I can still remember when I first heard the language of judgement in a classroom. I was teaching on an estate in South Bristol. It was 1996 – Education Education Education just a few months away. I was a youngish thing full of the dreams of ‘making a difference’, armed with my library of hardback, A4, curriculum folders: striding down the corridor to my classroom – Tupac’s California Dreaming waking me up to the drizzle of Brizzle before the children flooded the school with noise and unending energy.
I was one year in to my ‘career’… One year a teacher and I loved every second of it. Even though most things still perplexed me… The big issue of that morning being:
Why would anyone use the ‘Banda machine’ stored away at the back of the school… producing blurred blue print and inducing a cheap meth high in the process? I now know the answer of course (21 years later!). At the time I was the bright new thing, unafraid of the Overhead Projector as I taught in the darkness; surveying the children’s attention by counting the whites of their eyes…
‘Andrews! Wake up…’
And then I had my first Ofsted. I was told I was a ‘good’ teacher. The headteacher sat me in his office and spent time telling me how impressed the inspectors were. They saw me for less than an hour. That judgement helped my early career. It was incredibly powerful. I was SLT within a few months. My star was in the ascendancy and the platform had been some random inspectors watching me struggle with a class of 38 Y5 with 7 statemented children in it. The power of that word ‘good’ in a school that was struggling was immediately apparent to the other teachers around me who were not told they were good. It made for an uncomfortable staff-room.
I hate limiting judgements and lesson observations at my school this week has confirmed this fully. I have not done judged lesson observations for over four years now. At first it was challenging. When I bought it in to my then new school three years ago I remember the disappointment of many of the staff. Especially the really good staff. They skipped the words I spoke and looked for the grade. It was not there so then they tried to interpret my words for some form of comparative judgement. Of course, only confusion reigned and some teachers went away feeling that they learnt nothing from the experience.
In three years we have come a long way. This weeks lesson observations were about the culture and ethos of ‘teaching and learning’ within our classrooms. I put ‘teaching’ first on purpose. I worry that we talk about learning and often ignore the importance the craft of teaching has on the learning. It’s a little chicken and egg but I want the spotlight on teaching as much as the outcome. What I found this week is no one produced a lesson they would not have done if I had not been coming in. There was a sense of the natural flow just carrying on as it would. I know this because I walk in to classrooms every day. Anyone who thinks school leaders only make decisions during the lesson observation season is very deluded. Judged lessons created a culture of prep and performance that glossed over the truth. We now have honesty in the process. We can look at the true culture of learning in a classroom because we see what has been created over time. Habits and language are no longer sweetened by clever routines and subtle tricks – none worse than ‘to get outstanding every child has to make progress in the lesson’ rubbish. I look back and I despair at the naivety and damage of what we did via graded lessons.
This also takes away some of the pressure on the observer. We can go in and ask questions rather than offer useless advice. We can be curious and we can offer experience and support.
None of what I have written is new. I imagine that most schools now have this process embedded in to practice. I hope so.
The purpose of this blog though is to raise the issue of Grading Schools. There was a time we accepted graded lesson observations. It was the norm and we truly believed it made for better schools. It may have helped in certain corners around accountability but it also created a smokescreen. It made teachers fall in to line with a fixed process and many could play that game very well… we now know they were not always the best teachers. And, on to Ofsted grades… They are no different to the grading of lessons. I have spent 8 years offering school to school support in many, many schools. Grading them is wrong. They often become so focused on the damage or prize that grading gives that they lose sight of their real purpose and challenge. They try to become something they are not and usually do, at best, a mediocre job at it (sometimes going back in to categories a few years later because they never addressed the systemic issues – they just focused on the criteria of grading – TICK, TICK, TICK…). It is unnatural and if those grades were not there over time I am sure they would become the community school that the community needs.
That would take trust though. Trust and time. It is only now, four year after stopping the grading of lessons that I can see the real beauty in talking about teaching and learning as a school language. A new language that is about US and WHAT WE DO… Rather than THEM and HOW WE MIGHT BE GRADED.