Performance Development Reviews (PDRs) in Colleges and Schools: Pitfalls and Tips

The Performance Development Review process (PDR) is gaining prominence in many schools and colleges, in an attempt to standardise and formalise performance management conversations. Depending on the mindset and skills of managers and staff, this process can be experienced in very different ways, some more positive and productive than others. This blog post is an attempt to pull together the range of approaches and views that I am encountering about PDRs in my role as a freelance consultant, trainer and coach in schools and colleges.

Pitfall 1: The bureaucracy trap

In some settings PDRs can be viewed, executed and experienced as an administrative, bureaucratic process detached from deep reflection or true developmental intent. Meetings are held several times a year between manager and managee to look at performance targets, tick off points on a form and get the paperwork filed for another three months. It is about getting an operational process done, about “Getting HR off my back,” as one manager confessed to me recently. There is a feeling that this is about compliance on both sides, about an organisational commitment to checking in with/up on staff. It is not viewed or experienced as an authentic reflective and developmental opportunity. In my experience this is often the case when staff played little or no role in shaping the purpose and process of PDR- it has simply been imposed on them and they feel little genuine engagement with it.

Pitfall 2: The snapshot conversation

Another feature of PDRs can be their isolation from dialogue across the year. Just like a poorly planned lesson observation process, the meetings don’t connect with wider development work or the holistic picture of the staff member. They often focus predominantly on the appraisal targets from last year and neglect key aspects of work that the staff member is developing in the current year.

In some contexts, PDRs are the main or only 1:1 that managees have with their manager, providing few opportunities for ongoing reflective conversation or discussion about progress beyond whatever may be happening informally.

In many teams, PDR targets are set in one meeting and not re-visited until review meetings 4-6 months later. This is not live, ongoing developmental dialogue at work – there are no slots provided for peers to discuss targets or developmental activities, reflect and problem solve together. The developmental aspect of PDR isn’t being valued and prioritised in operational life and the review process is sketchy at best.

Tips for fostering PDR as an engaging process for development

I recommend gathering some feedback from staff about their experience of the current model and its impact on their mindset, motivation and development at work. Round table discussions can yield rich feedback; team discussions can produce a summary of points and views, full of useful context-specific details. Ask about what isn’t working as well as what is and elicit suggestions for enhancement and improvement. The PDR process needs to engage staff and affect their mindset and motivation, so it is important to involve them in its design and evolution in practice. It is about developing their performance so their buy-in and involvement is vital to making a model fit for purpose and context.

Look at the year and think about how to structure the PDR process to fit in with work in curriculum and operations. Summer term is often quieter in schools and colleges so it can make sense to start identifying draft targets at that point, following on from end of year reviews and plans for the next year. At this time, staff still have issues and challenges at work fresh in their minds and have a little space to focus on what needs attention the following year. In many institutions this process is forced into the hectic autumn term when teams are overloaded with getting learners bedded in, systems up and running and lesson observations completed. It is not the best quality reflective space to work in – better to have some draft targets beforehand and use the autumn to refine or re-focus them as required.

The nature of targets

In some settings targets are linked to strategic plans and handed down the management chain to staff with no individual input. There is little chance to look at personal skills, areas of interest or aspiration, areas to explore or research for the individual. If PDR is to be engaging at a personal level, at least some of the targets need to be differentiated and personalised, emerging from a conversation about the staff member as a professional and a learner. It is not enough for the school or college to simply parcel out what IT needs from the worker. Staff members need to play an active role in the process of developing their own skills, knowledge and practices.

A more personalised, bespoke PDR conversation model necessitates space and time over the year to reflect on progress and refine actions. Some managers I have met recently are holding 1:1 meetings once or twice a term to create that ongoing dialogue space. They tell me it is helpful to take the dialogue into team meetings, staff development days and CPD slots, for staff to work in clusters to discuss what they are working on, review progress and identify next steps.

PDR as a joined-up reflective process

If time is allocated each term to short slots for reflection and action planning around targets, it can help teams to follow the developmental thread through the year in useful, practical ways. Emerging issues and needs can be incorporated to keep up momentum and ensure the focus remains current and relevant. In some settings this means that targets get signed off in year, creating space for other activities or areas of focus at work.

For PDR to work in this way, it is very helpful for managers have skills in reflective dialogue and coaching/mentoring. These skills help people to become more effective and insightful at listening, posing questions and identifying useful actions with staff. PDR can become a richer, more engaging and reflective process for everyone involved when these skills are used in conversations with teams and individuals.

If your organisation needs some support to review and improve the PDR process or to build reflective dialogue and coaching/mentoring skills, I hope you will get in touch with me:





Posted in Coaching, FE, Management skills, Performance Development Reviews, Performance management, schools | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Advanced Practitioner Research and Development Programme: Book now!

AP development programme

As part of an exciting ETF project with research on and professional development for Advanced Practitioners, there are places available for a three-day development programme this term. Information and booking details below. Book now as this is proving popular!


Collaborative projects: Funding available!

For those interested in collaborative projects into quality improvement who would also like to contribute to research into the Advanced Practitioner role, there is some funding available for successful project bids. Deadline for submission is 11th May 2018.

Information on link below:


Research Report

For those interested in research into the purpose and role of Advanced Practitioners, there is a link to an interesting new report from ETF/IES here:

“Understanding the Role of Advanced Practitioners in English Further Education” (2018)

Posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, FE, Professional Development, Professional Learning Communities, Research, Staff Development, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Webinar with Joanne Miles and Emily Barrell: Approaches for Tackling Mentoring Challenges

Mentors and coaches often encounter challenging conversations and have to decide on the best approach to take at that moment. In this webinar, Emily and I discuss a range of mentoring situations and reflect on some different responses to them. This recording could be of interest to those mentoring NQTs or APs/coaches/mentors who work with a range of colleagues within their role at school or college.

Webinar Link 30th April 2018

Related Reading




Posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, coaching skills, FE, mentoring, Staff Development, Teacher education | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Making the most of the teaching and learning coach/advanced practitioner role in your school or college

It is encouraging and exciting to see many FE colleges and schools investing in the teaching and learning coach/advanced practitioner role, as it can play a positive part in developing staff and driving up TLA quality. In my work as a freelance trainer, coach and consultant, I am supporting many institutions with shaping the role and looking at its fit within the wider structures and processes. I am beginning to notice a pattern of common pitfalls and identify some ways to avoid them.

Pitfall one: A lack of practical thinking in shaping the role

It is easy to see you want to form a team to focus on developing TLA; it can be more complex to identify how they will use their time on a daily basis and what is actually achievable. In some places, they are given just two hours remission per week but with a huge remit related to both 1:1 coaching support and CPD delivery into teams. In other places one coach may be recruited with substantial remitted hours and yet the college may operate on several sites with a large number of staff, so it would have been more practical to have two or three bodies to spread the load.

It is helpful to consider:

  • Where will coaches be working and how will their time be used?
  • How can you prioritise tasks so that the coaches’ hours are used to best effect but that their caseload/workload is achievable?
  • How many people do you actually need? Is a bigger team with fewer hours the best place to start or should you focus resources and skill building on a smaller, more expert group?

Pitfall two: Lack of clarity over priorities for the role

It helps to be clear on whether you see the role as a 1:1 coaching resource for staff to access or whether they also have a CPD or curriculum development role, aligned to a given team. Without clear direction and priorities, there is a risk they will not engage staff to the full due to uncertainty over their identity and “place” in college life. Teachers and managers will also be unclear about how to use their services and who to approach about which issues.

This clarity over how they will be deployed is also important for identifying relevant training needs for them, as developing the skills of a 1:1 coach is different from building the skills of a CPD trainer.

When shaping the role it helps to decide:

  • Is the first incarnation of this role going to be focused on 1:1 interventions with staff or targeted at CPD delivery or a combination of both areas, for instance?
  • Are they going to work in their own curriculum area or outside it or operate in both spheres?
  • How much of their time will be dedicated to reading up on relevant research and sharing it with teachers?
  • How will their role help foster innovation and experimental practice?

My experience is that cross college work may help build a bigger toolkit of TLA strategies through working outside their specialism. They can also challenge assumptions and bring a fresh pair of eyes to development work as the “outsider.” However, working within their own specialist area can mean they bring highly relevant, contextually appropriate insights to the work and have a different credibility with staff, which can sometimes foster deeper working relationships. The contextual placement of this role requires thought and care.

Pitfall three:  Reporting to curriculum managers 

In terms of the line management of the coaching/improvement practitioner role, I have come to the conclusion that in their development role they need to report to someone outside their curriculum line management relationship. It works well when they report to the head of T&L or the head of professional development/learning and are allocated tasks and priorities by them. When the curriculum manager directs them and defines their workload there can be a series of pitfalls:

  1. Lack of focus on key bigger picture priorities in TLA and a tendency to focus on local issues to the neglect of other themes.
  2. Coach becoming almost an operational second in command for the manager, getting tied up with everyday departmental tasks that don’t focus on development. Some coaches/IPs/APs have mentioned to me that their remitted time is getting eaten up with learner tracking, data collection and report writing instead of development work and they find it difficult to challenge this as it is their line manager who allocates these tasks. Curriculum managers are often overloaded in their roles, as I have described in other blog posts, so it is easy to see how this can happen, but it defeats the purpose, vision and benefit of the TLA coach/IP role. It is more beneficial all round if someone with a wider overview and a more strategic view of TLA in the organisation steers this role, allocates tasks and tracks performance within it, even when these tasks may be executed within the coaches’ own curriculum area and tailored to it.

It is useful to think about:

  • Who should the coaches/improvement practitioners report to in their role, to maximise its developmental focus?
  • How can you ensure that the line management of this group fosters a focus on organisational priorities for TLA development?
  • How will this group report up to the senior team and others about emerging issues and needs in TLA? The communication channels for this process need to be identified early, to support reflection and evidence-informed planning. This may mean a regular agenda item at SLT for the improvement team to report back, for example.

This role has a huge amount to bring to college/school life so with these approaches in mind, you can avoid key pitfalls and maximise the impact of coaches and improvement practitioners in developmental work.



Posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, CPD for Teachers, FE, Professional Development, schools, Staff Development, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Learning Leader in FE: Have we defined this role yet?

It is very encouraging to see some FE colleges introducing a new role called the learning leader, in an attempt to enhance the focus on T&L. Incorporating actual roles into college structures could be helpful in a range of ways:

  1. Give T&L issues and priorities a greater voice in long-term discussion, debate and planning across the organisation
  2. Create a team who can lead/coordinate TLA focused initiatives to ensure strategy becomes implementation
  3. Follow up on TLA development work to investigate the impact on staff and learners and share those findings, to inform future planning
  4. Act as a link to the wider world of TLA through reading (research, policy, practitioner insights and case studies) and networking with other institutions to bring current theory and practices back into college for consideration
  5. Act as ‘change agents’ or ‘champions’ for getting college culture more focused on TLA questions and issues, in the battle against the rising levels of bureaucracy in the sector

In my training and consultancy work to develop the skills of these new learning leaders, I am beginning to note a common challenge. Many institutions genuinely want to increase the focus on TLA but the learning leader role definition is not sharp enough in terms of priorities or even how it interacts with other roles in college structures.

Some recurrent challenges are:

Overloaded roles

Learning leaders in some places have a substantial number of teaching hours yet are being asked to manage staff, carry out developmental observations, run CPD and “drive TLA monitoring and improvement and create a great culture of learning” across teams. In this situation, the established operational processes such as observation and appraisal seem more likely to take precedence over the less sharply defined and new TLA leadership aspects of the role. In these settings the learning leaders I meet are feeling entirely swamped by operational tasks and deadlines and are struggling to find space, time and focus to develop the innovative leadership elements of the role. To me these roles most closely resemble that of a curriculum manager with a smattering of TLA tagged on but not clearly defined.

Loose definition of the leadership of learning aspect of the role

Some institutions have put considerable resource into these roles, freeing up a large proportion of the week for the leadership of learning aspect of the role, keeping teaching hours at a more manageable level. However, the role descriptions and subsequent briefing meetings indicate that there is a vagueness around how it will work and where and when learning leaders will be active within operational processes, initiatives and project cycles. It appears that nobody did the appropriate homework of working out how the role could fit together with other parts of the college structure and process, to enhance TLA. The danger here is that the learning leaders start in their role but are unclear about priorities, don’t necessarily engage with key staff and miss opportunities to foster improvement in TLA. Duplication of effort could also be a consequence of different parties getting involved in the same area of work from poor definition of responsibilities.

I am meeting many learning leaders and hearing a great enthusiasm for the notion of the role but a great deal of confusion/hesitancy about its identity. It seems to me that careful thought about the shape of the role is critical here.

Questions to consider when shaping the learning leader role

  1. How can you balance aspects of the workload to make it viable?
  2. How much teaching and everyday line management can be included without diluting the focus of the role on inspiring, galvanising and leading others in TLA improvement?
  3. Are the learning leaders part of the formal lesson observation team and how comfortably does that sit with their developmental remit?
  4. What are the key TLA priorities for the college and how does this role engage with those?
  5. How much of this role is about tracking and monitoring and how much is it about initiating development work and being a change agent for TLA?
  6. How does the learning leadership team get access to other key collaborators such as the coaching team, ILT/E-learning team, curriculum managers and senior leaders who steer on TLA? Which meetings, forums and working groups will they need to attend?
  7. Who is the strategic lead for this group and who do the LLs report to? For me, it needs to be someone at a high enough level of the college structure to ensure the relevant overview of strategic priorities and the capacity to make decisions which enable TLA development to take place

Developing the learning leader skill set

Once the role has been defined thoughtfully, there is a need to ensure that the learning leaders have the appropriate skills to be effective. In many settings, I am delivering skills training related to:

  1. Project management planning, monitoring and reviewing
  2. CPD delivery skills
  3. Coaching skills for engaging individuals and groups
  4. Solution focused thinking and communication skills

With a clear remit and direction as well as the appropriate skill set, I am optimistic that learning leaders can play a significant role in TLA development in the colleges of the future.

If you need support with shaping and supporting the Learning Leaders in your college or school, you can contact me at





Posted in Culture for Learning, FE, Leadership of learning, Learning Leader, Management skills, schools, Staff Development, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The journey to ungraded developmental lesson observations: Some mid-year reflections

Working with colleges and schools on the journey to developmental observations is a complex, rich and rewarding experience. I am currently at a review point with several institutions and some recurrent themes emerge from their feedback. The overriding impression is how excitingly different observation can be when framed and implemented with a developmental ethos and skills.

On my first visit to these institutions teachers and observers voiced a well-documented set of concerns about the negative impacts of graded models and expressed a desire for observations to change in their settings. There was a hopeful, cautious tone in our conversations – maybe it could all be different; perhaps observation could become a tool for reflection, dialogue and development instead of a reductive and stress inducing assessment measure? I could see the potential was there for a positive change. These institutions could see the inadequacies and limitations of their current models and how much more they had to gain from changing them. They were ready for the journey.

As our initial planning and training sessions went on, people began to open up about the challenges of having trusting, thoughtful conversations about your practice in a graded model with too much at stake. The lesson observation grade was still carrying a disproportionate weight in some discussions about ‘performance’ and sometimes being linked to judgements made in appraisal. Power relationships and hierarchical structures were having a problematic impact on observations and teachers’ ability to take risks in them, to experiment and gain truly developmental feedback. When asked whether graded observations led to development, growth and improvement for staff and learners, few people could say they did and many people emphatically felt they didn’t and couldn’t in their current form.

It was encouraging to see senior leaders in these institutions involved in these conversations and recognising the value of engaging with staff to create a change together. All of these institutions have spent time debating with staff about what observation could look like if focused on reflection and development. They have held round table discussions, formed working groups, gathered survey data, held team meetings, to consult with staff through different channels and access a rich range of views. This process has been the start of moving observation from something that is done TO teachers as quality assurance to something that is done WITH and FOR teachers, to foster improvement and professional learning. I have noted that it is worth spending time, thought and effort on this process of consultation before embarking on the changes themselves. This process allowed each institution to formulate a new model of observation that took on board staff views in that context instead of imposing something that may have been contextually, culturally dissonant. The models were devised with staff instead of imposed on them.

All the institutions have devised a model that is ungraded, developmental in ethos and incorporates pre-observation interaction and post-observation follow-up, to reflect on development and changes to thinking/practice. They are underpinning the model with coaching approaches to foster high quality, challenging, thought-provoking conversations about wider practice. As I am the consultant supporting the change process and also the trainer developing the coaching skills of the observation teams, I am working with them as they grapple with shifting their own mindset, behaviour and communication skills to focus on development not simple assessment/judgement. In some cases work is being done with teachers to build reflective skills in a lesson observation context, through reviewing lesson videos and debating those practices and also having structured peer coaching conversations to reflect on their own classroom methods and assumptions.

As is evident, this is a long-term change process involving shifts in mindset, skills, behaviour, processes and expectations. It is positive to see that at the mid year review point people can already identify how much positive change has occurred and how differently observations can be executed and experienced. There is an energy, drive and excitement now in this work which shows me the strength of the appetite for change and the fact that these institutions are now well on the road to a new world of lesson observation. There is a sense of ownership and creativity in conversations about what lesson observation could become, an increasing confidence in the changes they have started to make. I have huge respect for these people and the work involved in making this move and it is a really exciting thing to be part of this lengthy and demanding transformation process.

So, what are they saying half way through the year about this journey to developmental observation?

There are comments about how unlike the graded experience it is – how this process feels much more tailored to the teacher’s context and needs, how it is more relaxed, more collaborative and less tense/stressful than the old way. People talk about a move from judging and assessing to reflecting and debating together. Teachers talk about feeling as if their observer is interested in what they think and their wider experience in the classroom. It feels ‘less narrow, deeper, more about me as a whole practitioner.’ Both observers and observees talk about feeling less tense and stressed, experiencing less performance/assessment pressure, enabling a more authentic display of practice and an organic, evolving conversation about learning. The desire to deliver a ‘ show pony’ lesson recedes. In some cases teachers talked about showing experimental practices that they are still exploring as they felt safe to do this within the new model and wanted to gain thoughtful feedback and have developmental dialogue with their observer. This is a world away from feeling you need to jump through the hoop of showcasing the current hot methods of the moment as valued by Ofsted or your leadership team. Many teachers were stepping into a reflective developmental space because they wanted to and were interested to be in that conversation with their observer. They were eager and open to change.

Another hugely encouraging piece of feedback was that in many cases, observation stopped being another isolated action on the ‘to do list’ which people did once but didn’t take any further, but became something that led naturally to further activity. Observers mentioned passing on reading material or video links and arranging to go back and watch something being tried out informally later on. There were some interesting comments about observees going in to watch the observer teaching and subsequent dialogue about approaches to explore. HOORAY! Observation can be such a rich source of stimulus and challenge to thinking and practice when it is framed as a tool for ongoing developmental dialogue. Heartening to hear that observers were interested and motivated to follow up in this way and that observees were prepared to dedicate valuable time to these steps.

Where were the challenges and glitches?

Of course, finding time was a challenge. This process, with pre and post lesson activity takes more time and this needs to be considered and accommodated. The teams in the institutions have begun to debate how to allocate more time to this process on an ongoing basis. There was a recognition that if this process is valued and valuable, it is worth finding the time. Several people also commented that currently an inordinate amount of time is used on graded models and other activities that appear to yield little benefit for staff and learners apart from a list of numbers on a spreadsheet. Surely it is worth finding the time needed to enable this process to deliver growth, development and improvement for staff and learners? It is about priorities, focus and valuing impact. Some people spoke about using Skype, Face Time or a conference call to facilitate communication for the pre-observation conversation. Others proposed a new way of structuring their observation schedule to spread observations over the year into a series of calendar windows; others felt they needed to expand their observation team to be more agile in this work.

All the observation teams were honest about the challenge of using coaching approaches. Many people have spent years ticking checklists, boxing off aspects of practice in a reductive and rather simplistic way in graded models and then not following much up to look at developmental impact. This has been the norm in many settings so adopting a different approach is a learning experience and definitely not a quick fix. It is very different when you try to engage a teacher in deep reflection instead of just giving them feedback and fundamentally walking away afterwards. It takes skill, practice, patience, commitment and persistence. We are on that journey together as I work with them to develop skills and practices that build their competence and confidence. Interestingly, nobody voiced a desire to go back to the old approach and abandon the reflective, dialogue-based methods. The value of the coaching conversation was clear. Just because it is challenging doesn’t mean you should abandon the process.

The quality of reflective skills amongst teaching teams was raised as a challenge in some settings. Where teachers are used to being given judgements/feedback and not asked to engage and reflect, there can be a lack of familiarity with how this works and how to do it well. Some curriculum areas and subject specialisms put a high value on reflective skills and so they adapt more easily to coaching conversations, maybe. People spoke about fostering these skills through CPD and team-based activities so that teachers can come into the professional dialogue better equipped and ready to contribute.

These reviews have been energising and motivating for the teams in question and helped them keep up momentum and focus during this complex culture change process. To the institutions on this journey with me, all the best with the next stages and I look forward to hearing more about your progress over time.

If you need support for planning the change to developmental observation or skills training for observers or teachers in your school or college, you can contact me at



Posted in coaching skills, Consultancy, FE, Graded lesson observations, Lesson observations, schools, Ungraded lesson observations | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Questioning Skills and Techniques for the Classroom

Video clips

Short video clips of “Teach Like a Champion” questioning techniques in the sample section – Right is Right, Wait Time and Check for Understanding

Blog posts and web links





Posted in Advanced Practitioners, Assessment methods, CPD for Teachers, FE, Questioning strategies, Teaching and learning | Tagged , , | Leave a comment