Know your school by not grading lessons

When I arrived at my school I observed the worse side of lesson observations. DHTs used to swoop in a pair on lessons and feedback to rest of the team of the approximate grading. Staff were fearful of observations.  Because of my  work in a previous school had planted the seed of looking at a different way and I was determined to try to do it here.   I saw jazz hands and collapses.  The central question was how do you know your school without grading lessons?

I had always tried to analyse lesson observations with other information. So in the days of ofsted style observations I would always ask HOF to comment on the grades for their staff. Was the outstanding typical from what they saw on a day-to-day basis? I then started to triangulate with exam results and student progress and I noticed something weird. At least I thought it was weird at the time. There appeared to be very little correlation between performance in lesson observations and the outcomes for pupils. I realised that typicality was what I had to have a hold of and not a 20 minute snap shot held in a spreadsheet.

So graded lesson observations were stopped…boy did this leave a vacuum in my understanding of how to lead T&L. But, I asked my team one key question. Who are the great staff in this school? Who are the staff that need support? How do you know? In the term that I had been in the school I realised that I hadn’t conducted one observation and yet I knew the answers.

Having read “Drive” by Daniel Pink and “Professional Capital” by Fullan and Hargreaves I knew that we had to find a different way.

The approach

1. We have an expectation that staff are responsible for working on their practice, sharing their practice and working collaboratively. We expect the main drive for improvements to be from teachers
2. Lesson observations – are only for staff development and are conducted by peers that have either been on or on the Outstanding Teacher Programme. Or staff that have clear evidence over a number of years of great performance. They feed into the appraisal system and are used as evidence. This is well over 75% of our teachers so there is a big pool. The staff pick who they want to be observed by.
3. We have a no blame culture. We have an expectation that lessons will go brilliantly and will go wrong. We want staff to feel that they can discuss either freely and openly.
4. We have joined NTEN ( and are using lesson study to underpin the ideas above. So staff work in triads on a particular focus of student learning. This again is used as evidence for appraisal.
5. We bought a system to film lessons and again staff can use the videos as part of their appraisal evidence.

How do we monitor and Quality Assure. (We have a six term model)

1. The appraisal system is robust, realistic but challenging. The interim appraisals will play a crucial part when they arrive in Feb.
2. We conduct learning walks that are student focused. Attitudes to learning in the main. The outcomes are fed back through the middle leader forum where the next focus is set.
3. Once the focus for the next stage is set we have a teaching and learning meeting where we share approaches as a teaching staff.
4. Then learning walks and drop-ins look at the impact on student learning a this is fed back to a Head of Faculty meeting which shares the best practice and decide whether further work is required in the next term.
5. Senior teachers and SLT run an every classroom on-call system. So there is someone out on the corridors every hour of every day. This supports staff with any behaviour issues but also allow us to gain a feel for the typicality of each day.
6. We look at the progress and attainment of the students
7. Finally we grade staff using all this information on a stretched scale (always outstanding, good can be outstanding, always good, good can be RI, RI can be good, always RI, RI can be inadequate, inadequate. We run focused developmental programmes depending on where we feel a member of the teaching staff is.

When ofsted arrived the challenge came with staff had been graded, in their eyes, below where we had graded them. What was clear was we had far more evidence to prove whether that observation was typical or a one-off. Very quickly ofsted agreed in our judgements and accepted who had a clearer picture of our school’s T&L.

The future

Continue to build trust in the system. Staff still feel very worried about admitting where lessons have gone wrong. Hopefully a video of one my lessons going wrong will continue the work already started.

Staff have to commit to this. They can’t hide away just doing what they have always done. Because even if their typicality is great, they are expected to share that. Also clearly repeating that we expect all staff to deliver lessons of all grades at times. That is just the nature of teaching. We have a mantra that consistently good is outstanding practice. . But, that we expect teachers to reflect, share and develop their teaching with the school’s support.

SLT have to work harder to know the school. There are no shortcuts in this method. But, clearly middle leaders have to raise their game to feed into the process overall. Initially it is their responsibility to help support staff who are struggling, but this can easily be done by brokering support from another colleague. But, that does require all to recognise where it is going

10 thoughts on “Know your school by not grading lessons

    1. I think my question was how after one 20 minute observation someone is rated good? Surely we are all capable of all gradings, sometimes in one day! The attempt is to raise our performance in all lessons, by admitting that fact. Many small adjustments of improvement will hopefully do this

  1. We are at the start of this process and I am pleased that I have something like this to share with our Middle Leaders. One of the immediate benefits of our approach was to have a week of drop ins during which staff were observed doing what they normally do. This has had a very positive effect as they were no longer planning show lessons and we saw the real qualities of practice in our school. We also linked the feedback to teacher standards without grading but gave recommendations for improvement.
    Thanks for this blog post. It has given me much to reflect on.

  2. We are trying similar ideas up on the north-west coast using the NTEN learning study and our own ideas. I tried to explain in our parent’s blog- and feel that reflections after the lesson have been much more valuable for all involved in the process. We have never used unannounced obs in any case and I guess that removing grades and using a criteria developed by the staff based on what they feel is important in their lessons was the obvious next step. They are professionals who should be trusted- and their criteria is aspirational and rigorous-not a soft touch!

    To try to support the idea of thinking in terms of how our individual teachers can consider their individual contribution to whole school learning and teaching beyond a one-off lesson grade, I came up with a jokey quiz for our Sept Hope they open! Not too subtle but it made its point and during an obs feedback this week which hadn’t gone well and with a colleague who always finds formal obs difficult, I was able to use the Super Teacher ideas to comment positively about all the contributions they make on a consistent day to day basis to great learning and teaching.

    I read that Wroxham school [Alison Peacock] had shown Ofsted a portfolio of lesson conversations rather than grades-I hope to do the same and use appraisals, lesson study, book monitoring, CPD, exam residuals and student learning walks info to provide the inspectors with a much more detailed analysis of the quality of teaching than 3 years worth of lesson grades. I didn’t have the bottle to refuse their request last year and had to work hard to convince them that our lesson obs giving choices of who you are watched with and learning walks which talk to the students about their learning rather than watch the teaching [also told when I am coming so they can prepare] were rigorous enough. I was saved by my colleagues teaching fantastically!

    Good luck with your quest.

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