Lessons learned #5: You don’t achieve consistency through consistency.

One of the criticisms that Ofsted had for us last June was that we had a lack of consistency.

So we revamped the marking policy and the presentation policy. We did a book scrutiny and a series of learning walks. We wrote up what we found and fed it back to staff as whole school feedback. Nothing changed.

Here’s something I’ve learned: whole school feedback does absolutely nothing. All it does is make the best teachers feel more guilty and therefore more stressed than they already are, and the teachers who need the most development don’t realise just how much development they need. So as a leader it may feel like you are giving the staff a consistent message, which surely must help increase consistency, but actually it’s doing just the opposite.

That wasn’t entirely a revelation for me, as it was the kind of thing I knew in principle, but living and breathing the reality of needing to make rapid changes in a few months really made me learn it.

Since then I have started an ongoing document for each staff teacher which encapsulates areas for development and actions to take around the teaching of mathematics. This has been great, because each teacher has their own needs – their own starting points – but each teacher also has two aims in terms of their quality of work: compliance and development.

Every school, every organisation, has their own set of non-negotiables to which their staff must comply. That is the first step to achieving consistency. Some people find this harder than others – my Achilles heel is my handwriting, which I can do well when I concentrate, but at the end of marking 90 books, if I’m not careful it does tend to drift towards the illegible. Achieving consistency is about giving the individual feedback to help each staff member become compliant with the non-negotiables. At my school, it’s not good telling all the staff to improve their handwriting in their marking,as that’s only a message that the select few need to hear.

Development is even more important than compliance. We all want to be the very best teacher we can be. Three things make us good teachers: subject knowledge, pedagogy and motivation, but we’re all strong in different areas. It’s the job of our senior leaders to identify the areas that we need to get better at and give us just the right guidance to become even better in each of those areas. And again, if you were to only work on subject knowledge for all staff, when behaviour management (part of pedagogy) was the issue, you would not be achieving consistency.

It’s been my job to raise standards in maths teaching across the school. I’ve done this by working inconsistently on compliance and development with different teachers, giving them individual written guidance to do so. We’re not there yet, but by feeding back inconsistently, I hope that I have increased consistency.

What I learned from ungraded lesson observations

After 4 years in my role as deputy headteacher, grading every lesson I observed, I finally moved to ungraded lessons this term. I’d like to explain the context of my school here, but for various reasons, not least the brevity of this post, I’m going to limit this post to the things I learned; the ‘why move to ungraded lessons’ can wait for another time.

  1. Teachers talked to me more about their weaknesses. We might dress it up in management-speak ‘areas for development’ but let’s face it, we all have weaknesses. And for the first time in forever teachers were able to talk to me about them. “Maths is not my strong point,” said one teacher, honestly. “No, I find teaching the less able children really hard,” said another. This helps me help the teachers. It means that pride we can adopt based on our last observation is put to one side. We can let it go.
  2. Teachers were more experimental. Previously on a ‘round of observations’, I wouldn’t have seen anything other than quite formulaic: introduction-main activity-plenary lessons. But in this round I saw split introductions where teachers introduced a harder topic for more able children after they had already sent the other groups to the main activity and I saw a lesson which the teacher extended by 20 minutes just because she thought it was going well.
  3. Mistakes were celebrated. I saw a lesson that completely bombed – the teacher and the children knew it. The pitch was all wrong and far too challenging for each group. When I went in later that day the children all told me ‘FAIL – First Attempt In Learning’. They had a laugh about it and went on to having better pitched lessons for the rest of the week.
  4. I noticed things that I hadn’t noticed before. For example in one year group in which I really rate the teacher because she engages the children so well, I noticed a couple of misconceptions that she was teaching the children. They were minor examples of misteaching but would involved some reteaching by another teacher higher up the school at some later date.
  5. There are still some teachers who want to be graded. Some prefer the contentment of knowing that their last lesson was ‘outstanding’. I found it hard to stop myself from confirming an ‘official’ grading and one occasion (slapped wrist, Steve) I did so. Must remind myself to be more determined to remain unjudgemental next time…