by @Iangilbert, 10 things not to do at your training day and @Teachertoolkit, Training day pitfalls.  There is a temptation for schools to aim their CPD at the latest buzz word in education or the last thing the deputy head read about education and not at the evidence drawn from the lesson observations.  I wanted to explore just how wide of the mark we can be as school leaders in determining the training needs of our staff.  In the interests of testing my knowledge about CPD needs I drafted a list of the areas for development I thought I would find during the lesson observations, then I wanted to compare this list to the one the feedback indicated.  Here is my first list of perceived areas for action;

  • Differentiation – I have yet to find a school that has got this area polished off as a strength so I put this down as an area of continual improvement
  • Marking – we have had a big push on this this year and I was sure that the marking effectiveness would be patchy across the school
  • Level of challenge – our results suggest we need to push our top end more so this was not really a punt in the dark

These were the only three I could predict with any degree of confidence – there were more, questioning for example, but that would be based on my reading list at the moment and the development areas from my previous school.  As a result it might not have had any relevance with my new school.

The list below is a summary of the areas that were highlighted during our lesson observations this year.  These are the areas we need to work on and build our CPD around.  There were some surprising additions.

  • Objectives – needs to be more clarity and better phrasing.  Using blooms verbs would help gauge the challenge in the lessons and help the planning process
  • Differentiation – more higher order challenge of the more able students.
  • Marking – but not in the normal not done way.  The marking was all up to date and reasonably effective.  It should be, we make sure staff know we are coming to observe for the full hour.  The main area for development here though was the effectiveness of the targets set and this is weakened by the lack of clarity in the lesson objectives.
  • Transitions – I did not expect this one.  In a number of lessons the pace was affected by not having efficient strategies for dealing with moving from one task to another.  Conversely, in the outstanding lessons seen, the routines embedded in the classroom shone as enabling the students and the teachers to make the most of the lesson time.  I have included starter tasks or “get in and get on” tasks in this strand as well.
  • Book work – more attention needs to be paid to supporting students in their note taking and layout of notes in their books.

So by taking the time to see every teacher at least once during the first half of the academic year we are in a fantastic position to plan our CPD with the aim of addressing individual strengths and weaknesses.  We can move away from an approach of blowing a few thousands pounds on a recognised speaker to better deploy the money rewarding our superb practitioners and get them to support colleagues with specific areas to target.  We can structure our INSET time into a model that best ensures we can provide the coaching and support needed for staff to observe outstanding practice and give them time to plan, teach and reflect on their action points.  We can plan a model of evaluation that sets targets for improvement and then seeks evidence of action in a future lesson observation.

It’s only when you have a richness of data and clarity of what to do with it that planning for school improvement ceases to be something you do because the governors expect it or it was mentioned in your NPQH a while back, rather it becomes a genuine vehicle for improving the whole school.  It is a point of moral leadership that this is done correctly.  The vast majority of school budgets are spent on staff, and staff, in my experience, want support to be better at their job in terms of impact and efficiency.

Therefore I suggest that the cycle of school improvement will not run smoothly if more attention is not paid to staff CPD.  It does not matter what you put into your school improvement plan if teaching and learning is not at the heart of it, and if you do not have your evidence from a consistent calendar of observations and fact finding, how on Earth can you be sure that you are developing the staff in the areas that they most need support.

My task now is to take this evidence and formulate an effective model of CPD that has real value for money and can evidence the impact of all support provided……easy enough?  I would be really grateful to hear your suggestions for great CPD and models for coaching and supporting staff.  I certainly do not have all the answers yet but I am sure that I am starting to look in the right places.

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