Getting work scrutiny right

Written by: Adam Riches & Roy Watson Davis | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Book scrutiny (or sampling) is too often about criticism and too often conducted in a Big Brother atmosphere of distrust. Instead, it must be about improvement, development and sharing best practice. Adam Riches and Roy Watson Davis offer their advice

In an ever-changing world of education, with a growing weight of accountability for individuals in the classroom, getting book and work scrutiny right in school is essential.

How your senior leadership team or department/faculty heads go about monitoring what is being done in their respective areas is a sensitive business.

Get it right and you can create positive, open growth. But if you are too heavy-handed, teachers can really feel the strain on the ground (even if it is unintentional).

In any thinking about the process of book or work scrutiny, there is a basic PR problem. It is a problem that some schools call it “scrutiny”, giving the whole exercise a faint whiff of “inspect and damn” with a side order of “we’re looking for what’s not there”.
Indeed, the title says more about what the school leadership thinks is important, rather than the more supportive and positive aspects of the task.

So can’t we just change the whole thing to book or work sampling as the first step to setting the tone for an exercise founded in best practice, CPD and professional support.

To move to this model of best practice, assumptions held by some managers need to be challenged. First, it is not possible to judge the quality of teaching from book sampling when done out of context, and it is probably not possible even if books are sampled during a lesson.

At best, a sample at the end of a lesson, looking at only what was produced in that lesson, will give a vague idea – but without teacher marking of that lesson (which would need to be sampled), teacher discussion as to the intentions of the lesson, pupil interviews and then pupil engagement with marking (again sampled) no real judgements can be made.

In fact, only if you sample work from every lesson, every day can you make a reasonable statement about the quality of teaching. This is because teaching is a complex process, not a simple book grab and view.

If an armful of books is taken out of the room to be looked at in an office or elsewhere, then no judgements as to teaching quality can, or should, be made.

It is also tricky to make valuative comments about the quality of work “improving” or “declining” in a work sampling without understanding the broader whole-school context of the work/class.

For example, a class new to a teacher may take time to develop, or it may be a class weighted with more pupils who take part in sports or drama and who miss lessons, or the sample may be done at a badly chosen time. There could be a host of other reasons. So best practice would suggest choosing the best time to sample based on whole-school demands or with an awareness of the impact of whole-school activities.

What a book sampling can show is a number of areas where specific comments can be made. However, best practice would suggest that these are outlined before any sampling is done and that this list be personalised for whole-school needs, and not those of some external agency (especially not Ofsted). For example, aims of book sampling could include:

  • Key departmental policies being implemented. For example, standards of presentation, marking and feedback, and evidence of pupil self-evaluation.
  • Key whole-school policies or newly launched whole-school policies being implemented. For example literacy, note-making skills, use of reward points and so on.
  • Seeing how a scheme of work looks in practice.
  • To see policies critically and amend them in light of practice.

The key therefore is in the clarity of what the expectation is. As with anything in education, there needs to be a benchmark to work to, otherwise, teachers are trying to find their way in the dark.

If a department head or senior manager cannot articulate the simple reasons behind a book sampling exercise, how could they expect to find the evidence that they are looking for in their department’s books?

Best practice would also allow identification and sharing of good ideas seen in particular pieces of pupil work. The whole concept of book sampling should be an enabling force. It should celebrate where success is evident and then use this success to model to staff how work should look and – most importantly – why.

The feedback and developing better practice process is, as always, the most significant part of the chain. It is the linchpin. If you are open with feedback, everyone on your staff knows that the point of the exercise is improvement and development, not criticism or checking.

It is not just good student work that can be looked at either. Examples of marking and feedback techniques that may be suitable for wider application may arise, or strong use of peer review or ideas for how teachers get their students to respond to feedback.

Book and work sampling should be about cherry-picking the best your school has to offer, polishing it up and sending it out to your staff on a non-judgemental, silver platter – if you don’t have any CPD silver platters, an email will do.

Best practice would invite producing models to share for further staff development. This is particularly useful for new staff to see so they can understand key parts of the school ethos and how to best fit in with existing practice.

Focuses aside, sampling also needs to involve selecting pupils to present a portfolio of their work across lessons to see how consistent their work appears. This is very useful to get a whole-school picture of how a pupil is engaging with learning and, in turn, gives us insights into how they learn best.

For this kind of approach, you need whole-school collaboration and buy-in. In addition, you need transparency. A stern message to deliver all year 8 books to “my office” doesn’t resonate well with anyone. A clearer message about delivering year 8 books to room X because we are looking at effective approaches to feedback gives the staff more insight into the reasoning behind the activity.

The next best practice step – which very few schools take – is to have pupils there to discuss their work. This adds a hugely interesting dynamic to book sampling and allows interactive engagement about the thinking behind the written work.

Students are brutally honest about what they deem as good learning. They may not be able to articulate certain educational concepts (we’re generalising, some can) but their feedback on how their learning is recorded is a real eye-opener. Some of the best book sampling observed has been bolstered by student insight.

Getting book sampling right can give you a powerful insight into the teaching and learning in your school. It can be a real enabler when it comes to driving forward best practice and it can motivate staff if set up and used correctly.

We need to move away from the concept of book sampling being like Big Brother, and instead we must rebrand it with transparency and trust.

The ultimate best practice would then develop where colleagues sample books and other work independently from any management directive and discuss ideas naturally and without fear. Surely a goal worth pursuing.

  • Adam Riches is a lead teacher in English, a Specialist Leader of Education and an ITT coordinator. Follow him on Twitter @TeachMrRiches. Read his previous articles for SecEd at
  • Roy Watson-Davis is head of history and politics at the Royal Hospital School in Holbrook. He is also author of the Creative Teaching, Form Tutor, and Lesson Observation Pocketbooks. You can read his previous articles for SecEd at


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