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Appraisal is more than a numbers game

17 March 2021

A shift is happening in the appraisal practice in schools, offering an opportunity to rethink how we design staff development and align it ever more closely to school improvement.

The days when appraisals were carried out without a clear purpose or link to the wider school improvement agenda, with little application from intelligence or leadership insight and in the absence of standardisation within let alone between institutions, are long behind us.

Many schools have in place a fair and transparent system which supports strategic priorities and in which teachers have some agency so that they can shape their own development while also contributing to wider school improvement.

Yet problems remain. So much of the appraisal system remains wedded to data in a way that constrains how both teachers and managers think about performance management.

Of course, SATs, GCSE and other pupil data is essential for quality assurance and accountability purposes: good SATs and GCSE results are what parents and other stakeholders have been led to believe as the defining measure of a good school.

Performance-related pay

However, and particularly since performance-related pay was introduced, it has forced leaders to use data as a performance measure for staff, as well as for the organisation. Staff too have, understandably, focused their thinking on the same sets of measures; they also accept the stress that quality assurance and accountability processes, such as lesson observation, create because they are linked to pay.

Now, however, there is change on the horizon. In its response to the Workload Advisory Group report Making Data Work (2019) ministers signalled that they shared the group's view that assessment data for one set of pupils should not be the sole basis for objectives and performance management, adding: "We also agree that objectives should not be based on teacher-generated attainment or progress data or automatically generated predictions."

Even post-pandemic, the Government is unlikely to abandon GCSEs and other exams wholesale but the value of high-stakes testing is already being reflected upon more closely than it has been for years.

Research tells us that performance-related pay is not the answer to driving improvement in education either. The 2012 PISA Report, 'Does performance-related pay improve teaching?' found that ". . . countries that have succeeded in making teaching an attractive profession have often done so not just through pay, but by raising the status of teaching, offering real career prospects, and giving teachers responsibility as professionals and leaders of reform."

Parts of the business world have already grasped some of these issues and recognised that excessive focus on pay in performance management only encourages a narrow focus on meeting easily measurable goals and generates stress. What businesses – and all organisations – need is a strategy for staff evaluation and development that nurtures talent, develops leadership capability and builds resilience across the company.

Agile targets

Our own research meanwhile indicates that there is already a shift in thinking happening in schools. For example, some are moving away from end-of-year targets and bringing in agile targets alongside an open and continuous dialogue with staff throughout the year. The high-stakes, stress-inducing, end-of-year conversation is becoming outmoded and being replaced by a more responsive system of ongoing coaching and mentoring alongside development opportunities, underpinned by research and focused on aspects of teaching and learning that have been pinpointed as priorities.

Quality assurance remains vital – and not only for external stakeholders. But if you have a forensic understanding of what good practice will achieve the outcomes you aspire to and you understand what is needed to bring them about, that leadership insight will go a long way towards ensuring that the conversation with staff is evidence-based and pedagogically driven. In other words, you will meet the quality assurance and accountability requirements because your staff are learning and developing effectively for their own and the school's purposes.

Focus only on the outcome numbers, on the other hand, and numbers is all you will see.

Denise Inwood

This article was written by:

Denise Inwood
Managing Director