Themes that must be tackled in the move towards a self-improving FE system: Observation culture; and pay and conditions

Self-Improving System Project
Self-Improving System Project

In this series of 10 short blogs – which will issue in rapid succession – I will consider in turn the top themes that have emerged from 60 interviews with teachers, leaders, policy-makers, academics and others from across and beyond the English FE system. Each blog will end with a question which I hope will generate debate on LinkedIn, where the blogs are signposted.

The core question considered has been “what might be the features of a self-improving FE system?” Interviewees have also considered the key features of the FE system as it stands, and what is holding it back from being self-improving.

My previous seven blogs have covered (in very summarised form) the themes that stood out from my research interviews as being the most commonly discussed ones. There is then a gap between the ‘top seven’ and the following pack. That pack itself contains a further 11 themes that were mentioned independently several times by interviewees, but didn’t make it into the Greatest Hits list.

To open up as much of my research as possible for general access I will bundle them up in this and my subsequent blogs, to try to do justice to as many voices as I can.

Today I will deal with two very different themes, but ones I see as linked. The first is the contention that a self-improving system would have a strong observation culture. The second is that it would have better teacher pay and conditions.

Observation culture

Some interviewees stated that a powerful mechanism for systemic improvement is if there is a pervading culture of frequent observation. One international expert for example, in response to my questions about what – if anything – made successful educational jurisdictions stand out, chose to describe a country rising up the OECD rankings in which “teachers are in and out of each other’s classrooms all the time”. Others also claimed from their own teaching or leadership experience the developmental power of observation. 

But one key point was made by them all: that “any old observation” will not do at all. It has to be observation under specific conditions, which I summarise crudely as “low-stakes, non-hierarchical, developmental and reciprocal”. In other words, this is not about someone in a position of power observing in order to make a judgement about performance which then results in some action (e.g. staff reward or remediation or even retribution). Nor is it even observation in order primarily to develop the observee – “I will watch your lesson and then give you feedback on how to be better” – which is perhaps the most familiar type in our system. Rather the key contention was that observation primarily benefits the observer. So I come into your class to help me teach better, not to help you teach better; an inversion of the familiar pattern which is predicated on an uneven power relationship and a clear ‘expertise gradient’, with the observer being ‘above’ the observee.

Of course there is no need for this to be a one way process. The most likely scenario is that an observation which is preceded by and followed by professional dialogue will actually be beneficial to both the observer and the observee. Nor does the process need to be confined to two professionals – three or more can be involved in one teaching/observing/discussing cycle.

The belief that observation benefits the observer was not only applied at classroom level; one interviewee spoke compellingly about how his most favoured strategic improvement strategy for a college was to take key staff out and send them in to other colleges – at their invitation – ostensibly to give feedback to the host college, but in actual fact in order to allow them to engage in the constructive process of critical observation and development of colleagues in order to improve their own practice.

Pay and conditions

The second theme – not linked by most of the interviewees who raised it – is that of better pay and conditions for teachers. The basic contention is that a self-improving system will be one in which people want to come and work, feel motivated to work in, and choose to stay in. And that strong levels of recruitment, morale and retention are much more likely if FE teachers are paid and treated better than they are now.

Of course there is an obvious truth here that needs no glossing. But I think there may be another less obvious but equally important insight. Broadly speaking, one of the characteristics that top performing educational jurisdiction have across the world (as pointed out by Lucy Crehan in her book Cleverlands) is that they have high levels of teacher non-contact time. In England we do not. Furthermore, in the English FE system we have low levels of funding that go along with presenting as ‘full-time education’ a number of teaching hours that in many OECD countries would be considered part-time for 16–18-year-olds. 

So by international standards we have a rather toxic combination of (a) high ratios of teaching to non-teaching time and (b) large numbers of students within a full-time teaching timetable. This situation is sometimes reflected in and exacerbated by non-professional contracts in FE whereby teachers are paid by the hour – a blue-collar conception of teaching, not a professional model.

If, then, funding for FE were increased, and if that increase were to be channelled into teacher pay, what would be the most beneficial way of doing that? One idea would be that rather than simply increasing the pay per contact hour, a more beneficial approach would be to reduce teachers’ teaching loads and instead pay them for more non-contact time. This time would be used primarily for observing each other and then discussing, reflecting on and making good use of the insights gained from working in an open-door culture where observation was the norm and seen as a mechanism for self-improvement rather than a tool for management’s quality control.

It seems like a tricky dilemma. On the one hand, simply upping pay does nothing in and of itself for system quality necessarily – there is one possible version of this where everyone just does exactly what they did before, only it costs more [the dreaded ‘Deadweight’ scenario which drives so much Treasury thinking]. Extra funding could instead be used to improve conditions and outcomes by paying for increased observation and planning time. On the other hand, upping salaries could have a positive effect on recruitment, retention and morale; and in any case the idea of increasing observation time depends on the assumption that more teachers can be recruited, which rather flies in the face of the current situation in the FE system.

Question: If additional funding were available for pay, would it be better to increase salaries? Or to reduce teaching timetables (which implies recruiting more teachers)?

David Russell

University of Oxford, Said Business School and Education and Training Foundation
University of Oxford, Said Business School and Education and Training Foundation

Executive in Residence at Oxford Saïd Business School 
Education and Training Foundation