Embracing lesson observations

Written by: HTU | Published:

Three primary schools which use similar approaches to their leadership, curriculum and CPD discuss how they have embraced lesson observations and working with other schools as part of staff development

The thorny issue of lesson observations reared its head again recently when education secretary Michael Gove did away with the established limit of three hours a year – the so-called “three-hour observation rule”.

While causing well-publicised consternation among some teachers and their unions, staff at some schools take the opposite view, welcoming professional lesson observations as a vital part of their CPD.

These teachers see lesson observation as a chance to share best practice – both in their own schools and through inter-school collaboration – and to improve their skills and command of the classroom.

“My teachers would not consider ever putting a cap on the amount of visits they have,” said Nicky Haslam, headteacher of Giffards Primary School in Thurrock, Essex. “They actually organise their own visits now and some staff, if they could get away with it, would have a visit a fortnight.”

Laurence Pitt, executive head of the Ashley Down School Federation in Bristol, agreed: “My teachers are very keen on lesson observations. We have a bespoke lesson observation format in every year group in terms three and four and have recently expanded it so that teachers are involved in co-coaching triad groups.“They are given time, in threes, to plan lessons together and then observe each other and give each other constructive criticism.”

This is just one of the new approaches the school has adopted that has helped to move it from Ofsted “good” to “outstanding”. Mr Pitt continued: “Leadership, an integrated curriculum and the learning environment are central to our CPD effort.”

The schools have adopted a framework for leadership that helps them to develop a clear vision and works on distributed leadership, effective team-working and the leadership skills of every staff member, helping them to pinpoint which areas need to be developed and improved.

Second, an integrated curriculum incorporates a framework of core learning skills, giving the schools a shared language to describe good and outstanding teaching, making it easier for them to collaborate internally and with other schools.

The third element is a framework for teaching and learning which puts the focus on developing a strong set of shared values throughout the school communities to support teachers and school targets.

These three frameworks mean everybody is working to the same values, behaviours and language. This makes it much easier to bring two schools together to share best practice, as happened when Mr Pitt met Andrew Smith, headteacher of Lyons Hall Primary School in Essex at a headteachers’ conference seven years ago.

Both National Leaders of Education, they have worked collaboratively ever since, with staff regularly making the 300-mile round trip between the schools to share training and other opportunities.

There’s an annual visit – this March the whole Lyons Hall team came to join staff in Bristol during a normal school day, with all the children having their usual lessons. They also organise individual teacher visits, depending on which areas the two schools have highlighted for development.

“We often have different takes on things, but we speak the same language because of the shared principles behind us,” said Mr Pitt. Mr Smith added: “When I joined Lyons Hall as headteacher in 2001 the school had just grown very quickly and was behind the page, everything was knee-jerk and little was planned.

“So after addressing some behaviour issues, the first thing I did was to focus on the quality of teaching. I explained to my staff exactly where we sat and how we were perceived and they saw that something had to change.

“Now they are very positive and lesson observations are an accepted part of our staff development. Our teachers are watched very regularly, often teaming up to plan a lesson, and frequently focusing on a particular group of children. The feedback we get from the children is very important; powerful and non-threatening. On top of this the senior management team does formal observations and it all combines to inform the focus of our CPD.

“We work very hard on the development of our people – essentially to grow our own teachers and find imaginative and innovative ways of attracting people.

“Meeting Laurence and linking our schools as strategic partners was pivotal and the relationship between the two of us is now a mutually beneficial alliance – we are even looking for joint funding on some projects.”

Lyons Hall is now a hub school, accredited for its Improving Teachers Programme and Outstanding Teaching Programme. Its record in developing teachers is reflected in the fact that it received 70 applications the last time it advertised for staff.

Similarly, Mr Pitt has found his staff really keen to get involved: “We try to weave everything into our school improvement plan and organise our CPD in line with that. I have seen young inexperienced staff become secure middle leaders as the CPD has empowered them to take a lead in whole-school initiatives.

“The feedback from staff is great. One of our key leaders has just left to have a baby so I threw it open to see who fancied taking over. It’s a significant volume of work, but we had a whole line of people saying they wanted to get involved.”

Back at Giffards, Ms Haslam is another firm believer in the need for collaboration when building capacity. She also works within a cluster of local schools which have embraced lesson observations as a force for improvement, with each school deciding which elements they need to focus on and pooling resources.

During her presentation at a New Heads conference in 2011, she explained the positive impact such collaboration has had: “We can either tailor CPD across schools or look at where we can support each other,” she said. “Lesson visits now involve time that teachers arrange between themselves to visit the other year groups. It’s a whole lot less stressful and I don’t have to publish lesson observation timetables anymore.

“They have actually taken it way out of what we set as our original remit so that it’s a proper professional dialogue now, with my staff having enhanced leadership opportunities by going in to other schools.

“Lesson observations can be a bit of a deficit model, but it’s not like that with this, because actually nobody but yourself looks at your development points. The beauty of this type of coaching is that the power is back in the hands of the teacher. No-one criticises your lesson, you criticise it and that’s a whole lot easier to cope with when you’ve been up working on it all weekend.

“It makes teachers more reflective generally, not just when they are observed. As one of my staff said, ‘if that’s what lesson observations are going to be like you can come in every day’. Ofsted even mentioned it during our last inspection, describing monitoring of teaching by senior leaders as robust and effective. Having already moved from Ofsted ‘satisfactory’ to ‘good’, I now see how we can get to ‘outstanding’ in leadership for everyone in the school – not just for the head, the management team or our middle leaders, but every teacher.”

• All three schools featured in this article use a school improvement model from EdisonLearning. Visit www.edisonlearning.net.

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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