Performance Appraisal – Tweaking to Transform, For Now!

Posted on September 21, 2015

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Let me nail my colours to the mast from the outset, Performance Appraisal is pretty much the poorest process one could design to bring about sustainable, holistic, authentic, purposeful and ethical school improvement. 

Mark me, I’m not talking about Performance Related Pay here, although I have done so previously and I have almost as little love for it as I have for Performance Appraisal.  But if I were forced to share a seat on a night bus with one of the two drunkards then I’d go for PRP any day because at least it’s honest, highly ideological and divisive but honest, about its purpose and its intentions.  

Performance Appraisal though (from here on referred to as PA for the sake of my phone-blogging fingers) is duplicitous and disingenuous. It gives the impression of being the ideal vehicle for professional learning, when in reality it is about as far from that as my clapped-out Renault Modus is. 

The reasons why this is the case are many-fold, but let me enumerate as as many as I can of them here. 

Firstly, it is rooted in the principle of objective-setting (or, worse still, targets), not learning. The PA objective setting process is not one of discovery and unknowability, but of pre-designed success criteria that therefore render the process of professional learning, they are supposed to epitomise, utterly redundant. It’s like deciding, in advance, that the best way to enjoy a meal out is by ensuring that you have the scallops, a beef dish and pavlova. You may well enjoy the dinner, but you missed out on a very appealing – and possibly life-changing – main course from the specials board along the way. 

Secondly, PA is poor because it almost invariably comes after the big decisions about school improvement have already been made and, in many instances, the expectation is that individuals’ contributions need to align with these. The SIP has been written by SLT, approved by Governors and presented in assemblies before school staff have had a chance to set their own priorities for the year ahead. Professional alignment ahead of professional learning, to be sure, and also ahead of the institutional learning that marks out the truly advanced organisation. 

Thirdly, and as a consequence of the above, PA is distinctly non-agile (see here for my thoughts on the importance of agility), rigid and unresponsive. These qualities run absolutely against the spirit of any learning organisation, and yet we use PA objectives with the brutal certainty that, within weeks of them being written, they will prove to be outdated. And yet we still go through the process of mid-cycle and end-of-cycle reviews holding one another to account for them. “Events, dear boy, events”, whether or not MacMillan actually said it, is a damn fine place to start any learning process. 

Fourthly, for the reasons outlined above, PA – if it is adhered to in spite of its problems – becomes either a spiked stick or a feather duster with which to beat colleagues. The review process is a death match wrestlemania for the testosterone-infused school leader, determined to hold someone (anyone) to account for the institutional failures that allow student underperformance. Or it is a sycophantic squirming where the reviewer and reviewee agree, wrongly, to let each other off the hook for what is, rightly, perceived to be an institutional failure. (And by “let each other off the hook” I mean no malice: we’ve all done it.)

Fifthly, the very name Performance Appraisal contains two words that I believe to be utterly incompatible with professional learning. I’ve deconstructed the word ‘performance’ in the first aforementioned blogpost, but ‘appraisal’?!?! It makes me shudder to think of all these colleagues being appraised: I rather preferred it when they were ‘performance managed’, and I hated that. 

Sixthly, the fact that the PA cycle is supposed to run from September 1st to August 31st (ie an academic year) and yet, historically since the New Labour era, the review and objective setting process has as its end date 31st October, specifically so that student exam performance data can be a part of the evaluative mechanism. This is perhaps the most pernicious and also foolish element of PA because, in linking the process with student exam outcomes, we suggest (nay assert) the PA/exam relationship is a Newtonian paradigm whereby a single year objective is the cause that has a direct effect upon student achievement. Who are we trying to kid?

Seventhly (I’m not sure that this number system works any more), the offsetting of an October review process has meant that performance related progression, historically for the UPS and recently for the MPS, is out of kilter with the academic year and that colleagues are having to wait until their winter pay packets for their backdated increments, a not inconsiderable issue for younger, less well-remunerated colleagues with exorbitant rents and older, more seasoned ones with nursery bills or care home fees to pay. 

Eighthly, the tediously bureaucratic process that has sprung up around PA is a cancer eating away at the genuinely healthy ‘performance appraisal’ process that should be happening on a daily basis, that of line management. Someone tell me one good thing that PA does that couldn’t be better done with a significant investment of time and money in the line management relationships within a school and I’ll show you a liar. 

Finally, and perhaps the one for which I most need to dredge up my best mea culpa expression, is the crime against humanity that were SMART (ARSE) targets. How I cringe to know now the level of bile I induced amongst colleagues and friends when I bit hard on the baited hook of this seemingly innocent acronym, as a fresh-faced AHT given the brief of delivering a PA INSET day. I hope they’ve put the voodoo dolls away by now. If professional learning could be induced by predicting its features for their specificity, measurableness, achievability, relevance and time-relatedness then all of us who ply our trade as teachers should save the state a fortune and hand in our resignations en masse. No child ever learned because we predicted the process to be a SMART one. Why should any adult be different?  SMART, my ARSE!

All well and good, I figuratively hear you cry, but you’re a Headteacher now. What are YOU going to do about it?  Good question.

Last year, as a new Head with much to pick up and run with, I had to focus on just one thing, the potentially problematic impact of PRP. And so I asked the Governors to back me on a single but meaningful statement of intent, that nobody should be held back on the M scale unless they were the subject of capability processes (which, in case you’re wondering, nobody is). If we have to use PRP then we will only do so when following a process that gives colleagues a legal right to redress. Anything less would be wrong and enable prejudice to trump judgment. 

This year, with a bit more time to breathe, we have gone further but still within the realms of ‘tweaking to transform’. Governors have given me permission to follow the letter of our PA policy and place the start and finish of the cycle within the academic year. Thus, the objectives set this Autumn will be reviewed before the summer holidays and pay progression recommendations made before 2016 exam results are known. It is, I believe, a significant step in moving from a performative culture and towards a learning one. It has the pragmatic benefit of meaning that colleagues will get their September pay in September, and the principled one of meaning that in future individual objectives will be devised at the same time as team plans and the school improvement plan. Perhaps in future the latter will align with the former in a genuinely bottom up approach. 

A second change this year, and one we will be conducting with guidance from a university partner, is that a small group of staff will be piloting an inquiry-oriented approach to PA, with inquiry questions replacing objectives. It is an idea shamelessly pinched from a ResearchED Reaearch Leads conference, but the process will be Canons created, and I can’t wait to see what the working group come up with. 

But if the majority of this post hasn’t persuaded you that this is only the start, then I don’t know what will. So far we have only tweaked and, contrary to the title, I don’t believe that tweaking leads to transformation. What is needed is a new paradigm for evaluating staff effectiveness that is a nonlinear step change. What it looks like I don’t yet know, but I’m inching myself and (thanks to the work of our Partnerships and Professionalism Team) being inched there. I have some ideas and a lot of hope that soon we, at least at Canons, can put the whole sorry mess of Performance Appraisal as it is currently configured, behind us. 

Watch this space…

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