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Lesson observation

26 September 2013

Internal college lesson observation policies and procedures continue to be the industrial issue that has been the subject of the most sector conference motions in recent years. This reflects the fact that lesson observation policies are still a hotly contested industrial issue in FE and adult education today.

There was a sharp rise in imposed punitive and draconian changes to lesson observation policies and these were the trigger for the largest number of local disputes of any single issue in the FE and adult & continuing education (ACE) workplaces. Some colleges and providers are clinging to these punitive graded lesson observation models and these pages contain bargaining advice for branches still fighting these outdated measures that are no longer fit for purpose.

Following the highly successful launch of the UCU lesson observation research by Dr Matt O'Leary, the face of lesson observations is slowly changing. Significant numbers of colleges and providers are moving away from graded, no notice observations that are automatically linked to capability towards a more developmental approach that support the professionalism of FE and ACE lecturers. 

Also to be found on this page:

  • bargaining guidance - a practical guide for branches negotiated lesson observation policies.
  • the UCU research - Dr Matt O'Leary's extensive report and summary
  • lesson observation briefings including advice on capability, the misuse of the learner voice in assessing lecturers and advice on learning walks.
  • other information and guidance for branches to download
  • news - links to some of the lesson observation press coverage and all the latest news from the sector
  • success stories - branches that have had successfully negotiated ungraded and CPD focused observations share their experience.

Bargaining guidance

How lesson observations should be
November 2014

Is your college wedded to no notice, graded observations? Or is your college looking to move to a new more collegiate model of lesson observations? Whatever stage you might be at this guide to bargaining for better observation policies will provide practical support in your negotiations (this guidance will also be applicable to ACE branches):

Lesson observations: UCU further education negotiating pack - A practical guide to negotiating lesson observation policies in further education, Nov 14 [521kb]

Lesson observation research

The O'Leary Report - UCU research questions the practice of graded lesson observations
November 2013

A UCU report has called into question the widely used practice of graded lesson observation, suggesting it has no discernible impact on the quality of teaching and learning.

The research is intended to support the whole FE sector and individual colleges to have an evidence-based conversation and to build trust within the sector and at individual colleges. It is a chance to openly discuss the failings of the current system and to explore different approaches that genuinely deliver improvements in teaching and learning.

Executive summary: Developing a national framework for the effective use of lesson observation in FE, Dr Matt O’Leary, Nov 13 [413kb]

Developing a national framework for the effective use of lesson observation in FE, Dr Matt O’Leary, Nov 13 [1mb]

Damning report calls whole process of lesson observations into question

Lesson observation briefings

The following are short briefings for branches on particular aspects of bargaining for better lesson observations. For further support contact your regional official.

Lesson observations and capability procedures

UCU says linking lesson observations and capability is flawed and if the real value of lesson observations is to be achieved the link between lesson observations and capability must be broken: Lesson observations and capability procedures, Aug 14 [176kb]

Post-it note grading = degrading

In recent years Ofsted and others have trumpeted the importance of the 'learner voice' in assessing the quality of teaching and learning. However, we are now receiving disturbing reports that under the guise of the 'learner voice' some colleges are undermining teachers by wilfully misinterpreting the Ofsted Inspection Framework. Examples have included asking loaded questions of students in order to get a particular answer and in at least one case by giving students post-it notes and asking them to grade their teacher on a scale of one to ten.

As professionals lecturers are regularly reflecting on the experience and engagement of students in their own classes. Colleges should have sensible and meaningful ways of including students' views in review and development process. However, asking students to rate their teacher on a post it note is wholly inappropriate and shows no regard for the professionalism of the teacher, the views of the students or the value of the relationship between teacher and student.

Methods for evaluating teaching and learning must:

  • meaningfully support the professional development of teachers
  • respect the professionalism of teachers
  • value the relationship between teacher and student
  • use appropriate methods.

While UCU supports the principle of regular review and evaluation of the student experience the methodology for this must be fair and transparent and not allow for subjectivity. Officers should insist that any methods used are subject to full negotiation consultation and agreement.

Are learning walks the new face of unannounced lesson observations?

Since Ofsted launched its new Inspection framework for further education and skills in 2012 branches have reported an increase in the use of 'learning walks' or 'walkthrough observations' or similarly named. Often this has become an issue where branches have been successful in resisting moves to unannounced observations or have secured improvements in the notice and window provisions in their college's policies. In some of these cases it would appear that managers are trying to find a new way to sneak up unannounced to try and catch people out. This is not what such walks are intended to be or how they are described in the Ofsted Inspectors Handbook. These sessions are not the same as a lesson observation and observe different things.

Important Ofsted states:

Walk through observations should:

  • last approximately 15 minutes
  • have a specific focus or theme eg, learner support, use of information learning technology, attendance or personalised learning
  • observe policy application, implementation and effectiveness at institution, department or team wide levels.

Walk through observations should not:

  • be graded for individuals
  • trigger feedback to individuals following such sessions
  • provide information for the assessment of individuals' performance rather it should inform performance of teams, depts. or entire institutions or effectiveness of management policies.
  • be a fishing expedition to find something or someone wrong, the theme and focus should be pre-determined and focused.

There is nothing peculiar to learning walks that mean they must be conducted unannounced for internal observations. With or without notice, when conducted as intended, learning walks should not present an opportunity for managers to fomrall appraise individual lecturers. Some colleges schedule the themes and focus for its internal learning walks up to a year in advance and the weeks in which they will occur. When learning walks are undertaken in a collegiate and supportive manner, respecting the professionalisim of lecturers, they can be a more informal and therefore more genuine picture of teaching and learning. This provides more valuable information for colleges within agreed themes and areas than graded, no notice observations can.  

Further information and guidance for download:

If your college tries to make changes to or impose new lesson observation arrangements make sure your branch seeks advice from your regional office before agreeing to changes.


The latest updates from the sector and lesson observation in the press.

June 2015: Ofsted confirms the end of lesson observations

December 2014: UCU has responded to the Ofsted consultation 'Better inspection for all': UCU response to the Ofsted consultation 'Better inspection for all', Dec 14 [141kb]

September 2014: 'Ofsted has questions to answer on graded lesson observations' say Dr Matt O'Leary in an article in the TES.

August 2014: Ofsted's FE and skills inspection regime could be scrapped as the watchdog looks at a huge merger shake-up including schools and early years.

June 2014: There has been inevitably been some criticism of the UCU lesson observation research. Not everyone in the sector is moving at the same speed towards ungraded, developmental models. Dr Matt O'Leary mounts a tough defence of his report.

June 2014: Ofsted announces ungraded observations trial

Following the release of UCU's research which 'raises serious questions about the fitness for purpose of prevailing observation assessment systems in FE', Ofsted has announced plans to trial ungraded observations in the Autumn. For more, see the FE Week report.

June 2014: UCU commissions research into lesson observations

UCU has commissioned Dr Mathew O'Leary, University of Wolverhampton, one of the leading academics writing on lesson observation to conduct a research project into existing models of lesson observation and their perceived purposes and effects on FE lecturers' professional practice and development. The research includes evidence taken from an online survey of UCU FE members.

It is hoped the research findings will provide UCU with both hard evidence and examples and also a better way to explain why an expansive model for observations that focuses on professional reflection on teaching practice rather than grades is the only way to support real and sustained improvements in teaching and learning. The research report is expected to be released toward the end of 2013 and its findings together with other activity around UCU's lesson observation campaigning are planned to be presented in a seminar for branches following its release.

It is an interesting point to note that there is currently no piece of academic research to support the idea that graded lesson observations lead to or support improved teaching and learning. Yet the idea that grades are essential for improvement is paraded like unchallengeable self-evident fact by some college managers while we argue for a genuinely supportive and developmental approach.

January 2013: Fear and panic

The new OFSTED Inspection Framework arrived in 2012 and alarmed some college managers coming hot on the heels of the move from 5 grades to a less helpful or nuanced 4 grade system. These events triggered some colleges to change long standing and agreed internal observations policies in colleges.

The effect was amplified many times over when the politically motivated anti-FE agenda of the new OFSTED Chief inspector became apparent. In all seriousness an atmosphere of fear and panic about OFSTED set in amongst college leaders and has not yet lifted. The tone and language of OFSTED pronouncements towards FE has harshened dramatically and official Inspection grades have been falling more often than rising ever since.

Both UCU and the Association of Colleges are highly critical of OFSTED's approach toward FE and believe there are serious flaws in the way that it inspects colleges under the new inspection framework. It appears to lack any empathy or understanding of FE and its mission or how to inspect it. Not an encouraging prospect for college leaders to face. (See below UCU evidence to the education select committee on the OFSTED annual report.)

OFSTED's rhetoric describes FE as underperforming and almost complacent sector and calls for greater management rigor on internal quality assurance. This signal from OFSTED has been seen as a green light for some college leaders to get tough and nasty with lesson observation policies. Their belief seems to be that you can drive improved teaching and learning by sneaking up on lectures unannounced and scaring them with the threat of the sack while cutting their pay, increasing their workload and removing support for when it goes wrong!

In order to be seen to be doing something while not knowing what, many college leaders opt for the look and sound tough and show OFSTED some rigor response.

The most hotly contested points in lesson observation disputes when this approach is taken are:

  • no notice/reduced notice before observation
  • increased size of window for observations to occur in
  • direct Links to capability procedures at 4 and sometimes 3
  • introduction of unannounced Learning Walks
  • introduction of or harshening of graded observations.

An alternative response to the new threat from OFSTED inspections would be to foster and embrace genuinely supportive and developmental approaches to internal observations and quality assurance by supporting and encouraging professional reflection and a climate in which peers share better practice without fear. This approach has unfortunately been very rare but it does exist in a few colleges and is being explored and evaluated further as compared with other approaches in UCU commissioned research during 2013.

Success stories - branches are winning on lesson observations

There is good news. It is possible to win on lesson observations. A growing number of branches are defeating the worst proposals and gaining improvements from across all five of the hot observation policy points.

Success is achieved through a combination of active campaigning, member involvement and support with successful advocacy and negotiation for the success of an alternative model of lesson observations.

Having endured years of below inflation pay combined with rising workloads members are often ready to draw a line at harsher lesson observations and vote for observation boycotts and strike action. There is a real sense of outrage that the employer would dare load another unnecessary imposition upon them.

In other colleges there is a real sense that it is time to move forward and the employer and unions are working together towards a more collegiate approach to lesson observations. This is the position we would like to be in across the sector and we are slowly but surely heading in the right direction.

Here some of the branches that have successfully bargained and campaigned for better lesson observations share their experience.

Branch win at Gateshead over unannounced lesson observations

Congratulations to Gateshead College UCU branch, who in February 2015 achieved a satisfactory end to a long standing dispute on lesson observations with a revised proposal that will mean staff will now be given notice of observations.

Win on grade 3 capability link at Lakes College

Lakes College UCU branch accepted a revised lesson observation policy from management which breaks an automatic and unfair link to capability procedures following two grade three observations. The branch declared a dispute with the college over the imposition of the link to capability and the use of a controversial score card system for grading internal observations.

Lakes College managers revised their observation policy proposals following dispute resolution talks and have now agreed to set up a working party including UCU representatives to review the lesson observation process at and to severe the capability link associated with two successive observations graded a three.     

Oxford and Cherwell Valley College go for ungraded observations

Branch officers at Oxford and Cherwell Valley College UCU have successfully argued for improvements in their lesson observation policy including a move to:

  • ungraded observation
  • lecturer chooses session to be observed
  • peers observations.

These are significant improvements from the existing policy of a three day observation window and action taken against those given a grade 3.

Observations win at Lambeth after boycott and strike notice

Lambeth College UCU branch in October 2012 secured a significant win against proposals to worsen their lesson observation policy that had already been used as a fast track to capability procedures and dismissal with scant or no provision of appropriate developmental support. 

When the college proposed to worsen its Quality Assurance policy further a dispute was declared and a ballot for both strike and action short of strike was run and won. Managers chose to escalate the dispute by threatening individuals boycotting their observations forcing the branch to notify a rolling programme of strike action to bring management back to the negotiating table.

Members had already seen how dangerous and unfair a draconian and punitive observation policy could be. Management ultimately understood staff were outraged and like it or not there was no faith or trust with the existing policy and proposals to worsen notice the last straw for lecturers and the branch secured:

  • five days' notice of a named lesson instead of a 4 day window
  • a break with the automatic link with capability following a second grade 4
  • remission from additional duties and a consideration of teaching remission for staff  undertaking development support following a grade 4
  • greater focus on and monitoring of equality issues surrounding OTL
  • inclusion of UCU in a teaching and learning forum designed to monitor the development of teaching and learning
  • inclusion of UCU in staff CPD events.

The lesson from Lambeth's win is that a coordinated campaign with member involvement and support can successfully win back more reasonable observations policies.

City College Brighton and Hove - improved notice and support for grade 3 & 4

In September 2012 UCU City College Brighton and Hove branch succeeded in negotiating significant improvements to their observation scheme including:

  • removal of Grade 3 link to unsatisfactory performance procedures
  • observation windows announced at start of the year
  • minimum 3 days' notice of specific lesson to be observed
  • temporary reductions in teaching loads for staff to undertaking training and support following a grade 4.

South Tyneside dispute breaks grade 3 link to capability

In February 2012 South Tyneside College managers chose to unilaterally change its internal lesson observation policies and protocols without any consultation. The changes which were described as 'not up for discussion' when branch officers sought to discuss members concerns included:

  • direct link to capability for a second grade 3
  • introduction of grading of re-observations following a 3 or 4
  • insufficient support or clarity around rights to developmental support following grade 3 or 4
  • introduction of walk through observations.

In response to the refusal to consult or negotiate and the changes themselves the branch declared a dispute and ran and won both a consultative and then formal ballot for action short of strike to enable a boycott of lesson observations. The legal ballot was won by 95%! The power of a concerted and coordinated campaign to involve and gain members support for action and an impressively won ballot brought management to the negotiating table with little boycott action taken.

The resolution of the dispute saw:

  • no direct link to capability procedures for two grade 3s
  • no walk through observations
  • while graded re-observations following grade 3 and 4 remain there are now explicit protocols to be followed which are vastly improved and actually supportive
  • two things which are very clear now are the support that you can expect and the time-frames for this support and any re-observation
  • attitude change toward consulting rather than unilateral changes.
Last updated: 24 October 2023