Back in 2010 George Osborne unveiled the biggest public spending cuts this country has seen for decades. We were told that drastic cuts needed to be made to public spending in order to tackle the UK's burgeoning deficit. Even before the specific details of the cuts were announced, the FE sector feared the worst as invariably certain areas of public funding would be made to bear the brunt more so than others. Such was and continues to be the case with education.
Throughout this period of austerity, schools, for example, have remained relatively unaffected with their funding ring-fenced. No such luck for FE! But then again, luck doesn't come into it. Such policy decisions come down to calculated judgements. Make no mistake, past and present decisions to target FE funding cuts are NOT based on financial reasoning, but are ideologically driven. The stark truth, whether we like it or not, is that no one in Whitehall actually cares about FE. Why? Because it rarely (if ever!) touches their lives and as such can be easily dismissed as a budgetary burden. If ever you wanted proof of this indifference towards the sector, just look at what Vince Cable said about those government officials who wanted to axe FE completely in 2010.
Now, five years later, despite being faced with further cuts of a fifth to the overall budget, widespread redundancies and relentless reform, FE practitioners continue to do the most incredible work in the most difficult and challenging of circumstances. The resilience and dedication of FE practitioners never ceases to amaze me. They truly are amazing people driven by a commitment to do the very best they can for the students they teach. Yet even the most resilient people have their tipping points. It is therefore all the more amazing that in these times of increasing uncertainty and insecurity about the sector as a whole, there are growing movements of resistance to some of the draconian policies that have been foisted onto the FE workforce. One such example of that is the way in which staff in colleges across the country have started to resist punitive, performative models of lesson observation and invested a great deal of time and effort in exploring alternative approaches.
It's difficult to think of another area of practice that has caused as much debate and unrest amongst FE practitioners in recent years as that of lesson observation, particularly graded observations and the way in which they have been used as high-stakes summative assessments to rank teachers' classroom performance against the Ofsted 4-point scale. One of the reasons why observations provoke such a groundswell of opinion and emotion amongst teachers is precisely because of this 'performance' element. Through the lens of observation, teachers are repeatedly asked to perform to show their 'worth' in the classroom, both internally for senior managers and externally for Ofsted inspectors. I've heard senior managers and educational consultants come out with statements such as the following on a regular basis: 'If teachers can't produce at least a grade 2 lesson just once a year when they know they're going to be observed then you have to wonder if they're up to the job!'
Such statements encapsulate everything that is wrong with the way in which observation has been used in the English education system over the last few decades. Statements like this are not only insulting in how they reduce the complexity of teachers' work to the lowest common denominator, with teachers required to act like performing monkeys in order to satisfy the performance management needs of others, but they reveal a wider set of issues about how observation is used to exercise power and control over what teachers do and how their professional worth is evaluated and valued. But attitudes and practices are beginning to change and it is important to capture such change!
With this in mind, the University of Wolverhampton's Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education (CRADLE) is set to host the first national conference of its kinds focusing specifically on the hot topic of lesson observation: 'Lesson observation: new approaches, new possibilities' on June 17th. The conference brings together leading practitioners and researchers in this area and includes a range of workshops and keynote talks exploring the latest practice, thinking and research in the field of lesson observation. With an expected audience of almost 200 delegates, the conference will provide a national forum for debate around the use of lesson observation and an opportunity for practitioners to share practice and ideas on some of the innovative work that is going on in the sector.
Dr Matt O'Leary is a principal lecturer and education researcher in CRADLE at the University of Wolverhampton. He is also the author of Classroom Observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning, published by Routledge