Secret Lecturer: Better FE teaching needs more carrot, less stick

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My colleagues and I are always trying to raise our teaching standards. We are all professionals and take pride in what we do. But how do colleges help us achieve it? 

Initial teacher training sets your standards, and support continuing professional development (CPD) is what you expect to help you progress. It’s when some institutions adopt more ‘punitive’ rather than supportive measures and see lesson observations as an extreme form of a mini, old-style Ofsted inspection that staff feel undermined and demoralised.

My college is one of the many that back their staff positively and put them on constructive courses. Yet I’m hearing increasing concern from colleagues working at some colleges about increasing pressure to perform, no doubt fuelled by recruitment and thus funding problems. Their managers do not seem to have picked up on the new Ofsted ethos … it’s no longer about dotting ‘i’s, requiring reams of paperwork required and insisting on a rigid regime of reinspections but more about the general direction of travel, highlighting better use of resources and support of personnel. It’s about removing so much emphasis on grades – which by their nature can only be a brief snapshot of a college’s true worth and that of its staff. 

Staff are being offended wholesale

Certain systems adopted in lesson observation are increasingly offending people personally and collectively. Which begs the question: are we trying to improve and develop or are we just stuck in the mud? We know what Ofsted inspectors are looking for now yet some colleges seem intent on ignoring that change of focus. 

Are some colleges risk-averse, are they scared of development? Are the wrong people in charge or is it actually those higher up who are saying we just need red flags, we understand red flags and therefore we will move into issues of capability… which is where that system ends. It doesn’t end in improvement or developing a professional ethos, it ends by the stick of “you shall perform”. 

The key issue here is that a planned lesson observation is pretty much an artificial performance by the lecturer, given that observations by their very nature are just a brief, invariably inaccurate snapshot of an FE lecturer’s true worth over a whole year of work or two. 

Judged ‘inadequate’ on the back of one lesson 

I was told about a college that had run up to half a dozen multiple, full observations of staff in a year – it adopted a mini-system, producing mounds of paperwork generated on the back of observing lessons prepared in that particular setting – such monitoring and auditing exercises did not follow the normal flow of professional practice. It would be difficult for any professional to keep up with those sorts of observation requirements: in a typical case, I heard that one person’s lesson was judged inadequate once, whereas all the other observations of that person’s lessons during the year were judged 100% ‘outstanding’ –  surely a rogue judgement or the teacher just had an off day? Otherwise, how could the same person be judged so differently?

Trouble is, once one person’s judgement raises a red flag, however unfairly, it does not go away – it creates an assumption that something is wrong in this performance and more observations will follow. The fact in this case that they were all outstanding showed up an anomaly and the college reformed the system to help prevent a repeat of a drop in staff morale, rising personal stress and resignations of staff. But the new system was then used to rectify the old one!

Rigorous research by Matt O’Leary, a lecturer at Birmingham City university, has compared international models used for observation and improvement and suggests English colleges have picked up the worst aspects of all of them. Whereas overseas systems make staff feel part of something that is improving your skills and practice are, our systems are often individualised and punitive. 

How do we improve the system?

Some of our colleges seem to lack specific pedagogic expertise needed to research and then specifically guide and drive staff improvement systems to get the best possible outcomes. Many still seem to ignore the idea of encouraging further developmental workshops and promoting peer collaboration and peer ownership of the system.

So how can we improve lesson observations which are generally agreed to be necessary for some form? Some colleges are no longer running graded observations in response to O’Leary’s findings. So how about organising a colloquium to find out what all college systems are doing, to look closely at best practice here and overseas, and to identify what could work best for all institutions rather than leaving individual colleges to their own devices. 

We should, first of all, highlight colleges with a positive and vibrant staff culture as best practice to get the issue moving. Their key to success is often to create staff ownership of any new system, bringing systems much closer to CPD and teacher training rather than colleges getting fixated on monitoring performance – one great lesson does not make someone either an ‘inadequate’ or ‘outstanding’ teacher. 

Call for pedagogic directors at every college

Second, the measure of performance should be about professional dialogue and improvement, not about grades or any rigid form of audited management. We all want to do our job well and professional dialogue would help here. 

Third, let’s take the bull by the horns and set up pedagogic directors at every college. They need to ask key questions about current practice, why it has been done and why certain people – many of whom, to be fair, have not been exposed to academic debate – have been making these decisions and often in a vacuum. 

And lastly, don’t forget student input – the people who suffer or flourish from under-par or excellent teaching. A regular survey to get student feedback would be a good start. 

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