Comment: Why collaborative appraisals can bring better outcomes

26 September 2019

Moving from one-to-one to group appraisals has helped staff focus on shared goals and inter-relations, bringing positive outcomes identified by ImpactEd including greater engagement, openness and sense of community, writes Gary Handforth

Last year, I sat through a series of one-to-one appraisal meetings with 10 middle leaders. Each lasted around 1 hour (not including follow-up) and focused on activities they were to work on throughout the year towards objectives/targets which we think we can reliably and accurately anticipate. We worked from current role and responsibilities, drawing out talents and ambitions through a coaching conversation and linked these to the main priorities of the school development plan. 

After 4 individual meetings, I became aware that something was wrong. I was the one constant across these meetings and holding a position that could see how each other’s work was interrelated. Each leader might have a specific role for parental engagement, for attendance, or for SEN, but all have a responsibility for educational standards, and a responsibility for the development of not just themselves but also others. We work in a socially complex world, but we are often stuck with using old systems, in this case in a private world of one-to-one meetings that might, only by chance, cross-over into others’ work.

In addressing school issues, we can tend to be too reductive. Often when we’re analysing what we do, we take something apart to try and understand how it works in a vain belief that we’ll be able to reliably understand it, efficiently control it, accurately measure the effects, and confidently predict the outcomes. This might work if we’re looking at cogs and wheels in a traditional understanding of how systems work, but not if we’re looking at the complexity of social systems. And so it is with schools. 

Things rarely work in isolation in schools. It’s highly unlikely that a child’s barrier to learning is located in a single aspect – that it’s solely their attendance, or a lack of parental engagement, or concentration in the classroom. Issues are usually about all or most of these things and require a mixed approach to understanding them and then trying to address them. 

The work (in this case, the appraisal objective) of a specific school leader draws on the work of others. In theory, with one-to-one appraisal meetings this could happen if I was to signpost the leaders to each other: ‘you need to speak to X, they’re also working on something similar’. But why not have them all in the room talking about this? Why leave this to chance? For most systems in schools, we work collaboratively on common agreed goals – so why not for appraisal if this is to be regarded as one of the key areas of work to improve performance and, ultimately, towards pupil outcomes. 

In a research paper from the CIPD, Could do Better: assessing what works in performance management, traditional performance reviews are criticised as often being overly time consuming, disappointing and ultimately demotivating, divisive and not conducive to co-operation and, most damningly, not even effective drivers of performance. Rob Lebow and Randy Spitzer (1991) support this view: 

“Too often, appraisal destroys human spirit and, in the span of a 30-minute meeting, can transform a vibrant, highly committed employee into a demoralized, indifferent wildflower who reads the want ads on the weekend.”

So, we decided to try a different approach. We wanted to harness the potential of collaboration through re-imagining traditional one-to-one approaches. Working with Leeds Beckett University and ImpactEd, we trialled a collaborative approach to appraisal, focusing on Teaching Assistants, Learning Mentors and Lunchtime Supervisors. A series of group meetings provided the time and space for individuals to first explore their personal ambitions, share these with others, reflect on the school development priorities and engage in group conversations about what they want/need to focus on. This resulted in collaborative targets but with an individual focus specific to each person. 

We soon realised that through a collaborative approach, people openly shared their understanding and experiences and the group then helped the individual to make sense of these, to explore new ideas, to make better decisions, to develop new professional habits, and forge strong working relationships. What sociologists Donati and Archer (2015) would call ‘relational goods’ and a ‘collective orientation to a collective output’ (p 61). A series of short meetings throughout the year provided the opportunity to reflect on the progress they are making and to make meaningful adjustments. 

This approach is still developing. We are holding one-to-one meetings, but these are now much shorter, sharper and focused on collective efforts. And ImpactEd’s independent evaluation of the project suggested positive changes across a range of outcomes. Staff reported greater engagement with professional learning and demonstrated increased confidence and willingness to engage in professional conversation across the sequence of group meetings. We also used validated questionnaire measures over the course of the project and found statistically significant increases in measures such as sense of community and staff openness. 

Staff appraisal is often seen as something negative, to be thought about mainly if things are going wrong. Our hope is that a collaborative approach to staff appraisal, as well as providing a more robust and joined-up way of doing things, can ultimately contributes towards a stronger, professional learning focused school culture. Our work so far suggests it may well do so. 

  • Gary is a Trustee of Challenge Partners and Senior Partner for the North West, working alongside others in developing a strong and exceedingly collaborative network. He is Executive Principal and Director of Primary Education within Bright Futures Educational Trust.
  • Read the ImpactEd independent evaluation of the project