Teacher appraisal: What targets should we set this year?

Written by: Nick Hart | Published:
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Are your school’s teacher appraisal targets full of well-meaning but poorly thought out statements and objectives. Nick Hart considers how we can give meaning and purpose to appraisal

Teachers’ appraisal is an odd system. We have a set of standards that initial teacher training students have to meet to become a teacher that don’t develop beyond qualified teacher status (QTS), and we have an unreliable method for judging the effectiveness of teaching in lesson observations.

Yet we need a good appraisal system to both support teacher development and to make pay decisions.

So how do we make the best of a system that lacks both structure and reliability?

First it is worth understanding the statutory requirements. These are set out in the Education (School Teachers’) Appraisal (England) Regulations 2012 and simply tell us that we have to hold teachers to standards (the Teachers’ Standards and any others determined by governing boards or headteachers) and set objectives to improve pupil outcomes and school provision/performance.

Then there is the model appraisal policy from the Department for Education (DfE) that tells us to make clear and consistent assessments of the performance of teachers to support their development within the context of school improvement and to help us make pay decisions.

Such minimal detail in this documentation means incredible variation from school to school about how it is done. And how it is done is important. Done well and it could drive school improvement and contribute to children and staff alike flourishing. Done poorly and it could have no effect on school improvement while actively worsening teacher motivation and climate overall.

The minimal detail gives us the opportunity to think and to reflect on our systems so that they nudge us towards improvement rather than decline.

What standards should we hold teachers to?

This is easy – the Teachers’ Standards (DfE, 2011)! But remember that they are the minimum expectations of a teacher – enough to gain QTS.

Holding teachers with different levels of expertise (and on different pay grades) to account using the same standards is not fair. So, we must specify what we expect of teachers at different career stages.

We start with the Teachers’ Standards then – make them harder? How? Take the first bullet point under the first Standard: “Establish a safe and stimulating environment for pupils, rooted in mutual respect.”

Lovely. But where does it go? Should more experienced or expert teachers establish a “safer” and “more stimulating” environment than an early career teacher (ECT)?

Well you’d hope so. But writing that as a standard is impossible because they are written as “behaviours”. Even if we wanted children to be “safer” or “more stimulated” in the classrooms of more experienced or expert teachers, there is no way of making that judgement with any reliability or validity. Let’s try a different standard.

One of the bullet points for Standard 3 states that teachers should, “if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics”.

Now it is obvious that there is a continuum of expertise in this and many other concepts noted in the Teachers’ Standards, such as the factors inhibiting pupils’ learning or curriculum design or formative assessment. And we would expect teachers to develop their understanding of each as their career progresses. But this won’t happen for the majority by just doing the job.

Poorly thought-out statements

If we are serious about developing their understanding, we need a curriculum for teachers that details the progression of understanding in these important concepts.

What exactly should an ECT know about phonics? What should a teacher entering their fifth year at the chalkface know that is more sophisticated than the ECT? What understanding would we expect of a teacher on the upper pay scale?

The codification of knowledge and practice organised into a well sequenced curriculum for teachers is what is yet to be compiled. Each school has a go themselves but, crucially, without the expertise in teacher development to design the necessary curriculum!

And we end up with statements that are well-meaning but poorly thought-out, such as “mostly good” to “consistently good” to “sometimes outstanding” to “often outstanding” – descriptions of teaching practice that are too vague to be of any use at all. And there is still no way of making reliable or valid judgements using these expectations. Are there any other options?

Well, without the time to fully map-out codified progression in the Teachers’ Standards, a common approach to writing career stage expectations is to expect more peer-to-peer support as teachers become more expert over time.

“Creating a safe and stimulating environment” could develop into “influencing the practice of others” and then further to “influencing whole-school practice”.

This sounds desirable. But when it comes to making a judgement over whether a teacher has done this, it is wishful thinking that we can disentangle all the causes of other people’s practice to make the claim that one teacher’s actions caused others to develop their knowledge or practice.

Too many variables

The underlying issue behind teachers’ appraisal is that we cannot make accurate or reliable judgements on their performance, not from assessment data nor from our own observations. There are too many variables in an incredibly complex environment. Each teacher teaches different groups of children, each with differing prior knowledge, tendencies and school history.

The DfE has openly warned against setting objectives that rely on teacher-generated data or assessment data for a single group of pupils but has failed to acknowledge the futility of judging performance by observation. So where does this leave us?

Perhaps we should worry less about the career-stage expectations and instead put our effort into the objectives that we set for teachers. Where do such objectives come from?

Well, we have got set objectives to improve pupil outcomes and school provision/performance so the simple thing to do is to see what is on the school development plan and cascade the goals down to teachers.

Let’s use the example of poor attainment in key stage 2 maths so everyone has a target to do with maths. But what specifically? We have to understand the causes of the poor maths attainment:

  • It might be a poorly sequenced curriculum.
  • It might be that teacher explanations haven’t been clear enough.
  • It might be that low-level disruption is common in maths lessons.
  • It might be that too many children don’t yet know times tables.
  • It might be a collective attitude that they can’t do maths.

In every case, it is most likely all of this and more. But how do we choose the objectives for teachers, particularly given that poor key stage 2 attainment would have been from children who have left the school?

We would need to understand the strengths and areas for development for every cohort and for every teacher to guide a sensible choice of objective for each individual.

In their book Nine Lies About Work (2019), Buckingham and Goodall explain that we should not aim to cascade goals and that the most effective organisations cascade meaning. If we were to cascade the objective of scaffolding maths tasks more effectively, it might be pitched right for only a small minority of teachers and be a red herring for most.

If we cascade “meaning” and “purpose”, we might stand a better chance of actually addressing the issue. We might present the broad issue of poor maths attainment and explore the ways in which we might seek to address it, for example through curriculum development, refinement of pedagogy, or through managing behaviour better, asking teachers to reflect on their perception of it based on their own expertise and what they know of the children they teach.

This could prompt teachers to arrive at something that might be worthwhile focusing on for their appraisal target – something that they want to develop yet which could contribute to the collective solution to the problem.

This also affords some autonomy over professional development goals, which is correlated with higher job satisfaction in recent research on teacher autonomy (Worth & Van den Brande, 2020).

Discussion points for senior leadership teams

  • Review the career stage expectations in your pay policy. What do we expect from teachers at different career stages?
  • What problems do we collectively need to solve? How does this problem manifest in different year groups, subjects, with different teachers? What parts of school life might be contributing to this problem?
  • How can we develop collective understanding of the complexity of the problem? What are our strategies to address the issue?
  • To what extent can we promote autonomy over professional development goals to address the problem?
  • Nick Hart is the executive headteacher of two primary schools in Berkshire and is the course lead for the National Professional Qualification for Headship (NPQH) at the Ambition Institute. He is organiser of ResearchEd Berks and blogs at www.thisismyclassroom.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter @MrNickHart

Impact by Nick Hart

  • Impact: A five-part framework for making a difference in schools is written by Nick Hart and published in August by Bloomsbury Education. Impact provides a strategy for thinking about, planning for and maximising the impact of teaching in your school. Visit https://bit.ly/3U46v5e

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