Middle leadership: The four Cs of effective quality assurance

Written by: Adam Robbins | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Quality assurance – including lesson observation – is a key responsibility for many middle leaders in our secondary schools. Adam Robbins sets out some effective approaches


Middle leaders face a huge burden – the burden of accountability for the education that all of the students in their area receive. This, as they say, is why they get paid the big bucks (well not that big, but you know what I mean).

The problem is that leaders cannot be in two places at once; we can’t see all the lessons taught, but we need to have some certainty in the quality of the service we are providing for the students. So, we rely on quality assurance. Quality assurance is a key focus of middle leadership in all schools. However, people often get confused between quality assurance and quality control.

Quality assurance is all about trying to ensure the work being carried out is of a desired standard, but crucially there is an acceptance that there is more than one way of doing it. In teaching this is preferred over quality control, which aims to ensure the standard is met by controlling the entire process of teaching.

Teachers are professionals and teaching is a dynamic and complex task. Teachers need the flexibility to teach the students in front of them and make decisions in their best interest. There is a tension that some middle leaders feel to micro-manage all aspects of teaching. After-all this is the easiest way of guaranteeing that you know what is going on in the classroom.

However, if this urge for uniformity reaches too far it can over time de-skill staff. They can come to see themselves as merely vessels for the scheme of work, like an audio guide in a museum but using a PowerPoint instead.


The four Cs

For me, quality assurance revolves around four Cs: Clarity, Curiosity, Culture and Candour.

Clarity

Staff need to be clear on what is expected of them. When they need to be completely consistent and when they need to be making dynamic decisions. For me I prefer high consistency at the start of lessons and value more responsive flexibility during the main part of the lesson. You might be different. That’s fine. Just make sure your team knows.

Curiosity

Lesson visits, drop-ins – whatever you call them – all serve a single role: to generate questions. Judging the quality of learning that happens in a lesson is very difficult. Judging the quality of teaching is tricky but you can make some inferences. These inferences will be confirmed only once you have discussed the lesson with the teacher and begun to understand why they made the choices they did. So, during a lesson visit make note of observable features, such as routines and questioning techniques, in order to generate questions that you can discuss with your colleague later on.

Culture

It is vital that you establish a culture of low-stakes lesson visits. Staff should be comfortable in the developmental nature of the process. We need them to be teaching the same way whether you are in the room or not.

When we observe lessons, we look for proxies, things that we think are commonly found when learning is occurring. The issue is that some of the most observable things in lessons are poor proxies for learning.

A good example of this is the level of activity in the lesson. Students doing lots of things may not be conducive to learning, it very much depends on the tasks. If we are creating a high-stakes environment, then staff will look to identify the proxies you have chosen to measure and deliberately amplify them. This is called gaming the system and occurs when any accountability system is put in place.

When gaming the system occurs your observations lose their predictive power and you have no way of telling if the lessons are more likely to support learning. Even worse the lessons look like they are hitting all your criteria so you feel like they are successful. This undermines the entire quality assurance process and stagnates teacher improvement.

Candour

Not all lesson visits will be a positive experience. You may notice significant shortcomings in a lesson. It is vital these are addressed directly. When talking to your team about their performance it is vital that you are upfront with them about any issues you see. This is not to say that you have cart blanche to be rude and inconsiderate under the guise of being candid. When delivered in a sensitive and empathic way, candour builds a foundation of trust that shows you are working together to achieve a common aim.


A climate of improvement

Quality assurance is not an end in and of itself. Quality assurance provides middle leaders with the data that fuels the feedback conversation and then the teacher development process. A middle leader’s central aim is one of improving the quality of teaching and learning in their area of responsibility. Often operational tasks threaten to absorb all of a middle leader’s time, but it is our duty to ensure we carve-out time for quality assurance and the teacher development that follows. The most effective middle leaders create a climate in their teams of continual improvement. They think of teaching quality as a gradient and look for ways to help all staff move closer to the high performing end.

Within any team there will be variety in teaching quality. By creating a climate where everyone should improve, not because they are necessarily a poor teacher, but because it is our duty to strive to perfect the imperfect, we take the stigma off coaching and support.

By leading from the front and welcoming lesson visits and feedback on our own teaching, we show all staff that it is okay to have flaws in teaching practice identified and that it is simply part of the professional journey of teaching.

However, there is a caveat. While all staff can and should improve, in areas of poor performance the rate of improvement must be significant. This is best managed by the way the feedback conversations occur. Those who are just looking to improve minor issues can receive facilitative coaching discussions and debate feedback and next steps. Those who are struggling to perform at an appropriate level will need a more direct conversation with more assertive next steps.

When providing feedback to staff it is vital that we prioritise a singular improvement target. Sometimes called an action step, it is our duty as leaders to find the most important area a teacher needs to develop and encourage them to focus on this most impactful thing. By ensuring they have a singular focus and the time to develop new habits, we can systematically move them up the teaching quality gradient in an efficient and permanent way.

Middle leaders often look upon quality assurance and teacher development as separate things. By embracing their interdependence, we can use them to create a climate of high standards, continuous improvement and collegiate development.

  • Adam Robbins is a head of department at a large comprehensive school, where he also oversees and supports teacher development. He is the managing editor at CogSciSci, a grassroots organisation aimed at bringing the findings of cognitive science to the classroom. His new book Middle Leadership Mastery: A toolkit for subject and pastoral leaders (Crown House Publishing, 2021) is out now. Visit https://bit.ly/37xPIAw


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