The COVID-19 outbreak is continuing to have significant implications for the ways in which schools operate. Schools are required to implement a wide range of control measures to ensure that staff, pupils and visitors on their premises are kept safe and to contribute to wider public health strategies to address the prevalence and impact of COVID-19.
Schools are also operating in highly challenging and rapidly changing circumstances in which they are expected to prioritise the maintenance of educational provision for pupils, both on site and remotely.
COVID-related staff absences, the need to develop and implement remote and blended learning offers at pace are, among other factors, generating unprecedented pressures on teachers’ and school leaders’ workload as well as their physical and emotional health.
The extraordinary nature of these circumstances and the impact they are continuing to have on teachers and school leaders require employers to ensure that all possible steps are taken to support staff, keep school communities safe and allow professional time and attention to be focused on teaching and leading teaching and learning and meeting the needs of children and young people.
Schools must, therefore, continue to set aside those activities that distract from achievement of these objectives.
To this end, the NASUWT is clear that discretionary lesson observations, learning walks and drop-ins, i.e. those that schools are not legally or contractually required to undertake, can serve no useful purpose at this time and should be suspended. It is important to note that continuing such activities during the pandemic is likely to have the following adverse implications.
1. They undermine effective COVID-19 control measures
Guidance for full reopening of schools from the Department for Education (DfE) sets out a clear expectation that schools should organise pupils into groups or ‘bubbles’ and should seek to minimise all unnecessary contact between pupils and staff.
The guidance is also clear that when staff operate across different classes, they do so only to ‘facilitate the delivery of the school timetable’.
Discretionary lesson observations, learning walks, drop-ins and other similar activities necessarily involve staff moving between different groups of pupils for a purpose other than facilitating learning. As such, they are not consistent with officially mandated COVID-control practice and thereby create additional and avoidable health and safety risks.
2. The information gathered through lesson observations is of limited value at the current time
In normal circumstances, schools justify the use of lesson observations as a means of gathering information and evidence about the performance of individual teachers, for example, as part of the performance management process, or to understand more about the impact of their policies and practices on learning.
However, the necessary temporary changes and adaptations to established practices resulting from the COVID-19 outbreak mean that little useful evidence can be gathered about the performance of teachers or the efficacy or otherwise of policies in normal circumstances through classroom observations.
3. They are a poor use of teacher and school leader time at present
Conducted meaningfully in typical circumstances, observation of classroom practice is a time-consuming practice for those conducting the observation, as well as for those being observed.
Given the current priorities for teachers and school leaders, particularly in relation to the continuity of learning, it is clear that the time and resources allocated to lesson observations, learning walks and drop-ins would be more effectively allocated to activities related directly to supporting the provision of education and support for learners. This is an especially important consideration for senior leaders who are currently expected to provide support for teachers in the development and implementation of remote and blended learning offers and, given ongoing staffing pressures, to support on-site and off-site teaching directly where necessary.
Acceptable use of lesson observation
While schools continue to experience COVID-related disruption, there is no credible case for schools choosing to undertake lesson observations or similar activities, including in the context of capability procedures.
However, it is recognised that lesson observation and in-class coaching and mentoring is an important and necessary aspect of statutory NQT induction programmes. For this reason, lesson observations or similar activities for this purpose are acceptable as long as they are implemented in a way that is consistent with schools’ COVID-19 control measures and do not add to teacher and school leader workload burdens.