Lesson observation. My response to the excellent Mary Myatt.

Ofsted is mainly interested in forming a judgement on the whole school or on a curriculum team ‘over time’. The current framework isn’t designed to judge lessons on an individual basis so the best fit a school can offer is to attempt to craft criteria for observation from the whole school descriptors that already exist.

The basic definition of outstanding teaching is “good teaching over time”. Schools need to consider how to interpret this at different times in the school year. When observing how do you factor in that you are observing the first lesson of a rotation with a new teacher in, say, science? Perhaps the teacher has been teaching 3 weeks and had one quality marking opportunity with that class?

In these scenarios, where a teacher has had little or no time with a group what should we be looking for? Should we simply judge the quality of differentiation by the teacher following their initial data analysis as an indication of a high quality response? Clearly, the “outstanding” judgement is rather hard to make without an appropriate amount of “time” to throw into the mix when attempting to ‘judge’.

There are a number of, suggested, July 2013 lesson obs “criteria” doing the rounds at the moment which attempt to offer a framework but I feel we need to take care. One of the most important things to do is to be completely clear with staff about the strengths and weaknesses of the observation process and to be clear what SLT is really trying to achieve:

1. SLT want to be clear on the typical experience of our students on a day to day basis (all of our observations are ‘no notice’ in the main). This is the most important part of the job – our staff understand the need for this and have responded professionally to this.
2. There is an issue about matching individual judgements in lessons as Ofsted haven’t issued criteria to easily judge this.
3. Even though Ofsted don’t require a lesson plan, the observer still has to be clear that there has been high quality, differentiated planning. Therefore, planning will sometimes be checked by informing colleagues in advance that this needs to be available.
4. The easiest way a teacher can demonstrate progress over time is to ensure that some data is provided to demonstrate this progress. This is really hard to do of course if observations are ‘no notice’. You can’t expect a teacher to scrabble around to print off data in the middle of a lesson. Without this observers will need to rely on book scrutiny in the lesson, conversations with students and evidence provided in the form of student recording of progress in exercise books. Data on the school’s MIS will also be checked subsequently (or before) to give an indication of progress – though this won’t necessarily offer much of a story until later in the year if you only have 3 data collections a year.
5. Most importantly, and back to Mary’s excellent post, SLT must ensure that teachers understand that the main point is to have a professional discussion to celebrate what has gone well and what can be improved into the future.

Creating the Right Conditions

One of the most important things to understand before considering a change towards vertical tutoring is that the project should be regarded as a whole school change with all of the planning, consultation, logistical impact and change management that any large-scale project of this type will always bring. I have heard of schools who have announced this kind of change on the last day before a summer holiday. Each to their own I guess but that isn’t the way that we went about it! The project was planned and executed over a two year time frame – I would recommend that this is an appropriate length of time from initial review to final delivery.

I get the feeling that not as many schools have the energy to divert to this type of project right now. Even in the three years since we introduced Vertical Tutoring most UK schools have been forced to consider and absorb even more changes from external sources and a project like this therefore might be considered one step too far for some schools in the current climate. Almost all schools that have chosen to go down this route have found that the change to vertical tutoring has brought a number of highly significant benefits. I’m very pleased that we have made the change and would like to offer some insight on our experience should you be considering a similar pathway.

For me the main reason that we have made the change is to create the right conditions for highly effective learners. In previous years a number of our year seven students had remarked how scared they were of older students when they were year six pupils. Whilst this fear hadn’t been justified it was nonetheless understandable from a younger child’s point of view. We wanted to bust this myth in a practical way and ensure that younger children did not feel scared in the first year at being at a large comprehensive school.

We also wanted our older students to have a set of positive benefits from this new system also. Being given a definite set of responsibilities has benefited our year 11 students immensely. Having a very successful Sixth Form had made our year 11 students less high-profile than they might have been in an 11 to 16 school. VT offered our students a new set of responsibilities and, in fact, a new mind set for our older students. Younger students felt more at home and benefitted psychologically and physiologically. They no longer had that sense of fear about older students and they felt accepted and developed a sense of belonging very quickly.

We have four Houses led by a teaching Head of House. they are supported by a non teaching Learning Mentor. Each House has twelve tutor groups (21-23 students per group) of mixed age (Y7 – Y11) students. Students are spread equitably between all tutors and all houses. Every tutor and is trained to address the needs of all students at any time.

Students are grouped and spread to ensure that those who might require a higher degree of input are spread equitably across the four Houses. It is possible to group siblings in Houses to ensure that a strong family relationship can be developed between home and school.

The natural spread of students is also beneficial for the smooth and effective running of the school. Behaviour issues which might typically be found in year 9 are spread between all tutor groups in all Houses. Similarly, year 11 students who might require a higher level of input are spread and can be given a greater amount of individual attention by teachers since there are only four or five of them in every tutor group. Year 7 students can bring freshness and enthusiasm to every tutor group.

With horizontal systems it can become more difficult for some tutor groups to remain positive as children get older it can also become more difficult to motivate older students in the same age groups when there is no obvious academic reward at the end of the session. Good tutor groups rely on creating goodwill and a positive ethos. So much of the vertical methodology offers an opportunity for groups and individuals to develop and contribute positively and therefore tutor groups rarely have issues that require any significant input in terms of behaviour management.

Year seven students have a year 11 buddy who receives training on how to execute the role. They then take care of the Y7 student and meets with them during tutor time to ensure that they are enjoying their time at school.

The year 11 student gains significantly from this leadership role and develops a range of emotional skills from the time they begin their training in year 10 and then throughout the whole of year 11.