To Peer Review or not to Peer Review-MOT or full service required?
1st part of the blog sent internally for discussion
Perhaps over the last year, depending on your view of the inspection process, hopes have been raised that Ofsted might disappear and be replaced at some time in the future by peer reviews in some form or another. It certainly is an idea that has gained popularity and plenty of discussion but as currently the government seem to be looking for a Wilshaw replacement, the demise of Ofsted appears to be some time off. Peer reviews may continue to develop amongst schools who wish for whatever reason to have external verification/QA or for schools who are be exempt currently from inspection visits due to their previous Ofsted grade. Having just participated in our first such review by one of the national organisations involved, I want to jot down my initial thoughts, before I forget them, to share after half-term with colleagues to seek their reflections as to how it was for them, how could it have been better, how could we support other schools in peer review and the big one-should we bother again!
We received an Ofsted outstanding grade in the autumn of 2012 and since then have opened our doors to plenty of external scrutiny through visits, sharing huge long blogs of our ideas, twitter and of late, firstly as a National Support School and now a Teaching School. We have been keen to share and discuss feeling that our own practice would benefit from the collaborative nature of our philosophy. I think that we have, although reciprocal approaches aren’t always forthcoming and of course, visitors are usually very pleasant rather than genuinely honest and schools we have befriended via social media tend to have similar beliefs to ourselves. It can become a cosy club rather than a harder edged evaluation of the impact of what we are doing. We believe that our self-analysis and monitoring of all aspects of our school is accurate, never arrogant and prioritises exactly what we should be doing. However we could be wrong; sometimes by being so close to something you have developed you miss what others may spot immediately and there should be a professional interest in listening to the views and ideas of those from other schools, especially those who know nothing of you and have never heard of your school before!
We have involved ourselves some time ago in local visits looking at each other’s SEFs etc. but we found it, at that point, to be a waste of our time. Others didn’t share up to date documents or information and ran off with our current documents in their briefcases to obviously use for themselves! We laugh now but it put us off and we gained nothing from the experience that we hoped would be helpful and the use of schools from further afield and the seemingly well organised nature of the process and recommendations that we checked out pulled us back to decide that external opinions should be used to help us with our own evaluations and future planning. The organisation also provided the opportunities for our senior staff to become part of the review process at other schools and we naturally wished to seek out best practice from elsewhere and wanted to support the notion of peer reviews because we believe that it might offer the best way forward for future school improvement systems as an alternative to inspections.
I did have some initial concerns, after we had signed up [it was expensive!] and some of the paper work appeared. The observation feedback sheets do have a continuum line that you have to put a cross on for the 4 areas they want you to think about. [I’ll say more about the areas later] We haven’t graded a lesson for 4 years and this, despite re-assurance, looked like grading in another form or at least some form of judgement. We have developed a very supportive lesson study style of lesson observation and I needed to be convinced that we could run with what would be asked. Secondly, I read a negative article about the process and the word ‘mocksted’ kept appearing and I certainly didn’t want our school involved in such a process or having staff think that was my intention.
The training for 3 senior leaders to learn more about the process was good and some fears re the nature of the use of the observation feedback form dissipated slightly. The school chosen as the venue for training opened many of its classrooms to facilitate very practical observations and there was a positive feel to the day and the attending schools brought along data to share and there was some quality PD for all. Very soon afterwards one of my colleagues went on their first peer review of an incredibly high performing school and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, observing great teaching and her own professional development benefitted enormously.
The preparation for our visits gave our SLT the chance to organise and reflect on what we hoped to show and colleagues spent time looking at their own areas of expertise and accountability and asking questions of their data and evidence that was invaluable PD. Unlike Ofsted, we knew when the review would be and could choose the lessons that were to be observed and plan our own format, to a certain extent, of the 3 days. We were also able to choose 2 areas of excellence that we could highlight and seek opinions on. Volunteers were sought and we deliberately chose lessons that would cover our chosen areas of possible excellence [research/assessment], subjects which were working on raising their exam data, and teachers who wanted to trial ideas from their learning hubs and so on. Our SLEs and research leads would all teach to gain confidence should they be visited by external colleagues and only the SLT escaped this time because they had to be observing! Each of the lessons would have 1 of our own team in with one of theirs and the format was half an hour observing, 15 minutes of joint discussion between the observers and feedback from the school observer. 4 of our SLT would observe joined by 3 SLEs and another colleague who leads one of our learning hubs. This we hoped would be great PD for them all.
Unfortunately as the day approached, 2 reviewers were unavailable and the visiting team arrived with a team leader [experienced Ofsted inspector] and only 2 others, 1 of whom had some experience in peer reviewing and 1 who didn’t. Our staff had planned their lessons and we didn’t want to waste their time so some lessons had to go ahead with only our internal colleagues to observe. The team leader was also inhibited to a certain extent by the lack of other voices-an Ofsted team has at least 4 experienced people to bounce ideas and test views against [some might disagree!] There were initial meetings and throughout the days, school based views and opinions were sought on everything that was discussed and they were tested against what the visiting team had seen from their evidence.
A couple of teachers did get very edgy and I began to think that I was wrong to commit us to the process. The old Ofsted worries began to surface of what were the visitor’s judgements, I heard the word grade mentioned again after so long of banishment, teachers were cross because the best bit of the lesson was missed and so on. Our own observers felt anxious that perhaps the brief visits are too brief to gain much and it certainly re-affirmed my view that should we ever review schools via our TSA role that a full lesson visit is a must. My initial thoughts were these;
- If observations are to be part of a review [and they have to be used at some point] then a full lesson should be observed. Teachers have planned and they should be able to show what they wanted to happen over the full lesson and then should be part of a 3 way discussion with both external and internal observers where they can discuss context, learning over time, seek advice and so on. Time may be an issue but if we are to make the best use of external visits we need to use time appropriately. The feedback session would also be more useful for the visiting senior leaders so that they can probe much deeper into the day to day learning and teaching that a 1 off lesson visit can’t provide and make professional links if appropriate. The greater time needed may mean that visitors travel from schools within a certain radius. I would imagine that colleagues will tell me that they would always prefer subject specialists to observe as that makes for more valuable feedback/discussion/sharing of ideas and whilst that may not always be possible with this type of general review, it may be beneficial to begin to develop certainly core subject specialist reviews within this type of national organisation with other subjects supported perhaps by more local networks.
- The feedback form focused on 4 areas on the continuum line-challenge, engagement, questioning and learning. WWWs and EBIs were discussed and offered as feedback advice. I could write for all day on why learning in the half an hour shouldn’t be there and I certainly didn’t discuss it [to be fair the team fed back that our consideration of long term planning and learning over time was apparent and a strength] but I feel that it may have been more useful for us to let us feedback using our own school format and for our visitors to observe, join in and then feedback on what they had seen. A critique of our normal process and discussion with all involved, would have been more useful than using an enforced process. That isn’t to say that here wasn’t some interesting discussion-there was and we were interested to hear their views but I think that the systems schools develop and use every day offer more interesting and useful external scrutiny and would interest us more. If we saw something wonderful, we could borrow and adapt.
- The focus on 4 areas, although others could be discussed, is limiting in my opinion and I would prefer, as we do in our internal lesson study/observations to allow the teacher to choose their own focus [usually an area that they have researched/trying to improve their practice] so that the opportunity to plan/discuss critical individual PD with visiting colleagues could be even more beneficial for all parties. The choices of the current foci probably comes from the Ofsted criteria and whilst I can understand many wanting some form of judgement or development in readiness for inspection, we don’t and have tried to use observations to plan/coach collaboratively to support the learning and teaching needs of our school and students. Perhaps there could be a more open format based appropriately on individual school priorities.
- The chance to talk about chosen areas of excellence has great potential for us [I mention the lack of time due to the limited numbers of visitors later] and again this may have benefitted us further from being able to perhaps have a reciprocal visit/discussion from a school working on similar areas of interest. This is certainly something that a ‘review’ in the future should include for us.
At the end of the first day both internal and external reviewers exchanged views and ideas and these were recorded to use in the final report. The contentious issue arose around the differing interpretations surrounding outcomes and data. At times this did fall into the ‘Ofsted would say’ and they would give outstanding for and so on to basically make a comment on whether or not the data was still outstanding [was the school?] I tried to make it clear from the onset [as colleagues at school know I would] that I don’t like to discuss inspection grades, don’t mention them, am trying to move forward from something that was 3 years ago and am only interested in what we are now and what we can be. And yet here we were with an Ofsted style discussion and data being bandied around like missiles to defend points. It would have been more useful for visitors to discuss how we use data, how we are trying to support best and effective use of data to ease workload and how we feel that by teaching well to everyone that individuals and cohorts will take care of themselves. We want to measure what we value and improve the performance of all and know which groups in terms of exam grades did better than others but our different philosophy was lost in an argument re Ofsted and cohorts [boys] and our understanding of the changes in progress measures and our preparation for that wasn’t clearly and worryingly not necessarily agreed with.
However, even though the discussions moved in an Ofsted way that we didn’t want and almost became heated, humour still prevailed for much of the time and our data person admitted the great benefit defending his beliefs and data had brought and as that was what we hoped would happen, good did come out of that aspect of the review! The final day again featured a discussion between the visiting team and our SLT to solicit our views on their findings and intentions for final report writing. The first report draft came very quickly, arriving after initial QA in half-term and we were again invited to feedback our comments and the area of our contention will once again focus on the outcomes and data section. Whether we ultimately agree or disagree the process itself fosters the hard-edged discussions that we should be having, although we will stick to our own rationale for measurability and accountability as we must do. The continual discussion between the visitors and ourselves was a good experience and we are grateful to them for their honesty and time.
Would we do this again or should we offer the review process via our TSA route? The reviewers gained from their discussions with new colleagues, the feedback to those observed hopefully benefitted them and the final report will be shared with all in our community with any hints of Ofsted grading removed! Because of the shortage of numbers within the visiting team, research leads and others didn’t get the chance to discuss their roles with visitors-we have always found this to be a really useful aspect of PD for our own staff when visitors arrive e.g. the TDA CPD audit. It’s also interesting to see if interviewed colleagues subscribe to and genuinely believe in the vision that we say we aspire to in in all of our blogs and communications!
SLT participating in the reviews of others will also benefit but unfortunately the schools require 2 or 3 nights of accommodation and lengthy travel with costs to be borne by us making the whole process expensive for us and we have to consider value for money. Parents will be interested to see how others views us and we need to be part of such reviews to provide us with unbiased analysis of some of our practices. The review focused on school improvement and learning and teaching which leaves big areas of school untouched by this visit. Should we seek other external reviews to look at all areas of school? Should we develop our own to support other schools who can then reciprocate?
This was very much a MOT rather than full service and I envisage the additional use of external reviews such as the TDA CPD audit, checking out of other external reviews such as the new SSAT one and whatever the proposed College of Teaching may offer mixed in with reciprocal visits to NW schools to create a personalised plan of review that will constantly add externally considered perspectives of our own systems and evaluations. We already have robust external financial reviews but possibly need to consider areas for external review such as SEND, governorship and all of the complex aspects of ‘pastoral’ support that facilitate learning. This was predominantly a ‘learning and teaching’ review-we are a lot more than just that! However, I would be reluctant to have these type of lesson observations each year with the ensuing pressure and the main worry that they take us away from how we are developing the use of observations [still trying to think of a different name that summarises their main point-Reflections of Practice, Learning and Teaching Development Sessions-prize for the best name please!] There is the possibility of having too many reviews before we have had the chance to develop different approaches but I can see the point of including the EBIs from the final report for internal initial monitoring. Others may disagree and so their opinions need to be sought.
It is really important that participating colleagues are given their chance to feedback on the review-it is their professional development and they who were under the intense pressure of observations and interviews. I asked these questions to complete the first part of my internal blog.
For those who participated in any way, it would be helpful for after half-term feedback on the review.
Role in process
What were your hopes and expectations of the review?
How did you feel during the process?
What were the benefits 1] to you 2] to school
Any negatives 1] to you 2] to school
What should I feedback with suggestion for improving the process 1] concerning your individual role 2] the whole idea
Should we participate again? What kind of external reviews/feedback would be most helpful for you/subject/school?
If we were to offer a review service [not a mocksted!] what should we include, make it clear that we won’t do, suggest that we think it would be more beneficial if we did and so on
Any other points that my questions haven’t covered that you want to say?
2nd part of the blog-staff views and my final reflections
Apart from our SLT, 12 other colleagues so far have responded and they raised a range of different valuable ideas. Some staff haven’t been involved in an external observation process before and there was a natural mix of fear and excitement for them. Fear and worry over someone they don’t know coming into the lesson, the possibility of being graded [although we wouldn’t allow it-the continuum line worried people] and the concern that our developmental approach towards observation wouldn’t be understood and that the observations may well be judgemental. Excitement because colleagues wanted unbiased opinion, wanted genuinely to hear what others thought, wanted to hear their ideas and to share them with us and wanted to talk to them about the research and other ideas we are trialling.
There was a general concern that the feedback discussions didn’t involve our visitors with the teachers so that a deeper reflective session with them was missed. When the visitor was a subject specialist and talked in the lesson to the teacher about the subject, that was appreciated but others would have liked a subject specialist [or subject specialist review team] Interestingly someone mentioned that other teachers were cross because they weren’t chosen and surprisingly this often happens in Ofsted inspections, although some are glad to escape. The lack of time prohibited as many being watched as may have wanted to be.
One person felt that more visits over a period of time rather than a one-off would be beneficial and that perhaps [although they wouldn’t like it!] it would be helpful for visitors to be in department reviews to be more thorough in looking to see if feedback had been met. A couple of people wondered if the context of our school and what we are trying to achieve was understood and the point was made that perhaps a 2 way partnership with a school[s] would be better so that a clear rationale of our learning and teaching philosophy, ethos and journey [and theirs] was discussed before so that the observations and discussions were put into context. Our visitors could have shared what they are doing at their school and our staff would have really appreciated to hear about it.
One observer was disappointed that visitors left the lesson quickly [we knew that it wasn’t a full lesson] and all preferred a full lesson and feedback-this isn’t Ofsted! It was pointed out that a snapshot of a school isn’t representative of what a school is capable of and paper work doesn’t represent what staff and students are doing on a day to day basis.
None of this blog represents a criticism of either the organisation, reviewers or process-just our honest opinions and I’m sure that other schools may have a totally different set of viewpoints including the desire to receive Ofsted style grades and discussions. There is much that is positive about the process as more detailed independent analysis has shown and we knew the areas that would be reviewed before we participated. Perhaps schools need a few different reviews to cover all areas of their schools and perhaps schools will begin to develop the expertise to do this themselves rather than tending to have the kudos of an ‘Ofsted inspector’ involved to give the review additional status. Perhaps we will also accept that current or ex Ofsted inspectors do have a set of skills and expertise that schools can make great use of in themselves or perhaps we will reject this as Ofsted themselves changes and school leaders develop review skills. I would imagine that this is already the case in large federations of schools. Ironically the most thorough review of schools that I have experienced was the original Ofsted inspections when they lasted for a few days and each subject had its own subject specific inspector who possibly but not necessarily, knew something about teaching the subject. Lay inspectors were involved and all areas of school seemed to be looked at. Not everyone teaching currently will remember them at the beginning of the 90’s but apart from the mountain of paper work produced for them and the stressful time waiting for them to arrive at least they hit the criteria of thorough. They did grade anything that moved and didn’t feedback to individuals and as my memory fades, I’m sure there were plenty of other negative aspects too. I have no doubts that the talented school leaders can come up with a better plan that can take account of stress, workload, meaningful accountability and honest and useful evaluation.
I’ve listened to colleagues and I will certainly approach other NW schools [not too local] to consider a peer review approach where we can agree on areas of our schools that we would like to be reviewed including systems, agree on a much deeper review perhaps spread out over time and find the time to explain what we are actually trying to achieve and the context of our plans. For schools outside of chains/large MATs I’m sure that the time is right for us to talk reviews and come up with a rigorous regional approach that is achievable at little expenditure but provides superb professional development for all concerned. Before we do this, all members of staff, need to be involved in the discussion of what a review may be needed for, what would be its purpose and benefit and an agreement as to the best methods of involvement and who and which areas of school should be involved. Lots to think about!