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Stop Looking At Plans and Plan To Look!

I took in three planning folders from teachers today. Each was well organised, easy to access and full of lots of useful information about the learning they were planning for their pupils. There were lots of assessments and evaluations about the previous teaching and learning block. I dutifully completed a pro-forma for written feedback, pointing out how good they were and finding a few things we could discuss further in our consultation session.

So, if everything I was seeing was so good, why was I still feeling uneasy about the process I was undertaking?

Headteachers and senior management teams have had the monitoring of planning folders as a regular part of their expected duties for as long as we have asked teachers to actually have a plan for what they are about to do. HMIe and local authorities have enforced and spelled out this requirement and expectation of school leaders by requiring written evidence of it having taken place in the form of feedback pro-formas and minutes of subsequent consultation meetings. The reasons given for this exercise was so that school leaders, and other audiences, could be assured that teachers were thinking and planning the work they were undertaking with children, and managers could provide evidence that they knew their staff and schools, and were managing them effectively.

In my own school for the last few years, myself and the rest of the management team have become more and more active participants in the collaborative planning processes that teachers now engage in. As a result of this we already know the thinking behind teachers plans, and have been involved in discussions with them about this, we were there when most plans were being written. I will have heard about their evaluations and assessments and how these will be shaping their thinking about the learning ahead. I know what I am going to see when the planning folders come in. So, for what purpose am I, and many others, still taking these in and providing more written feedback on things I have probably already commented on orally? Am I wasting my time, producing unnecessary paperwork and could I be better employed in more meaningful and impactful tasks?

I hate being stuck in my office for any length of time, so whilst I was looking at these folders I took a break and went off into classrooms around the school to see what was going on and speak to children. I do this not in a 'Big Brother' way but just part of what I do, which is centred on engaging with teachers, pupils and learning as much as possible  so as to be really informed about the schools I lead. During my half hour 'break' visiting classrooms I learnt a lot about where the children I spoke to were in their learning, and how teachers were going about developing and improving that learning and understanding. For it to be real I believe you need see it, not just read it! Anyone can write about what they are going to do, and talk about what they are going to do, but none of that means too much until it is transformed into action and they are delivering. One of the greatest pleasures in my role is seeing excellent teaching and learning,which is engaging, challenging and developing for all learners, taking place. I know that this cannot take place without careful thinking, planning and deep understanding of where each learner is with their learning. So if I see all that taking place, I know the planning and thinking has happened. If I have been sat in on the planning dialogue amongst colleagues, so much the better, as I know it first hand.

Because of the changes we had introduced in our engagement with the teachers' planning and dialogue, last year I proposed I stop taking in planning folders and spent more time in dialogue with them about teaching and learning, and assessment. I was quite shocked by their response! Most were aghast that I should be considering this, and the ones who were most upset were the younger colleagues. One commented 'I really like getting told how good my file is by you.' Others expressed similar sentiments. That got me thinking that obviously these files were serving other purposes than just providing evidence of planning. Staff saw them as something they did really well, which they do, and also saw them as vehicles to elicit positive re-enforcement from myself and others on the
management team. I like to pride myself that I am not unaware that colleagues need to be told
regularly when they are doing a great job, but this just showed me again how powerful this desire is in most of them.

So, what to do? Well I am still taking in the files, even when I know what I am going to see. But I still believe that they way to really have a handle and understanding on where a school is you need to get out of your office and look. I don't mean look in a passive way, but to actively look and engage in all the processes involved in delivering teaching and learning experiences, in every classroom and in every area. Do this, and you can really speak confidently about where learners and colleagues are in their development. Place great importance on dialogue in developing your understanding and you will be speaking from a position of strength and knowledge. If your focus is just on files and paperwork the picture you are getting is very much one-dimensional.

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