Lesson Observations Unchained. A New Dawn.


This is a short reflection on the massive difference it makes when you stop grading lessons.  I’ve embarked on the process of observing all of my teachers in my new school. Wow – what a privilege that is.  So far I’ve seen 20 lessons – I saw 9 English lessons last week.  I’ve got some joyous weeks ahead of me as I work through each department in alphabetical order.  97 teachers to see; a big undertaking but an absolute joy.   This is all taking place in the context where, until this year, the school accountability systems and OfSTED gave grades for lessons.  Grading was embedded in the culture, the policies and the documentation. I feel like the liberator – it’s a massive culture shift that is long overdue.   Meanwhile, elsewhere, I know some schools are still grading lessons. Wake up people! You are Hiroo Onoda, fighting after the war has ended.

So, what difference does it make?  Here’s a sample.

The lessons are more normal. You see regular lessons. People tell me so; they fret less about putting on a show and I’m more confident that what I see is what the students get on a normal day.  There may be some tidying up but it’s not a performance.

The process encourages a stronger focus on learning than teaching.  Grading could only be about the lesson snap-shot and that led to a focus on teacher-performance during an observation. Learning is long term; without grading, the discussions are about the whole process – what goes before, what follows and how a lesson fits into a big picture.  Grading could never meaningfully capture that. Never.

The discussions are entirely different.  You can get alongside the teacher; you can work together as professionals discussing the teaching process. What’s the thinking? How do you find that works? Could you try something else? How do you manage the ability range, the behaviour system, the scheme of work, the marking workload, the assessment process…?  It’s all open for discussion, leading to a healthy exchange.  People open up; they have the confidence to be confessional about the challenges they face.  They are more receptive to suggestions for improvement and firmer messages about things that really ought to be better are easier to give.

It’s motivating. We are professionals – we can all discuss teaching and learning openly and freely.  Gone are the days of a great teacher leaving a feedback session gutted and irritated with their Good because ‘technically’ it wasn’t an Outstanding. What a load of rubbish that is/was.  It’s utterly liberating to have a professional discussion where that bit of stupidity has been removed.

I’ve had superb feedback from my staff about the discussions they are now having after lesson observations by me and our review team.  There is not the slightest suggestion that this softens the process in any way.  If anything, it helps to talk about everyone’s need for improvement because we are all in it – everyone has strengths and everyone has areas for development and we can get into the detail without the spectre of a judgement casting a shadow.

I once attended a conference session where a senior leader told us that, in his school, 85.26% of lessons were good or outstanding. Two decimal places – I kid you not. How pitifully delusional that all seems  – and how toxic; a symptom of how far we’d fallen into the accountability abyss, losing sight of our professionalism.  With a big sigh of relief, I don’t need to quantify the quality of teaching in my school to satisfy a spurious accountability measure or create the illusion of measured improvement.   What I need to do is work alongside each individual teacher to help them develop to be the most effective teacher they can be.  That’s an entirely different emphasis and, thankfully, that’s the environment I am in.

Just like Truman – we have found the wall. And there is a door in it.



  1. Sounds brilliant Tom. We too have stopped grading individuals and I agree it is a great liberation. Are you, like us, still grading a department overall for its quality of teaching? This can still lead to a dispirited team if the overall view is that it requires improvement ; or have you taken a bigger leap and leave that just to a whole school judgement?


  2. Hello Alex, Annie and Dawn
    Good to discuss this at the Lesson Observation Feedback Meeting that Alex is organising after all observations complete.
    Take a read below.
    Best wishes

    Mrs. Mary Fawcett MA NPQH

    St. Joseph’s Specialist School & College
    Amlets Lane, Cranleigh, SURREY, GU6 7DH
    T:01483 272449 F:01483 276003
    W: http://www.st-josephscranleigh.surrey.sch.uk
    Please consider the environment before printing this email!


  3. Hi Tom, great to hear that you are enjoying your alphabetical journey through observing teaching. We have found that observations without judgements allow for better, more reflective conversations. However, removing grading individual lesson observations doesn’t remove ‘requires improvement’ teaching. How do observations form part of the tracking and the judgement for the overall quality of teaching and what other evidence would you consider when making judgements?


    • Lesson observations form part of a matrix of evidence including looking at students’ work, exam results, internal assessment data, the informal observations of day-to-day school life, parent and student feedback and so on. Everyone is on an improvement journey but where significant concerns emerge, we tackle them. Ultimately there is a bottom line and then you set very specific improvement targets. Meanwhile 95% of teachers are not judged by some crude measure – they are supported to improve.


  4. So glad I had to take early retirement from being a Headteacher aged just 40. The way the system was going left me despairing. I wonder how many of the Headteachers now professing the merits of not grading observations, similarly professed the exact opposite not long ago.

    I never graded lessons, save when I did joint observations with the LA officer. I hope the teachers in our school were never concerned about discussing marking load, assessment, schemes of work. Indeed I hope they discussed these issues at length, not only with myself and other colleagues in the school, but as far as practicable with colleagues from other schools.

    I remain passionate about education, and the fact that children get just one crack at it. It is a teacher’s job to make that one ‘go’ at education the very best it can possibly be for that child.

    To my mind, there is still far too much over-complication of educating children. As a profession we are often guilty of feeling we have to justify ourselves alongside other professions – doctors, solicitors, etc… We don’t. We are accountable, that is good as long as accountability is realistic.

    Removing grading of lesson observations does not mean we are not going to have excellent teachers, poor teachers and everything in between. We would be failing in our jobs as Headteachers if an observation of a disaster, backed up by other indicators, did not trigger an action to support that teacher to improve.

    The cottage industry that seems to thrive off the back of school improvement is still very much alive and kicking. I have long felt that is a shame. Teaching should ot be formulaic and overly prescribed, it should be an art where individulity and eccentricities can thrive within reason. These are the characters that make up some of the most truly inspiring teachers. They hold the class. You can see the children hanging on the teacher’s words and actions.

    Good education (whatever that is) supports, nurtures and challenges. Pupils learn from their mistakes, hence they must be allowed to make them and not be worried about making. The same applies to teachers. For too long ‘the system’ has punished the mistakes. Perhaps the time has come to stop that, and this is what I aimed for in a flagship school – true openness. The openness where a teacher can walk into the staff room and share the triumphs and disasters, where these can be discussed non-judgmentally so the teacher who has just had a disaster, goes back revitalised and up for the challenge and responsibility. The responsibility of ensuring that one go at education is the very best they can possibly make it.


    • I think plenty of people have stuck it out and made the system work for them – but thankfully the folly of the regime that has dominated for the last decade is coming to an end and we have grounds for optimism. It’s pretty sobering to think of all those people who have smugly congratulated themselves over the years, believing they know what Good and Outstanding look like based on 20 minutes in a class room. I’ve always been guessing. It’s been jibberish all along.


  5. Tom – thank for that, interesting reading. I’d be really interested in how you do teacher appraisal at your school…


  6. As ever – interesting, positive and constructive.I hope you don’t mind – I’ve posted link on NUT fb page.Best regardsMurray Sackwild   From: headguruteacher To: murraysackwild@yahoo.com Sent: Saturday, 15 November 2014, 19:24 Subject: [New post] Lesson Observations Unchained. A New Dawn. #yiv1172125817 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv1172125817 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv1172125817 a.yiv1172125817primaryactionlink:link, #yiv1172125817 a.yiv1172125817primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv1172125817 a.yiv1172125817primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv1172125817 a.yiv1172125817primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv1172125817 WordPress.com | Tom Sherrington posted: “This is a short reflection on the massive difference it makes when you stop grading lessons.  I’ve embarked on the process of observing all of my teachers in my new school. Wow – what a privilege that is.  So far I’ve seen 20 lessons – I saw 9 English” | |


  7. At my most recent school, we had a coaching system that encouraged staff in the way described here. It was brilliant, with no blame or grading, just support and professional discussion.


  8. I think it is time for a conference for those who have stopped and where we are; what we have found; issues that we have overcome; issues that we are still struggling with. I am more than happy to host


  9. This is fantastic news for schools, children and their parents. I agree that it can only move towards a more positive learning experience for teachers, and your practice clearly achieves that. Don’t forget though that there is still a power imbalance between the observer and the observed. The personality and manner of the observer (& ultimately any outcomes of the observation) will still be key to putting teachers at ease. Like Truman it can take time to feel reassured in a new world.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Dear Tom,

    “The number grade killeth – but Zest for Learning giveth life.”

    I won’t tell your readers how I once had to have a 6-number lesson observation score from you as part of my formal lesson observation feedback – but it was good that I argued you up from 5 grade 1s to the full 6.

    Was it really 4 years ago that I first put the case to you for no grading – to no avail, then, I seem to recall!

    I am really pleased that you have made this learning journey – “Free at last, free at last …”

    KEGS HeadofEnglishProphetTeacher

    Liked by 2 people

    • Dear David
      Thanks for this reminder. It makes me cringe but, thanks in part to your campaigning, we saw the light in the end! . I’ve just watched a superb, interesting English lesson – the feedback can be nuanced and detailed without the barrier of grading to worry us. Hope all is well with you.



  11. I had the pleasure of visiting the uncommon schools in the states and meeting Lemov and Bambrick-Santoyo. Their work on the taxonomy of teaching and the process of leveraged observation which enables rapid teacher progress through practice and identification of precise targets was very enlightening. This is all formative and has been implemented in my school and is having a significant impact on the quality of teaching, learning and progress. They have turned the craft of teaching into a science so that it is on a par with law and medicine. Would you let a surgeon operate on your child if they had not observed those who have mastered and practiced the necessary skills? Of course not! We should apply the same principles to the education of our children.


  12. Hi Tom

    You mention a matrix of evidence. Do you have a blank template you can share.


    Desi (from Deanes)


  13. Thank you for penning this perspective, after spending the weekend carefully considering my teaching career after receiving a “requires improvement” judgement with the most basic ebi suggestion upon which the judgement was made, reading this ha made me see that there could be a future for me in teaching, if only I could find a school so forward thinking.


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