Peer observation: a case study from a London college

Joanne Miles met Deborah Eagle from Southgate College in 2010 when Deborah attended Joanne’s training day on using project management skills to deliver Supported Experiments action research projects. Since then, Joanne has been supporting Deborah with training and project planning related to developing the coaching capacity at the college.

Deborah Eagle was the Professional Development Centre (PDC) coordinator at Southgate College at this time and was involved from the project outset, ensuring that the initial planning stages of the peer observation were thorough and underpinned with project management tools and techniques.

Peer observation at Southgate College by Deborah Eagle: a case study

Context: Cross-College peer observation was centrally organised by the PDC in our pilot year 09/10. For years, staff had been calling for greater communication and collaboration across teams. Lecturers were feeling ‘judged’ and ‘isolated’ in their work; those stuck on a grade 3 didn’t know why, and didn’t know how to make the necessary changes. The College observation profile was static: a ‘satisfactory’ 69% of lessons were graded good or better at the project outset.

Project set-up: 30 lecturers had achieved an outstanding grade in 08/09. As an incentive to participate in the pilot, Senior Management agreed to an observation holiday for grade 1 lecturers, who were then assigned to teaching triangles. The ten groups of three, as far as possible, comprised an ESOL/ Basic Skills lecturer partnered with colleagues from vocational areas. This was a successful strategy to promote greater linkage between SfL and vocational delivery, and led naturally to the development of embedded resources at the end of the project.

Design rationale: why the focus on grade 1 lecturers?

  1. We needed to build confidence as well as capacity in the College. A high proportion of participants did go on to become Teaching and Learning Coaches and mentors as we’d hoped.
  2. We also wanted to draw on the expertise and experience in that pool to enhance our bank of best practice resources. A co-produced resource (Good Practice Guides, video demonstrations, Staff Development sessions, posters, readable assignments/ worksheets etc.) was the stated outcome of the project.
  3. Additionally, the triangles were committed to observe and be observed by colleagues graded 3 and 4 i.e. they became teaching squares. This gave our best practitioners an opportunity to develop their own feedback and observation skills, and grade 3 and 4 lecturers had easy access to modelling and support. I was mindful to attach grade 3/4s to a triangle that had at least one grade 1 lecturer teaching the same or a similar subject. Feedback from grade 3/4 participants was unanimously positive: their progression to a grade 2 on re-observation was 63% in 09/10 and 91% in 10/11.

Guidance and monitoring:The triangles were largely self-monitoring and the entire project relied heavily on the professionalism and collegiality of participants. Mandatory paperwork was kept to a minimum. All participants were required to complete a brief Record of Observation at the end of the process for tracking and feedback purposes.

The initial briefing pack contained guidance on giving solution focused feedback, as well as structuring proformas that encouraged reflection and developed observation skills. These were used as the basis for professional conversation and were exchanged between participants only.

Results, and the impact of the collaborations, were evidenced by the high quality and usefulness of the resources that were finally produced and, of course, by the College lesson observation profile: 73% good or better in 09/10 and 84% in 10/11.

Benefits: Great resources – uploaded to the College VLE and broadcasted at an end-of-year ‘Cheese and Wine Showcase’. The event also served to welcome and positively orientate the next year’s participants. The risk of removing grade 1 lecturers from formal observation systems for a period has been rewarded by an improved grade profile, the development of our coaching and mentoring capacity and of productive cross-college relationships, as the comments below indicate:

This was an excellent opportunity to observe exceptional teaching, create cross-college links and be exposed to a variety of new approaches and ideas ‘

‘Very useful to observe and be observed in a much less judgemental way, without the grading pressure which normally affects both observer and observed.’

‘The process treated lecturing staff like professionals and trusted us to coordinate, meet and assess.’

Challenges: The second year of the scheme ran smoothly as a result of lessons learned in the pilot. The biggest challenge in the first year was around attitudes. ‘Imposter syndrome’ – a fear of being found out and revealed as useless – is a very real thing, and apparently common amongst perfectionist teachers! In the initial briefing, reservations manifested as a lack of trust in the confidentiality of the process and as resistance at times when peer observation seemed to be involved. By the mid-point meeting, the critical mass was positive and any issues raised were operational and easily dealt with. The end-of-year cheese and wine event was a celebratory affair; the very small number of lecturers who had remained negative throughout the process didn’t attend.

There will always be some resistance to new ways of doing things, but the following tips may help to mitigate this in the planning:

  • Emphasise at the outset the gains to be had for individuals, teams and the wider College. It helps to be able to link project aims to what staff need and value, as well as to strategic priorities.
  • Decide whether you want to involve grade 1 Curriculum Managers / HoDs in the scheme. We included HoDs in the pilot, but decided against it the following year as it was intimidating for some.
  • Refer to participants’ timetables when allocating pairs/ triangles/ squares to reduce the risk of mismatch.
  • Blind copy the group before first meeting. Staff in the pilot were touchy about being ‘named’, even in invitation.
  • Allow an early opt-out opportunity for staff that are not keen to participate. Whilst I am in two minds about this (it was important and exciting to see attitudes change over the course of the year), a determinedly negative individual can affect productivity and professionalism with consequences for others. In the second year of the scheme, staff could opt-out and return to the formal observation system if preferred. No one chose to do this, which helped to set a positive and committed tone from the start.

Conclusion: Peer observation is part and parcel of the way we do things at Southgate now. Alongside the centrally organised scheme, it is occurring informally at team level and through voluntary access to the coaching service, which offers peer observation and developmental feedback prior to formal graded observation. To work with our Supported Experiments this year, we will utilise the peer observation windows (red sign/ green sign) model Joanne described in the previous article to involve all lecturing staff in short spurts of observing activity. Teachers want and need to talk about teaching and learning. Peer observation stimulates real, uncensored conversations, and is a powerful way to reinvigorate tired classroom practices. I’ll leave the last word to a participant:

‘The process was stress-free and productive. I felt that I was observed teaching 3 very real lessons, without the artifice of straining for perfection. It was refreshing to be observed by a Grade 1 teacher from outside my area of the College, and whose ideas I had not previously heard.’


This entry was posted in Advanced Practitioners, Coaching, CPD for Teachers, FE, Grade 3 and 4 observations, Graded lesson observations, Lesson observations, Peer observation, Sharing good practice and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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