I have been a teacher for 25 years, a Headteacher for 10 years and, at the age of 49, this much I know about…why we should never grade individual lessons again!
What is the Headteacher’s single most important responsibility? If you read the first four adverts for Headships in this week’s TES online Jobs section you’d think it was to gain an Outstanding OFSTED judgement:

    • This appointment represents a great opportunity for the right person to build on what has been achieved and to lead our committed and talented staff in pursuit of the school’s ambition to be nothing less than outstanding.
    • The Governors wish to appoint a committed Christian to lead our successful school, to sustain our inclusive Christian ethos and take us from ‘Good’ to ‘Outstanding’.
    • Due to the planned retirement of our Headteacher, the Governors, Staff and children are looking for an inspirational, visionary leader, with the ambition to drive our school from good to outstanding.
    • Building on our current success, we want our new Headteacher to take our school from Good to Outstanding.

I thought the Headteacher’s single most important responsibility was to grow great teachers.
Growing great teachers is a tricky business. Zoe Elder first alerted me to this excerpt from a speech by Dylan Wiliam in which he explains, with some wit, just how difficult it is to teach. If you missed it first time, here it is; if you did see it, it’s worth watching again…
[wpvideo 0MkQ7zAq]
We can all be better teachers. My paper, How we will develop into a truly great school  was acknowledged by colleagues such as Sir David Carter and IOE Director Chris Husbands as a well-articulated, persuasive argument for all teachers to engage in developing their classroom practice, no matter how well they may teach currently. I thought it was pretty good too, but it didn’t win over many of my colleagues’ hearts and minds. The reason for my paper’s failure was the Performance Development process (aka in most other schools, Performance Management or Appraisal), and more specifically, the OFSTED grading of lessons.
We have officially scrapped making lesson judgements. I know that many people have already argued that individual lessons shouldn’t be graded, but two things have recently brought home to us the folly of grading lessons. Firstly, some of the vacuous reasons behind judgements given by OFSTED inspectors during our inspection last November: That was an Outstanding lesson up until the moment the students turned on the computers when the pace of their learning dipped a little so it can only be judged as Good. I think the very average experience of our OFSTED inspection has given us both confidence and courage. And one Performance Development lesson observation debrief last term began by the teacher saying to the Deputy Headteacher, Just give me the judgement: I’ve got lots of things to get on with. The judgements are unreliable and they get in the way of teachers working on their teaching skills.
We still make a judgement about teacher effectiveness, but we do it annually in September, taking into account a whole range of mandatory evidence which the teacher provides:

    • Review of their students’ examination results against the students’ academic targets, providing class by class commentary on their students’ performance;
    • Lesson Observation feedback;
    • Feedback from work scrutinies;
    • Good evidence of thoughtful lesson planning;
    • Any further evidence which might relate specifically to the teacher’s Performance Development objectives.

We can now make Performance Development the genuinely effective vehicle for growing great teachers. I line manage directly 30 teachers; my responsibility as Performance Development reviewer to those colleagues is as important as any of my responsibilities as Headteacher. If I can get the process right I reckon I will, as a Performance Development reviewer, have a huge impact on student outcomes.
In these times of austerity all our resources need to be directed towards improving teaching. I spent 150 hours observing lessons last year and the £8,000 the hours cost the school did not equate to £8,000 of positive impact upon those colleagues’ teaching skills. Time is our most precious and limited resource; it seems madness to spend so much time in classrooms without that investment in my time helping to improve significantly the quality of teaching at Huntington.
Without a video record of the lesson the developmental potential of the lesson observation process can never be fully realised. When Jonathan Raban was writing his travel book Coasting he met Paul Theroux in Brighton who was writing his own book The Kingdom by the Sea. The meeting features in both books and this is Raban’s reflections upon Theroux’s account of their meeting:

His book, The Kingdom by the Sea, came out a year later, in 1983. I read it avidly and with mounting anxiety. It had only one seriously flat patch, I thought – his account of our meeting in Brighton. There wasn’t a single start of recognition for me in his two pages: what he described was not at all what I remembered. But then memory, as Paul had demonstrated … is a great maker of fictions.’

My experience of certain post-observation discussions has been similar and I wager there have been individual colleagues who thought that my account of their lesson was not at all what I remembered! I discussed a lesson recently where the teacher could not recollect what he had said and only reluctantly accepted my version of events because I had written down what he had said verbatim.
Encourage colleagues to film themselves first to gain confidence. Once they have got over the shock of seeing and hearing themselves, ask them to share their video with you when they are ready so you can coach them. If the purpose of lesson observations is to grow teachers not grade them, you’ll be amazed at how open colleagues are to filming themselves teach.
With good teachers you’re working at the margins of skill development. At the moment I am working with a number of colleagues on very specific elements of their practice: tone of voice; gestures; questioning; the language of Growth Mindset; the deployment of Teaching Assistants. And for these good teachers it will take tremendous conscious effort to change practice that’s been ingrained for years. It’s Doug Lemov stuff – like I said in a relatively recent post:

Working on marginal elements of your teaching requires fully conscious effort. Doug Lemov cites Joshua Foer from the latter’s study of memory, Moonwalking with Einstein: The secret to improving at a skill is to retain some degree of conscious control over it while practising…to force oneself to stay out of autopilot. Lemov goes on to say, The process of intentionally implementing feedback is likely to keep people in a practice state of increased consciousness and thus steeper improvement. Working on my coaching feedback has taken enormous effort. If developing practice is not privileged within a school it is very hard to engage teachers in meaningful development of their own teaching. We have all at some time or another intended to work on the feedback given to us about our teaching, but, as Lemov says, we end up losing sight of it amidst the wreckage of our tasks list. Or perhaps we try it briefly and tell ourselves we have made enough progress, or that the feedback wouldn’t really work.

What we will introduce is a Growing Great Teachers Professional Development Journal where teachers keep a record of exactly how they are working on their teaching as part of their professional obligation to improve their practice. This will keep the relationship between teacher autonomy and accountability in fruitful balance.


Have the courage to ditch the OFSTED criteria and agree your own. As a team of 125 teachers and Teaching Assistants we agreed our own Features of Truly Great Teaching last year and have now adopted them above the ever changing OFSTED criteria. It may be easy for us to do since we were recently inspected, but Sir Michael Wilshaw has made it clear that there is no prescribed way to teach.

truly great teaching

As your school grows in confidence introduce an Open Gardens-style initiative, where subject areas open up their classrooms for a week to show their colleagues their best teaching.
We have to change from the industrial model to an agricultural model, where each school can be flourishing tomorrow. Now, I know that Sir Ken Robinson is so last year, but his philosophy about getting the conditions for growth right in our schools rings true to me. I think our decision to stop grading lessons is a major step to realising the school culture I have always idealised, the one I have had on my office wall for over two decades:

A Personal Vision of an Idealised School Culture – Roland S Barth

I would welcome the chance to work in a school characterised by a high level of collegiality, a place teeming with frequent, helpful personal and professional interactions.  I would become excited about life in a school where a climate of risk taking is deliberately fostered and where a safety net protects those who may risk and stumble.  I would like to go each day to a school to be with other adults who genuinely wanted to be there, who really chose to be there because of the importance of their work to others and to themselves.  I would not want to leave a school characterised by a profound respect for, and encouragement of, diversity, where important differences among children and adults were celebrated rather than seen as problems to remedy.  For 190 days each year, I would like to attend an institution that accorded a special place to philosophers who constantly examine and question and frequently replace embedded practices by asking ‘why’ questions.  And I could even reside for a while in a laundry dryer if accompanied by a great deal of humour that helps bond the community by assisting everyone through tough moments.  I’d like to work in a school that constantly takes note of the stress and anxiety level on the one hand and standards on the other, all the while searching for the optimal relationship of low anxiety and high standards.

It’s all about creating a school culture where staff and students can grow…
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I would add one more line to Sir Ken’s aphorisms…Great Headteachers know what the conditions for growth are and bad ones don’t.
Are you working towards establishing an ‘Outstanding’ school or a school where teachers are truly great and the experience for students is extraordinary? As Paul Calf realised, it’s a false opposition.
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This post has 42 Comments

  1. This is amazing. I wonder how long it will take other schools to follow?
    I hope you don’t mind I have a couple of comments and questions.
    Firstly, why did you choose September for the review?
    Did you consider using student voice comments?
    I still am concerned about using exam results in some cases. It’s OK if a teacher has had full responsibility for the same class across the whole keystage but in many cases we share groups, take them on in year 11, our feeder subject makes setting changes so a new student joins the group in February of year 11 etc As long as the review takes these into account (which I assume the commentary does?) then results may be useful.
    How about also using intervention data? (Again part of the results commentary?) I am a strong believer that we should be recording and analysing interventions for our students centrally. This then reduces any issues there may be in set changes, class swaps. Unfortunately no system I’ve encountered so far has this facility.
    Love the journal. Maybe some would be brave enough to blog?
    I really look forward to hearing more about this.

  2. Thank you for this, every idea hits the right note for me. We don’t grade lessons, but you are much further down the track in your thinking in the way that you develop and appraise teachers. As a new Deputy Head Academic (and it’s a new role in the school as well) I have a mandate for change; I hope you would be happy for me to use some of your excellent ideas and initiatives. Sean

  3. John
    Really enjoyed reading this piece, I particularly like how you’ve captured the journey through to implementing the school’s core values. Definitely something to aspire too.

  4. Fantastic post John!
    I hear the phrase ‘you’re only as good as your last observation’ bantered around a lot and believe is stunting the growth of great teachers. Focusing on the short term gains rather than creating sustainable conditions for students to flourish. What you have described in this post is an excellent blueprint for how we can all continue to improve, embrace failures and learn. I thinks one teachers get locked into a mindset whereby they see teaching as a ladder they need to climb. I believe it’s more like a ‘jungle gym’ that needs to be explored.

  5. Brilliant as always; thank you. – I have looked through your blogs but couldn’t see one on ‘effective deployment of TAs’ – would love to hear your views and ideas on this??? Hint hint

  6. Johntomsett
    I am 55, I have been in teaching for 19 years (wow where does the time go), I have done a stint as a HOD but have never sought promotion as I enjoy teaching and had a successful management career before becoming a teacher. This much I know…..
    You are a brave and inspirational leader and you have chosen/developed an extraordinary team.
    I have given up reading most blogs as I feel that most are really diaries with sometimes a small amount of wisdom and I have found I can spend my time more effectively, especially engaging with real people.
    Although I have never had a wish to take on management responsibility in school I have always tried to focus on improving my own professional practice but often the culture and policies of the school have left me very confused about how to do this. I went to your website to check out how you actually do the things you say you do and the first thing my attention was drawn to on the first page I came to was “STAFF TRAINING DAY: MONDAY 24 FEBRUARY”. The rest of the site was a pure joy to read.
    I will be leaving the profession quite soon and when I look back how I wish I had been able to work in a learning community like that created by your leadership.
    Until today I have tended to read a number of blogs, and usually I end up depressed and looking towards the end of my teaching career with glee. Then I read a blogpost (and blog and website) like yours and I start to think how I will feel sad that I am no longer in the classroom.
    After today I am going to stop reading the blogs that shout the mantras “everyone else has got it wrong”, “OFSTED has got it wrong”, “teachers who dont follow the evidence of traditional teaching are stupid” and “Headteachers are rubbish” among others. I read very few these days but even these last few will be pared today. Some of these bloggers are successful authors, some are lauded by Education Secretaries and yet others are invited onto TV and radio to pass on the wisdom of successful education. In future I will read only 3 or 4 blogs. First will be johntomsett, second Tim Taylor and third will be heymisssmith. All are positive. I am astonished that johntomsett would admit to taking notice of some of the writers/speakers he quotes above as they attract so much vile criticism on the internet. That is bravery and conviction founded on success.
    I judge leadership by asking the questions “does this leader do what he/she preaches?”. I judge a leader by asking “does this leader put their own reputation on the line and is that much of a risk?”. I ask is the leader successful, and do they carry people with them and do they represent the values they promote . The answer to all of these questions is yes for johnthomsett, yes for Tim Taylor and yes for heymisssmith.
    Keep at it johnthomsett. I am hoping that the Education Secretary listens to you and quotes you and the reason that I am not aware is that you don’t engage in self promotion, your interest in posting here is to enable teachers to improve their practice not win a popularity contest.Good luck and keep safe.

  7. Great post. I share the frustration with the preoccupation with ‘outstanding’. One HT job advert I saw this week used the phrase ‘our journey from special measures to outstanding’. I mean, for goodness sake, there’s got to be more to it than that!!
    Just one thing; the September judgement of teacher effectiveness. Do you use the OFSTED grades for this, or another system of grades? Or is it purely formative, everyone has 3 areas worthy of sharing with others and 3 areas for improvement, for example?

  8. Great post John. We made the decision not to grade 4 years ago and have never looked back. I know what we do is right and it is great to see other schools focusing on working with staff rather than imposing a system on them that creates fear and mistrust.

  9. Reblogged this on Ant's ICT and commented:
    Inspirational – one of the most uplifting and informed pieces on the debate I have read in a very long time.

  10. The sooner other schools realise the benefits of working in the ways you describe the better. Congratulations on making such brave decisions.

  11. Hi John,
    This is a really interesting read. A couple of quick questions:-
    Do you still use the words good, outstanding to describe teachers? If not, do you, and how do you, differentiate between levels of performance?
    When you put the different elements together in the review how do you standardise this across reviewers?
    Thanks for the post
    Neil Williams

    1. If you find our Pay Policy you’ll find how we differentiate. It’s in one of my PRP posts. Because we only have 7 reviewers standardisation is not too difficult. We are well-trained by an external HR expert from M&S and we moderate the whole thing between us.

      1. Thanks John,
        That does help. So, will you now change you target away from so many % of lessons being outstanding? Or will you just use all of the available data to make a judgment on teaching overall?

  12. Posts like these provide inspiration, thank you. I hope to use some of these ideas in my new role. I have to say, after reading some of the horrid headlines about UK education, to read yours is refreshing and feels me with hope that all is not lost! JK 🙂

  13. Great post John. I’m going to use the 5 parts to judge the effectiveness of lessons. However, I’m going to add a 6th, which is the results of student survey feedback. We undertake a student survey with 10 questions based on the ‘teacher standards’. I have found in the past this is a great way to identifiy the strengths and weaknesses of colleagues, and generally students are pretty fair with their judgements. Interested to hear your views on this?

  14. Posted on Linked In Group – ‘Going Beyond CPD’
    I agree with both the sentiment of this blog and, pragmatically, that this approach is the way to create professionals at the front line.
    I don’t know if anyone saw the article in the Telegraph today (12/02/14) ‘Teachers should be made to fear failure, says Headmaster’ – it quotes a Head as saying “…. Schools can raise teaching standards by creating a ‘culture of fear’ among the workforce …” I will post both John’s blog and the article on the Linked In Group to see if I get a reaction!
    PS Thank you, John. As you know, after many years in education, I now run a successful company in the private sector. Your message of man management – honest reflection, review and risk taking – are as applicable in the private sector as they are in schools. I want to recruit, retain, inspire and be inspired by colleagues who feel empowered by working with us.

  15. Excellent, refreshing and thoroughly inspiring. And it’s so good to hear your thoughts about teachers videoing themselves for professional development. It’s something I’ve actively encouraged for years. With video technology so readily available in a multitude of forms, and with people taking 25 selfies of themselves and another 25 of their plate of food, it seems daft not to use the same tech to improve teaching.

  16. I absolutely love your website.. Great colors & theme.
    Did you create this website yourself? Please reply back as I’m looking to create my very own blog and would
    love to know where you got this from or just what the theme is called.
    Thank you!

  17. Newly promoted I’m about to present to SLT a coaching programme for all teachers with, wait for it, no grades. Thanks for always inspiring.

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