The most important professional conversation of the year: appraisal.

The most important party of a mountain marathon is the fifteen or so minutes spent deciding on the route before heading off.  Although the clock has started, (there are seven hours each day to collect as many points as possible) having a clear plan and making the decisions whilst fresh in mind and body pays dividends.  Often, those that run off quickly for the nearest point lose time later as they have to adjust and work out the best route on the fly.  This situation can be likened to the school appraisal conversation: time spent working out the plan for the year and mapping out the relevant CPD provides a focus and narrows priorities for the year ahead.  This allows teachers to concentrate on teaching and learning and helping the school move forward as a whole and gets rid of distractions and wandering later on in the year when both workloads and stress levels are high.

This post isn’t about the merits of performance related pay but about the most important professional conversation of the year. The appraisal conversation and the setting of objectives sets in motion the CPD that underpins teaching and learning. Of course, professional conversations occur throughout the year, but in order to provide focus (after all, we can’t change everything at once) setting objectives and targets is one of the most important activities that leaders do.  Here are some thoughts, including some tips for both sides of the clipboard:

1. Make sure the school development plan is finalised before this meeting and made public.

No team in the school can help achieve the school’s goals if it is a complete mystery. Ideally the school’s priorities are sharply focused and informed by data. For example, improving the quality of teaching and learning across all departments and ensuring that high attaining pupil premium boys make better progress. This allows school wide appraisal targets to be set that allow leaders to steer conversations in a particular direction.

2. Appraisal conversations of senior colleagues needs to happen next.

However flat and distributed the leadership structure of a school, there’s still a clear hierarchy and lines of accountability. Members of SLT need to provide the detail under each of their accountabilities and make that public. This allows the school community to hold them to account and ensures that data and information is public. If there is data in the school, it should be clearly presented, inform teaching decisions and be made publicly available for anyone to scrutinise. By setting the objectives of senior colleagues first and making the school’s development priorities clear, middle leaders are able to shape their own development plans that help shift the school forward. This is not saying that each department will be a robotic carbon copy of the next, as middle leaders shape their own priorities based upon a evaluation of where they currently are.

3. Department development plans are drafted and from part of the target setting conversation.

In addition, the target setting conversations of their teams should be led by middle leaders and occur after their conversation. This way, an entire school community can be working together rather than on a multitude of separate ideas that make little impact.

This means that the appraisal conversations, which should be occurring continually, need to be planned well in advance and part of the school calendar a year or more in advance. After all, it’s no surprise that is has to be done and yet causes ripples of panic and last minute mundanity.

In terms of setting targets, It’s important to focus on a few areas:

1. Set specific targets but also have a think of what the evidence would look like. For example, qualitative evidence is just as good as quantitative but if there is no comparison or baseline data it is very difficult to prove impact. For example, establishing a new scheme of learning that supports non-specialist staff to deliver the new GCSE may be an appropriate area of work and we would expect outcomes to reflect this important work but also consider asking teachers how well supported they are at the start of the course and at the end.

2. Think about the CPD required right from the start. If you don’t, it is unlikely that it can be added as a bolt on later. Schools are full of amazing data that never sees the light of day – by committing and identifying CPD that will make a difference, the person learning CPD can identify common threads and ensure that the school’s professional learning plans are aligned to meeting the needs of staff.

3. Go to the meeting prepared. I am lucky to work with brilliant leaders who come with a wealth of ideas. This means that the meeting can focus on identifying the impact and CPD required rather than trying to think of objectives. Learning is far too important a thing to have random, pointless and uninspiring targets imposed on you so go in with ideas. Think about the resources that will be needed, including your budget (this forces the school to let you know your remaining budget well in advance. We can work wonders but planning strategically without knowing how much can be spent is impossible at best and criminally insane at worst.)

4. In terms of setting targets they should be specific, with clearly defined success criteria but they should also provide challenge. At least one should be just about impossible, but with realistic timescales and the right support are achievable.

By having a clear conversation at the start of the year, meetings aren’t hijacked by meaningless drivel and CPD can be offered that actually makes a difference rather than ticks a box. Line management meetings should then include an appraisal review as a standing item, meaning that they are reviewed regularly rather than ignored to gather dust. Whether a target is met or not shouldn’t be a surprise and, just like teachers shouldn’t wait until a parents evening to drop the bombshell that their Year 11 child is going to fail the GCSE in two months, professional dialogue needs to be both robust and honest. Early warning signs can be caused and tweaks made.

Personally, I think that the appraisal conversation sets the tone for the remainder of the year, so it’s important to get it right. At the end of the day, it’s not about performance related pay but about learning and setting the course to shift learning on in the school.

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