Work scrutiny has certainly been this week’s hot topic, mostly in response to this post by Teacher Toolkit. Whilst I prefer not to directly critique the practices of other schools I know little about, I do pretty much agree with the points made by David Didau, Andy Day, Greg Ashman and Martin Robinson about work scrutiny being a crude tool of managerialism. It can alienate staff and risk corrupting the thing that it sets out to evaluate in the first place. If I’m honest, reading these posts also made me feel a little bit ashamed at some of the procedures I myself put in place when I was head of department a few years ago. At the time, I obviously thought I was doing the right thing!
Over the past 12 months or so, our school has been working on an alternative to work scrutiny. We have been trying to develop a model that actually helps improve learning– for both teachers and students – whilst also providing middle and senior leaders with a reasonably informed overview of the quality of student learning, albeit with a number of caveats. I wrote about some initial thoughts in this area last summer, and since then the model has improved considerably through trial and feedback from different departments. By no means perfect, I think what we have arrived will help teachers to better understand how to improve their teaching, and importantly improve their students’ learning. It works through shared accountability around sensible and agreed processes and collaborative inquiry into the complexities and pitfalls of learning.
We call this process a learning review, and last Wednesday we conducted our first such review across the school, focusing on year 7. Driving all this is the school feedback policy, essentially a set of guiding principles which we think, to a lesser or greater extent, are the main components of effective feedback. Over the past year, each department has contextualised these core principles in accordance with the nature and organisation of their subject. Each subject has its own pedagogy and works in different ways with differing constraints. Subject areas therefore determine what successful feedback means for them – balancing what is manageable with what is actually going to have impact.
It may be that one subject wants to give lots of written feedback, whilst another wants less frequency but more opportunities for students to do something with that feedback. We understand that what works in written subjects like English is unlikely to be relevant for more performance-based subjects like drama and PE; we appreciate that learning in books looks and feels different to digitally produced work. The policies (both at school and department level) are also somewhat fluid documents: if better, more economical means of giving feeding back come to light then the policy adapts to these insights rather than persist with an approach that is not working and places an undue burden on staff.
In a review a department looks at student learning in relation to 1 or 2 areas of their feedback policy. In the first instance, one of these areas was set by the school – student presentation of work – whilst the other was determined by the department, depending on its priorities. Subject teams discuss artefacts of learning (books, portfolios, videoed performances) together through the lens of the feedback policy. In light of what they see they ask questions: are we allowing students opportunities to do something with our feedback? If not, why not? It may be that one teacher has found an effective way of meaningfully engaging students in feedback and can share that with the rest of the team, perhaps those who are finding the process difficult or time-consuming. If everyone is finding an aspect of feedback problematic, say getting students to engage with feedback, then maybe it is the policy itself that is wrong and needs amending. It is in this sense that the policy is an evolving document.
On this occasion we also selected a sample of students whose work departments should look at in their reviews. This allowed us to refer back to some baseline standards of presentation we captured during year 6 induction, when we took several images of students’ best primary work. The idea is to create a smoother transition and make sure the good work of our primary colleagues is maintained in year 7, and that we keep standards of expectation high. At year 7 it can sometimes be difficult to fully appreciate the standard of work that year 6 students can produce. We see the review as an opportunity to maintain these standards and sense of pride, using quality of presentation as a proxy.
The other focus is set by the department and relates to an area they are seeking to develop as part of their subject pedagogy training. We have two hours of subject-specific professional learning every other week, and learning reviews can provide a helpful framework for subject colleagues to look at the results of their teaching in the form of student work and discuss what has led to its success, what could be improved, or what should be avoided next time round. The proforma we are using (see below) is completed by the department, so there is no sense that the head of department is sitting outside of the process, recording abstractions on a spreadsheet. Subject leaders are within the learning conversation, seeking to understand the successes, issues arising, and the areas to improve, tweak or reject.
So far, the feedback from departments has been good, and the reviews have led to some positive changes in the use of feedback across the school. There is simply no point in persevering with some expectations if those expectations are too burdensome or where the opportunity cost of implementing them is too great. This does not mean that a policy is built on sand – more that we trust colleagues to set themselves reasonable expectations for how to improve learning and stick to them where they are manageable and have clear impact.
Whether or not you think this is any better than work scrutiny, I would certainly appreciate your feedback.
Thanks for reading.