Evaluation is For Learning

“Tell us about a time when you enabled a learner to achieve beyond their own expectations and explain how you met their needs.”

Making a judgement about the effectiveness of an individual is probably nowhere more focused than in the interview situation. For it is in this highly charged environment that an interviewing panel draw conclusions about the likelihood of a person to meet the future needs of their organisation.  And how do they do this? They ask the person being interviewed to tell them the “story” about how they have behaved in the past in response to a variety of challenges and circumstances.

This interviewing technique is known as Behavioural Questioning and is based upon the assumption that past behaviour is the best predictor of future performance in similar situations. Of course there is some validation of this narrative in the form of references from employers, etc.

The power of “storytelling” is also recognised in the realm of higher education where narrative methodologies are used with great effect in postgraduate studies up to doctoral level. Story collecting as a form of narrative inquiry allows the participants to put the data into their own words and reflect upon practice rather than merely relying upon the collection and processing of data.

It’s against this background that I want to explore the dominant method of evaluating the effectiveness of teachers, schools and educational systems – and the unintended consequences that such a model has generated. My argument being that we have a measuring (quantitative) weighted system, with qualitative (storytelling) being of secondary import, whereas I would turn that relationship on its head.

For surely the ultimate test for any education evaluation system is the improvement it leads to in outcomes for children and young people – and it is generally accepted that the factor which makes the biggest impact upon the effectiveness of that system is the quality of classroom teaching and learning.

Yet despite this knowledge it is an implicit fact that most school improvement systems are based upon the external collection and interpretation of student outcomes – with little reference to the quality of the teaching and learning process.  The assumption being is that it is possible to improve school performance through external challenge.  The problem with this system of school improvement is that it is based upon the premise that self-improvement cannot be relied upon in isolation.

Such external challenge has the unintended consequence of disempowering staff within the system to the extent that they feel pressurised to improve as opposed to tapping into their professional commitment to improve.

So if the dominance of the counting and measuring (quantitative) model has proven ineffective what might be the alternative? I think the answer lies in a parallel methodology that has had a transformational impact upon many of our classrooms over the last ten years.  I am referring here to the notion of the Assessment is For Learning programme (AiFL).

The logic of Assessment is for Learning is based upon a realisation that simply giving a learner a mark or grade at the end of a course of study (summative assessment) does not enhance the learning, nor the teaching, process. In contrast where a teacher (and learner) use Assessment is for Learning to provide and reflect upon on-going feedback to revise and develop further the learning and teaching process – it actually enhances the final outcome and the effectiveness of the learner and the teacher in the future.

Now it seems to me that that our school evaluation models seem to comply with this simplistic paradigm. We use summative assessments – class, year group, school, authority, results – as the driver for change and make only passing reference to underlying stories which underpin the outcomes.

So what might a system look like that modeled itself upon AiFL? Let’s start by giving it a name – Evaluation is for Learning (EiFL).

I actually think we are beginning to see EiFL manifest itself in an incredibly exciting and organic manner within the Scottish education system in the form of pedagoo.org. Pedagoo represent a group of Scottish educators who are determined to describe and tell stories about their own practice in an open and transparent manner with the view to improving the quality of education they provide.

By tapping into what it is these educators are attempting to do in their own classrooms we begin to see an alternative to the dominant quantitative methodology, whereby teachers take the lead by sharing, reflecting upon and improving their practice.   Imagine a school where every practitioner was “fired up” to the same extent and enabled and encouraged to participate at such a level, where they could share their stories with confidence and a passion for learning and professional inquiry – I’d put my money on that school any time!

School evaluation could be conducted in a similar manner with external evaluation focusing upon the narrative stories of managers and teachers as they describe how they are attempting to improve the quality of the education in their school.

The relationship between the stories (qualitative) and the counting and measuring (quantitative) in EiFL is reversed to the extent that the numbers are used for validation – not judgemental – purposes.

And before any of you think I’ve gone soft – if any teacher couldn’t answer the question posed at the top of this article I’d have extreme reservations about their competence – regardless of the outcomes of the students in their class.

Aspiring to be “good” – would this provide space for improvement?

Amongst a number of  other duties the Standards in Scottish Schools Act 2000 sets out two key responsibilities for Scottish Local Authorities in respect to school education, namely Raising Standards and Reviewing School Performance.

Yet I was wondering if it’s time to reconsider these duties in light of the impact – or otherwise – that Local Authorities have had upon schools in their charge? As a headteacher, and in my ten years a member of school senior management teams in a variety of schools,  I would have to question what impact Local Authorities had upon raising standards in the school and whether or not the School Review process made a positive contribution to the raising of said standards. I want to make it clear that I am not denigrating in any way the efforts and support given to schools by Local Authority colleagues but that the very assumption that an external force can drive improvement within a school is perhaps founded upon a false premise.

For the reality is often that the standards in a school are directly related to the quality of leadership and commitment from staff in that same school. However, by giving responsibility for raising standards to the Local Authority it creates an expectation – from all – that the authority can make an impact from an external position.  This is turn gives rise to what I’ve previously described as the “Dae Sumthin”  mentality where Local Authority managers are under pressure to be seen to be taking action – even if this action doesn’t necessarily result in any observable consequence.  The important thing is that action is taken. 

In a similar fashion Authorities have gone to considerable trouble to create a range of means of “Reviewing School Performance”  . These mechanisms have taken many different forms all with the intention that we can “know our schools”.

What I want to question is the assumption that there is a direct causal relationship between how well we know our schools and how well we can raise standards? ( in the case the “we” are those outwith the school).

It would be my contention that the responsibility – and much more importantly the capacity – to raise standards lies with those who work in a school.  That was always my belief as a headteacher, a principal teacher, or even as a teacher and I’ve seen nothing in the last five years as an educational administrator to change that opinion. I’m not saying here that all of our efforts in Local Authorities are wasted but that there is an unintended consequence of our adherence to the notion that the more we do from “outside” the school the better things will be “within” the school.

So if the responsibility for raising standards should lie with the school does that mean that the Authority can abdicate from it’s responsibilities for school education?  I would argue that the quality of school education should still lie with the Local Authority – yet the responsibility to raise standards should lie with the school.  Now if this seems like “having one’s cake and eating it” I can understand how such an assertion might appear peculiar.  Yet what I have in mind is much more of a commissioning approach, whereby the Authority commissions the school to deliver education on its behalf.  Just as Children’s Services currently commissions a charity to deliver an aspect of its service, the overall responsibility still lies with the  commissioning body. It is the role of the commissioner to ensure that those who are commissioned are delivering the service to the agreed standards – it is not the commissioner’s responsibility to raise standards, simply to ensure that the standards set out in the agreement is achieved.

This actually chimes with something which Pasi Sahlberg said recently at a  conference when describing the success that is Finnish Education. For Pasi said that in Finland to be “good”  is “good enough”.  They do not aspire to excellence as a system but focus on ensuring that everyone is at least “good enough”.  I know this seems to lack the aspiration of our Journey to Excellence – but I actually think that this provides exactly  the kind of space in which teachers and schools can flourish. 

So in such an environment what should happen to the Authority’s responsibility to “Review School Performance”? Perhaps the clue lies with the last couple of sentences in that particular section of the Act when it describes how where the Authority concludes that following a review that where:

” the school is not performing satisfactorily they shall take such steps as appear to them to be requisite to remedy the matter.”

It’s here that I would want to refer to the model of practice which is emerging from many directions, namely Risk Assessment.  What I’m wondering is whether or not a Risk Assessment approach might provide schools with much more space to innovate and develop local solutions to raising standards?  Would it be possible for an Authority to assess the “Risk” relating to the quality of education provided by a school.  Rather than stating that a school’s performance is somewhere on the six point scale we instead provide a simple statement to parents and others that the risk that the school is not providing a “good” education is low, medium or high.  Schools would aspire to be in the “low” risk category.   I would reckon that only around 5% of schools would fall into the high risk category and that the Authorities’ resources could be targetted on those same schools – with others being given ever more freedom to innovate and create local solotions without external interference.

Writing – do we have to accept that boys will be boys?

I had a great visit this week to King’s Meadow Primary School in Haddington. At the beginning of my visit I had a chat with Headteacher Donald McGillivray about boy’s writing. Donald has done a fascinating analysis of boys’ attainment across the school and the statistics show that boys’ writing is of a much lower standard than girls’ writing – in what is a very high performing school. This situation is matched in most schools in East Lothian.

As I visited classes around the school I concentrated on classes which were being taught language. As it happened the classes were all working on spelling -which was being taught in a very engaging and imaginative manner -but I managed to get a chance to talk to most of the teachers and asked them about why boys were underperforming in writing. The concensus was that boys need tasks which are related to a context and that these tasks must challenge and engage their imagination. For me it demonstrated once again that it is the learning task which teachers select that holds the secret to improving learning – the challenge for us is to experiment with and work out the kind of tasks that will lead to a sustained improvement in boys writing. As it stands at the moment boys are behind girls by between 15-20% so the risk is certainly worth taking.

I came across this video from teachers.tv which showed a class where boys had closed the gap on girls. The key points  were:

  • Speaking and listening form a solid foundation for written work
  • Multimedia techniques ease reluctant students into writing
  • Role-play encourages boys to participate

One of the main things to emerge for me when I was speaking to Donald McGilliivray is one that Steven Heppell had been referring to last week and which I’d repeated at our Headteachers’ Conference is that the answers lie in our own hands and in our own schools. We need to move away from the idea that we will resolve problems such as boys writing by buying a package, training all our teachers and then expecting them to implement the programme. The reality is that all our schools are different and what might work in one school would not necessarily work in another. I also believe that such an approach only serves to foster a dependency culture which is anti-professional and ultimately self defeating, as teachers feel  deskilled and are not encouraged to reflect upon and take responsibility for their own practice.

I’d much rather see a school work out some key principles which would guide the type of learning experiences which teachers would provide for boys, then evaluate the success of these approaches then discuss, share and develop these ideas within schools, within clusters and within the authority.

Last thought – if we could close the gap between girls and boys in respect to writing we would – in a single act – raise the levels of attainment in East Lothian by an unprecedented amount, with all the corresponding impact that such a lift would have on children’s life chances.

Knowing our school

There are three points of focus that I’m taking during my school visit programme:

  1. Self-evaluation;
  2. Distributive Leadership; and
  3. Learning tasks.

I’m going out to Kingsmeadow Primary School tomorrow. HT Donald McGillivray sent me a paper which outlines how they know their school and how leadership is distributed right across the school.

It’s really helpful to get this kind of detail.

Self Evaluation – How I Know My School


  • SINATRA planning tool– regular access and written comments
  • Teacher’s PET tracking tool – regular access and feedback at…..
  • Target meetings and mgt/staff discussions. Review of assessment info.
  • Team leaders report back at…..
  • Management meetings – fortnightly
  • Staff Meetings – monthly
  • Support staff meetings
  • ASL review meetings: attend, read minutes,etc
  • Jotter moderation and comment
  • Surveys – pupils, staff, parents
  • Peer and management classroom observation and….
  • ED&R – tying the above into the process
  • Area meetings – participation/minutes
  • Involvement with parents via Parent Council and informally
  • Involvement in curriculum development – take the lead, eg, “Radiowaves.”
  • Annual whole school audit
  • Main author of development plan, drawing together from staff input and other sources
  • Ensuring continuous review of development plan via set-piece meetings and other activities contained within CAT calendar
  • Management team class involvement: timetabled, other than observation
  • Walking about and being seen


Leadership – How Distributive Leadership is Developed and Promoted


  • Staff encouraged to, and do, take leadership roles in development plan priorities
  • “Team Leaders” a feature at each stage, with PTs having a major leadership role for their year group/area
  • Staff   rotate chair all staff meetings and have right of access to agenda setting
  • Area meetings on CAT calendar allow staff to share issues and resolve problems by themselves
  • Collegiate planning at each stage is firmly embedded as a means of developing collective responsibility for learning and teaching [on CAT calendar]
  • School Advisory Group, made up from staff representing each stage, manage all ASL resources
  • Staff  have complete management of the school fund
  •  Staff all have their own budget for purchasing educational materials[ not texts]
  • Peer observations are a feature where staff agree a focus for class observation with another teacher who then carries this out and gives feedback
  • Timetabling for the session  is devolved to a staff group….with…..
  • RCCT being agreed and delivered within this same context




  • Prefect system in place, covering: playground, wet weather, library, computer suite,etc
  • PLPs allow some pupil control over their own learning
  • Existence of School Parliament, Executive Group, Pupil Council, Green Team, Health Group – pupils actively participate in all of these.  Membership via electoral process
  • School Bank run by pupils
  • House system in place with House Captains elected by pupils
  • Reward system that allows house points to be accumulated …and, also….
  • Personal success celebrated via award of certificates  – weekly, termly sessionally
  • Development of an enterprising culture via much of the above, as well as curricular, class-based activities that promote enterprise
  • Pupils run assemblies under the direction of the teacher
  • Golden Rules allow children to develop responsibility for self and others
  • Inclusion allows opportunities for pupils to be responsible for supporting /assisting other children [ wheelchair bound, Down’s Syndrome, etc]
  • Children teach other children [Radiowaves,etc] in order to pass on information/skills
  • In class, pupil peer/pair assessment is developing

Reverse Observation?

Following one of my recent posts about political scrutiny I was thinking about whether or not we could expose ourselves to further scrutiny.

What the Best Leaders Do to Help Their Organizations Survive and Thrive

I was further provoked in this area when listening to Professor Michael Fullan during yesterday’s Scottish Learning Festival  where he was talking about one of his Six Secrets of Change. Michael Fullan has had a significant impact upon my own thinking over the last 12 years – although I have to admit to finding some of his Secrets being “reheated” ideas from other people – but synthesising these ideas is never a waste of time – particularly if some people are coming to them for the first time.

The secret he “revealed” was “Transparency Rules”. As he talked about the importance of being open to scrutiny I scribbled “reverse observation”.

During this year I’m visiting three schools each week focussing upon the quality of the learning task set by the teacher. Although these visits are announced the week before, the actual classrooms I visit are completely random. My idea – or offer – is to invite any teacher in East Lothian to reciprocate and come and observe me for one day.  The person – who would be drawn at random (assuming there might be more than one volunteer) would come into observe me working for a full day.  I would not know when they were coming in and the visit would be co-ordinated by our Staff Development Team. The person would arrive in my office at the beginning of the day and shadow me for the rest of the day. They would then write up an observation report which I would post on this Learning Log.

So – what do you think – would anybody be interested?

Political Scrutiny

We had our second Policy, Performance and Review Panel (PPRP) Meeting of the session this afternoon.

The panel is made up of elected members who are not part of the political administration. It’s their job to publically scrutinise the work of the department.

I was delighted that they have agreed to focus upon our Standards and Quality Report. At future meetings we will present our self-evaluation of the various performance indicators. The Panel will examine our practice, review our evidence and validate (or otherwise) our own evaluation. It’s only by this kind of public scrutiny that we can really show that we are committed to providing an improving and high quality service.

The other advantage of this approach is that it will demonstrate to schools that we are subject to (and welcome) the same kind of validation process that our Quality Improvement Team provide for schools’ Standards and Quality Reports.

The probable, the possible, and the actual

A group of us (some Secondary HTs and Quality Improvement Officers) met this afternoon to consider how we might develop attainment targets for schools.

One of the things we are all agreed upon is that the notion of plucking figures out of thin air and saying to a school “this is what you need to achieve next year” is nonsensical, damaging and anti-professional. After some very positive discussion we agreed to meet again with some more colleagues to flesh out out a process built upon the following principles:

  1. We will start small  (perhaps one year group) and grow our system building upon evidence
  2. We will implement the agreed system across all schools
  3. We will try to use work on MIDYIS related principle (all schools now test S2 pupils using MIDYIS) this score provides reliable predictive data about how pupils will perform at Standard Grade level in S4.
  4. We will use the ScotXed box plot data which shows how a school is perfroming in relation to other similar schools.
  5. We will try to identify and use as models departments who are adding significant value to predictive data and performing strongly in relation to similar schools – we will share this within and between schools.
  6. Head teachers will negotiate targets for departments using a similar data driven model
  7. We will ask principal teachers to negotiate targets with individual classroom teachers using a similar data driven model
  8. We will develop a targets setting model for individual pupils which is based upon a dialogue between the teacher and the pupil where the probable and the possible attainment is discussed – parents will be involved in this process.
  9. We will compare pupils possible(aspirational targets) with their actual attainment on an annual basis
  10. We will link the entire system to the the learning and teaching process in the belief that this is the only way in which we can truly raise attainment. 

Our next meeting will involve HTs, DHTs PT and members of the department – we believe that we can develop a system which is founded upon our three key areas of focus leadership, self-evaluation and learning and teaching.

School Visits

I’m putting three half days aside each week next session to visit schools. I intend to make my visits much more focused than last year – where it was just a general review of learning and teaching. 

I’ve recently written out to all Head teachers with the following letter. It will be interesting to reflect upon the impact of these visits later in the session.


What is the purpose of my classroom visits? – to focus our attention upon the  selection of challenging and appropriate learning tasks by teachers in the learning and teaching process.
Why is this important?  – where children are required to undertake challenging and appropriate learning tasks the quality of their learning is significantly enhanced.
During my visits I’ll be asking:
· teachers to describe the learning task that they have set the class for that lesson.
· teachers to describe how this lesson connects with previous lessons and future lessons.
· children to tell me about their involvement in the setting of learning tasks
· children to tell me what they are doing and what they need to do to be successful in relation to the task.
During my visits I’ll be looking at:
· the level of pupil engagement in the learning task – at all ability levels within the class.
· the quality of children’s work.
· the information provided to children about the task
· the information provided to children about what a successful performance would look like.
Who will I visit?
· I would like to visit classes at random – rather than being directed to specific teachers.  On my arrival in school I will discuss with the Head Teacher which classrooms it will be appropriate for me to visit.
How many classrooms will I visit during my time in school?

· At least two – I will remain in each class for at least 20 minutes.

What feedback will I provide?

· I will write to the Head Teacher with feedback about my visit.

What will I do at the end of the year?

· I will complete a report on visits to schools and reflect upon the issues and good practice that have observed over the course of the year.

I’ll be notifying all teachers of the purpose of my visits at the beginning of term.

Back Home and a pledge

I got back to Scotland on Friday.

So what did I take from the Harvard experience?

There are ten inter-related things I’d like to do as a consequence of attending the course:

  1. Identify and remove all things which erode or prevent a sense of belonging – in schools and the authority
  2. Reduce the variance in the quality of learning experience in every classroom
  3. Promote the notion of a “person” being separate from their “practice”
  4. Believe in every person’s capacity to learn – children and staff
  5. Listen carefully to what people say and avoid moving into problem solving mode too quickly
  6. Encourage, model and support people to say “These children are mine”
  7. Focus our attention upon improving the quality and complexity of “learning tasks” provided in every classroom
  8. Keep returning to the measureable impact of our work
  9. Ensure that all teachers have a comprehensive understanding about current research into the brain, mind and education which they can use to develop their own professional practice.
  10. Establish unambiguous, consistent and shared norms about what we expect from our children and ourselves – and ensure that these are vigorously upheld.


A week since my last post. It’s just that time of year.

Appointment panels, report writing, presentation preparation, e-mails, Integrated Children’s Services Plan and meetings — lots of meetings.

We held our last Head Teachers’ conference of the year today and it proved to be well received – although I think we pushed it a bit in the afternoon by having too many direct input sessions.

The highlights of the day were Alan Ross’s presentation of GIRFEC; discussion about our emerging leadership strategy; Ronnie Summers’ session on edubuzz and the role of HTS; a presentation from PTs Pauline Inglis and Kathy McGrane on PTs as Leaders of Learning; and a discussion on the implementation strategy for learning and teaching.

The evolving aspiration to achieve excellence in learning and teaching; leadership; and self-evaluation help to provide a real foundation upon which we can build the future of education in East Lothian.