The ‘book look’ concept is now firmly established as part of the educational landscape. In many ways this is a positive development because it takes some pressure away from the problematic process of lesson observations. It’s not just the voodoo of grading – which is still out there albeit in decline – it’s the problem of being lulled into thinking you are seeing learning happen when that’s not possible. Looking at students’ work in all its forms is much more focused on long-term learning, not short-run performance and, potentially, is more within a teacher’s control than any number of one-off lessons.
That said, there are still some issues to think through so that book looks have maximum impact. Having taken some soundings from people about what they do, it is clear that schools have adopted a range of approaches. What is done is linked to why it is being done. Here I’ve set out 10 questions that capture the range of options different schools are using:
1. Focused on Quality Assurance or Professional Development?
I think this is a central question. In any given department or across a whole school, clarity on this question shapes everything else. Are you looking at books to check that people are doing things well or correctly against some agreed protocol – or are you primarily running a process to support teachers’ professional development? Of course you might argue that it does both – but it will feel very different and lead to different levels of response. QA is more necessary where standards are low so it might be important to be quite clear about it. However, you might consider whether a teacher would be happy for work that is sub-standard to be seen so they can seek support with their attempts to get better work from a student -or would they be worried about the consequences of doing that and then dress things up, roll it in glitter and mask their concerns and issues?
There are hybrid approaches where departments do their own book looks, engage in professional learning discussions but then submit their reports to the SLT for quality assurance purposes. They would develop a sense of whether the reports match what they see on learning walks and so on.
2. Inspectorial/SLT-driven or Collegiate/Collaborative?
On a practical level, do staff hand their books in to be scrutinised by leaders – or are they involved in the scrutiny process directly? Most people report the huge power of getting books out in a classroom with everyone present looking at each other’s books. This is more common/likely where the emphasis is more on professional learning: book looks as CPD. On a practical level it is helpful for people to see for themselves that their books are not as polished or showing as much progress as a colleague’s rather than simply being told after books have been taken away. An SLT process where the teachers are not present might be needed where standards are poor or whether standards across different departments are being looked at – but this is much harder to turn into professional learning. A hybrid approach is for SLT line managers to be involved in the departmental book look process so they are part of the discussions and can add some weight to any concerns that are expressed – or support the work that’s being done.
3. Judgement-focused or formative/evaluative?
Some people report that their book looks are ‘Ofsted’ graded (i.e. O to RI) or RAG-rated. Others suggest that the outcomes are simply expressed as strengths and areas for improvement. This could be for individual teachers or for the department as a whole. It could also be a combination of both. The question here is what status any grading has. Why anyone would think they could rate a book scrutiny consistently is beyond me but people are rather addicted to putting things on a scale. Again, if your grade has performance management implications, it’s an entirely different process to one that is purely developmental. On the other hand, unless people can give negative/critical feedback where it is needed, the process can be too soft and cosy to lever up standards. That has to be acknowledged.
4. Systematic or Flexible/Ad hoc?
In some schools, book looks are conducted on a fixed cycle or schedule, reported and recorded on grids that capture details to be shared. This makes it clear to people when things will happen. Also it makes sure that things don’t slip. In other schools, it is more ad hoc – which might be absolutely appropriate. If standards are below where they should be, something systematic seems sensible because otherwise you’re risking leaving the improvement to chance.
Another dimension of this is the level of recording. I’ve seen and heard of some horrific grids with 10 dimensions or criteria for the book look set against 25 student names – suggesting 250 boxes to be ticked per class… That’s wildly beyond what is needed or sensible. Other records are more organic – simply listing strengths/weaknesses or including a meeting standards/not meeting standards binary choice.
5. Part of lesson observations or special scrutiny sessions?
In some schools, the only book looks are done as part of lesson observations. This is where you log what you see in books as part of the process. In other schools it is only done by studying books outside of lessons. Obviously it can be both. However, if you want to involve staff in the process and get them to see what other people do, special scrutiny sessions are necessary. Also, it’s hard to do more than have a pretty cursory flick-through during a lesson. It’s all information – but I think relying on lesson-based scrutiny is too random. You can’t be sure you’ve got a rounded picture.
6. Triangulated with data or treated independently?
The answer to this depends on what you are looking for. If you want to gauge standards of work in a book, you really should know a bit about the student – the level they should be working at, and some of their context. This can make it more laborious and it can be prohibitively cumbersome unless you’re only looking at a small sample. However, it’s important to triangulate. If the data says that students in Class A are doing better than in Class B it will help to contextualise things if the books tell a different story – which I have seen. Presentation is important – but neat-freakery is not a substitute for learning and it could be that a compliance culture has started to form around books at the expense of deeper learning. I’ve seen it.
7. Sampling or every student/book/folder?
This is crucial. It’s a massive mistake to run a system where it is possible for any books to be omitted or create a burden so big that the job can’t get done. If teachers self-select their sample, it leads to people focusing on the books that make themselves look good – rather than trying to ensure all books are as good as they need to be. It’s human nature. Or it can be unprofessional – depending! The solutions shared with me are to either bring whole sets of books to the process, from which a sample is extracted for scrutiny – or to use data to generate a set of books that teachers then must include – without prior warning. In a high trust- high performance school this might not be necessary but anywhere where there are pockets of underperformance, you need to make sure any book can be included. It’s just part of the deal.
Another detail here is where students have their work in different places. The ‘best book’ or ‘assessment folder’ might be kept separately from a rougher notebook. You need to decide what you care about. Are you happy for students to doodle in their rough books if their assessment folders are impeccable? Does it matter if loose-leaf essays are not stuck in – etc. Details! But you need to think about what constitutes the work that you want to scrutinise and learn from.
8. Content or presentation?
Once you get the books, a key question is what you are looking for. Presentation could well be a focus or looking for extended writing and work completion. Certainly, my experience of Ofsted suggested inspectors look at those things. A lot of people automatically associate their internal book looks with checking for marking. I was surprised by that -but perhaps that’s indicative of our professional culture; despite Ofsted repeatedly asserting that this is not what they’re looking for, SLTs still do. Other people suggested they wanted to see good development of key concepts, evidence of attention to grammar and spelling, evidence or students acting on feedback – and so on.
Some schools have clear criteria grids so that there is a focused agenda. Others keep it open – on the basis that the strengths and weaknesses emerge and don’t need to be categorised in advance and that, as with any assessment of written work, it’s only by comparison with other books that you can really tell what the standards are.
The most simple expectation is that all books show the features that everyone agrees they should. If you’ve had this discussion as a department and shared some excellent examples, the process is quite easy: do all the books match the standards we agreed?
9. Standards now or progress over time?
The beauty of a book-look is that you can see things over time. You can look for the quality of writing improving, a flow of concepts developing, standards of presentation being maintained or falling away, errors being corrected and not made again – that kind of thing. So, with that in mind, the emphasis can be very different from putting weight on any particular piece of work in isolation from the rest. It’s improvement that you want – so you need to have the ability to evaluate that.
10. Student input – yes/no and how much?
Some book scrutiny processes are designed so that students are directly involved every time – others not all. This might be done by requiring students to bring their books to a scrutiny session and this is how book looks are always done. It could be that, as part of a broader scrutiny process, there is a student voice panel formed for more general feedback. The lesson drop-in scrutiny mode gives an observer the chance to talk to a student about their work there and then. The question is what weight you give to what students say. It can support a view of the typicality of the work they’re doing – but, equally, you might not want them present if your main form of scrutiny is a departmental session where books are compared between classes.
Thanks to everyone who sent me ideas and suggestions. This is more wordy than I intended… no simple answers, but lots of questions. I think that, with the right spirit and a good balance of QA and CPD in mind, book looks should be embraced as a positive dimension of school life. If everyone dreads them because of the workload or regards them with fear leading to widespread last minute tarting-up , or if you can still find books hiding somewhere that are absolutely terrible, you’re probably not getting the balance right.