Unannounced observations

The fight against unannounced lesson observations in FE colleges could be UCU’s next big battle following its trial of strength with the Institute for Learning (IfL) over membership fees. Discontent is smouldering around the country among lecturers who feel harassed and undermined when managers walk in at the drop of a hat.

Although united and well-organised branches seem to have won concessions in London and Manchester, overall the picture is deteriorating. For UCU, this isn’t a blanket protest about lecturers being assessed and graded, but the way it’s done. ‘We recognise some teachers aren’t very good or may get burnt out,’ says national FE officer Dan Taubman. ‘But we’d argue that best practice with lesson observation is to have support that can help people improve.’

Although UCU hasn’t collected figures, Taubman believes that the unwelcome drop-in by management is becoming ever more commonplace, ‘ramped up because of increasingly high stakes over poor quality – the possibility of a bad Ofsted report and funding being withdrawn from poor courses’.

‘We’ve had instances of colleges trying to link (observation) grades with student attendance,’ says Taubman. ‘That’s bonkers – there are lots of reasons why students don’t always turn up, especially adults who lead untidy lives. The issue isn’t going to go away – I think it will get worse.’

Principals may claim this is an essential part of upholding standards but UCU members believe that often the practice is intended to be punitive rather than helping professional development.  ‘It ratchets up the stress level and is used by rogue managers to harass staff, ‘said the branch officer of one London college ,

‘We’ve had members who’ve been seen every day for a week. Teachers feel constantly on the back foot.  It’s like ‘we’re going to catch you out – we know you’re lazy and cut corners, and we’re going to prove it’.’

There the dispute was over ‘quality monitoring’, curriculum managers making regular sudden visits known as walk-throughs to all classes – ‘observation by stealth, when managers come in not ostensibly to observe, but say…check if students are there on time.’

The notorious walks-through have antagonised many a staffroom and are just one aspect of unannounced observation, now said to be among the most common reasons FE lecturers are quitting their job. Lecturers at one central London college (City of Westminster) say the whole process has been abused. Anyone receiving successive Grade 4s for poor classroom performance found management turning this into a question of competence – which then raised the spectre of possible dismissal.

‘A grade 4 in our college covers things such as attendance and punctuality of students, but that isn’t the responsibility of teachers,’ said one UCU negotiator. ‘You can have a teacher who’s loved by the students but because attendance isn’t good you get a grade 4.

Andrew Harden, the UCU officer who’s advised FE members at local level, believes unannounced observation could become the union’s next cause celebre having squared up to IfL. In London – albeit that firm action has wrung concessions from management – it remains, he says ‘a huge issue’.

But whereas IfL is one entity, there over 300 colleges, each run differently. So, plenty more battles to fight. As an industry benchmark, Harden is calling for at least three weeks’ warning for lecturers before they’re observed – ‘though three weeks isn’t worth what it was, because so much more has to be crammed into that time.’

‘We also argue it should be agreed for a named lesson,’ Harden says. ‘Where we don’t achieve that, we should be looking at the smallest possible window. But in some cases that can be a week. That’s ridiculous when an Ofsted inspection is over three days.’

Observations take numerous forms, none regarded with affection. One college in the north west has endured departmental observation by line managers; whole college observations by managers and advanced teaching practitioners; ‘themed’ walk-throughs; mock Ofsteds conducted by consultants; Ofsted itself; ‘drop-ins’ by line managers; and extra observations for staff who had previously fallen short.

Then there’s the growth of peer observations, ‘a result of targets set by management – as distinct from peer observations organised by tutors as a supportive exercise’.  ‘Some staff have been observed three times in a week,’ said one branch officer . ‘We had a colleague told that she ‘had to get used to it’; while another said that students were unsettled and upset by the level of observations. This never seems to be considered by management.’

Lecturers from a college in Hampshire report that the principal considers it her right ‘to walk into any classroom at any time’. ‘Her gripe is that don’t have any form of lesson plan,’ said the branch secretary.  ‘We’re told that for every lesson, a plan, course file and scheme of work must be available for inspection.  A handwritten plan needs maybe 10-15 minutes extra time for just one lesson – that’s adding 3-4 hours work per week.

‘The principal thinks we should use plans from previous years. But it’s not possible for, say A Level business studies – new materials are produced each year; case studies need to be topical.

‘Oddly enough, the main complaints came from diligent and conscientious teachers who’d often get a grade A on a lesson observation anyway.  But…  UCU members are probably more likely to be chosen for a random check than non-members, and some notably poor teachers escape scot free while others are observed over and over again if problems are identified – regardless of their track record of effective teaching.’

Insult was added to injury at one west country college where management referred to unannounced observations as ‘mystery shopping’.  Staff protested both against the name and the practice; only to find it re-badged as the ‘learning walk’.

But, says local UCU officials, it amounts to the same thing; though management have since spoken of limiting unannounced observations to a two-week window.  Moreover, students can also be disconcerted when managers drop in out of the blue, a source of ‘considerable stress or anxiety’ especially for those  with learning disabilities and/or depression.

‘Learning takes place in students’ minds – the policy of unannounced  observations is not based on any recognised theory of learning,’ the lecturer said. ‘Subjectivity makes the process prone to abuse.  It can be subtly turned into a tool to intimidate staff.’

And yet the college’s own training-related literature states that ‘every teacher needs.. .the time and tools to think about their own individual part in the educational enterprise’. That’s left staff wondering why the college doesn’t practice what it preaches, and, rather than spend money on its ‘observation regime’, invest in professional development.

Unannounced observations can add pressures to deploy ‘good’ teaching techniques ‘on occasions we would not normally consider appropriate …we’re being led to deny our intuitive professional judgement,’ the lecturer added. UCU has long identified that there’s a temptation for people to devote time and effort into ‘faking’ an outstanding or good lesson.

Last autumn, one lecturer at another college in the north west was driven to institute a grievance over unannounced observation. He said it was being used as harassment and ‘a cause of such stress that this would be considered detrimental to health by any reasonable person’.

He was awarded a Grade 4 (unsatisfactory). ‘As a direct result…my performance in teaching suffered,’ he said. ‘I felt undermined and this led to periods of depression. Having a policy in which any lesson may be observed at any time is stressful to an intolerable degree – like being permanently under an Ofsted inspection regime.’

The good news is that vigorous action by branch members can change minds. At Westminster and Kingsway, after a battle lasting several years, management offered a deal whereby for two years out of three, one lesson only, chosen in advance, will be observed – though in the third year, as part of the college’s review week/internal inspection, lecturers may be observed at any time during a three and half day window. UCU members see this as ‘a significant improvement’.

At Hackney College, local UCU staff and management also joined forces to avoid future conflict.  It’s resulted in a system where one year there’ll be a formal graded observation; the next, peer observation, ungraded. In each case there’s five days’ notice ; and two lessons identified for possible observation.

Vice principal Lois Fowler conceded that ‘there’s always an issue with stress and how useful feedback is’. ‘With unannounced observations there can be severe potential consequences for a member of staff if it doesn’t go well,’ she said. ‘As a teacher I can understand why people feel apprehensive.’

Thanks to UCU’s intervention several disputes in London have receded or been resolved. But for every outpost of enlightenment, there appear to be many more colleges – far too many – where management remains bent on operating in the dark ages.

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