Coaching to manage performance

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Vivienne Porritt questions the whole basis of the current approach to performance management and shows how this can be transformed through developing a coaching culture which focuses on ultimate learning games for children.

“I thought I was a good teacher, but after that review, apparently I’m not. I’ve got lots to do to get better.”

These words of a teacher about a performance management review open a Teachers TV programme about looking afresh at what performance management is doing, and can do, for colleagues in schools. The words are spoken by a drama student from Brampton Manor, a secondary school in Newham, London. The quotation is supposed to be a fictional representation of the perceptions some teachers have about performance management and it reveals issues about the nature of the professional relationships and the quality of the dialogue within this process.

Is this quotation a caricature or do you recognise these words as coming from some of your colleagues? Maybe you have felt something similar yourself at times. Or is such a perception a historical view of performance management (PM) and, as a result of the revised regulations introduced in September 2007, do schools now have a more dynamic and motivational approach to this key improvement process?

What does PM feel like for you?

Over the last two years, in working with schools and local authorities in London and nationally, my colleague, Carol Taylor, and I have gained a very clear sense that many teachers are not only feeling less than motivated and enthused by their experience of performance management but also frustrated by the amount of time that was invested in it for seemingly little impact. Many are unable to articulate the difference that performance management makes either to their own learning, or that of their pupils or to their school. Support staff told us that they were glad they were not included in the statutory process as their teaching colleagues said it was a waste of time. When support staff were included they, alongside their teaching colleagues, often felt the process was about jumping through hoops or simply ticking boxes.

As an ex-English teacher I believe strongly that language reflects culture and ethos and so am dismayed by the kind of language used by many people in discussing performance management. The most common phrases we hear are:
 ‘I was ‘done’ last year’.  or ‘My head of department ‘does’ me’. What picture do these words suggest? This language certainly reflects the feeling that the PM process is one-sided with colleagues being recipients rather than feeling ownership.

Simply ticking the box

Some schools describe the achievements people are working towards as targets and, for me, this only conjures up images of archers shooting at circular boards. When I was working in a school as a teacher or a headteacher, I didn’t want to be shot at, so do you now? I was told by others that I was good at what I did so I didn’t ever feel. I personally needed my performance managed. What I, and I think most people in school, needed was to work with a colleague to help me to keep improving and achieve what could move both me and the school forward. Most importantly, I wanted to learn more so that in turn I could help my students learn and achieve more.

Equally concerning is the nature of the objectives that should be at the heart of the PM process. Mostly these are described by colleagues as “set” - again suggesting a model of imposition. More hopefully objectives are agreed: we rarely hear of objectives being negotiated. We encountered objectives that were simply already aspects of a person’s role: To write the school timetable. Other examples were often teacher based tasks such as ‘Revise the schemes of work for Year 4’ or ‘Go on a course about Assessment for Learning’. An objective for a senior member of the support staff that I heard recently was Restructure the office.

These objectives did not challenge, motivate or engage colleagues and seemed to be there simply to ensure a box was able to be ticked next year and everyone could say a successful review had been accomplished. Pupil progress targets centred around numerical data are very common and seem to cause great anxiety for many colleagues in case they miss their target and achieve 53% of A* - C grades instead of 54% or in case one child in a class does not move through 2 sub-levels in a year.

With such objectives, little attention is given to identifying the learning outcomes and real changes in practice for the adult that would result in improved learning or practice for colleagues or pupils. Te potential for the PM process to develop colleagues, to build motivating and collegiate relationships, to achieve school priorities and to improve pupils’ learning and experience is thus diminished.

Where are we now?

We are now at the end of our first year engaging with the revised statutory regulations for performance management for teachers which were introduced for September 2007. Alongside the revised regulations, new professional standards for teachers were introduced and performance management is highlighted as a ‘key process’ in achieving these aims.

Key questions therefore might be:

  • are all of your colleagues feeling positively engaged with your new performance management process?
  • have you improved the links between performance management and professional development?
  • is the dialogue and feedback within the PM process leading to improved internal relationships, based on openness, mutual trust and respect?
  • has the revised approach to performance management made a significant difference to your colleagues and to your pupils?

Maybe you and your school can answer a resounding ‘Yes!’ to these questions. Perhaps you already had an established and motivating PM process or you have positively embraced this latest opportunity for performance management to make a real difference this time around to the learning of adults and pupils? There are, however, schools that have perhaps simply tweaked what they already had in place in order to ensure compliance with the statutory revisions .

In such cases the staff are continuing to ‘jump through the performance management hoops’ at the designated points in the school year and the new regulations have made little or no difference to the learning of either themselves or of their pupils. Performance management is considered as yet another paper-based process to be endured rather than positively engaged with and valued.

An interesting point that we explore with the schools we work with is how many targets or objectives are expected and how these objectives are linked. Before September 2007, the statutory requirement was for two PM objectives for all teachers. One of these had to be a professional development objective and one had to be for Pupil Progress. In most schools the latter was a numerical description of the standards the children taught by that teacher had to achieve. For colleagues with leadership roles, a further leadership related objective around this role was also expected. In our research and development work with schools we rarely found examples of any of these objectives being inter-linked. In other words the professional development objective or the leadership objective did not seem to be how the teacher or leader was going to enable pupils to achieve the attainment expected.

The revised regulations do not include a stated or specific number of objectives, nor is there a statutory focus for any objective. The guidance offered by the Rewards and Incentives Group in the Autumn of 2006 suggests:

  • Objectives should be time bound, and challenging but achievable
  • In guidance offered by the TDA when working with local authorities in the Autumn of 2006, objectives should
  • Contribute to the pupil progress

This gives schools a golden opportunity to have a dialogue with staff as to how many objectives are relevant for varying groups of colleagues, on what the objectives may focus and the professional connections between any objectives.

In reality, we have found the majority of schools have not had a whole school discussion about this, have retained the previous model of two or three objectives and have also retained the fixed focus of the previous expectations. Whilst many schools have a whole school improvement priority, there still seems a reliance on the imposed managerial approach of the 2000 regulations with professional development objectives unrelated to the improvements in pupil attainment. So the opportunity to personalise development opportunities to the needs of the adult working in a specific team with a specific group of pupils is lost. Equally, there seems little improvement in the quality or nature of objectives as a result of the new regulations. Te predominant style of objectives is still a focus on tasks and activity for the reviewee or recipient and a numerical attainment standard set for the reviewee to achieve. Te necessary change in professional practice for the adult concerned and the consequent changes in pupil learning needed to attain improved standards do not seem to be at the heart of the professional dialogue. Indeed, with between an hour / an hour and a half to review a previous year’s performance and set three objectives with performance criteria, it is little wonder that objectives are set rather than discussed and become simplistic hoops through which staff jump.

As a consequence of our concerns that the PM process experienced by many colleagues in schools is seen as lacking purpose or, at worst, actually demotivating, we have been working in partnership with schools to develop and test an approach that we believe in passionately and that can make a difference to the adult learners and also to the pupils in the classroom.

What could PM feel like? – the benefits of a coaching culture

Improving performance management: improving learning is an approach to PM we have developed at LCLL. This approach is:

  • developmental rather than judgemental
  • focused on pupil-centred objectives
  • capable of supporting impact evaluation processes
  • structured around a coaching dialogue

This article focuses on coaching within PM. We believe a coaching approach can support a more effective culture for learning and development for adults in our school workforce and so support professional development that makes a difference to the learning and experience of pupils. There is a valuable discussion to be had as to whether coaching can be integral to the PM process in schools and the coaching literature helps us to explore this possibility.

Clutterbuck and Megginson (2005a) define a coaching culture as one where, “Coaching is the predominant style of working together, and where a commitment to grow the organisation is embedded in a parallel commitment to grow the people.’ Crane (2005) describes a coaching culture as the most potent organizational change process for creating a ‘high-performance’ culture. He also suggests that “all members of the culture fearlessly engage in candid, respectful coaching conversations, unrestricted by reporting relationship.” In this culture, dialogue flows laterally (within and between teams) and vertically (across hierarchy) to improve individual and organisational performance. Feedback is viewed as a tool for learning and for building trusting working relationships. Such elements ought to be part of an effective approach to performance management in schools and headteachers would surely welcome such outcomes. Capra (1997) highlighted the importance of conversations and feedback loops in developing a learning community and, again, feedback from lesson observation as a key element of PM should support improved learning for both adults and pupils in a school. For many colleagues however, ‘the PM lesson observation’ is an accountability measure rather than an opportunity to develop professionally.

Employing the skills of coachingKnights and Poppleton (2007) found that ‘the quality of the coaching relationship’ was seen as the ‘single most important determinant of the success in coaching’ and they suggest that the roles and responsibilities of line managers make it difficult for them to coach their own staff. Pask and Joy (2007) also suggest that formal hierarchical structures linking coaching to performance management go against client-centred approaches to coaching. This begs the question as to whether coaching should be linked to PM where the line manager is expected to act as a reviewer. Hawkins (2008) and Crane (2005) see no problem in such a move, even suggesting that coaching skills should be included in job descriptions. It is maybe here that the crux of the discussion lies. I believe both the PM process and the quality of professional dialogue in our schools would benefit from reviewers learning and using the skills of a coach. Tese skills are articulated in the National Framework for Mentoring and Coaching (2005).

In the National Framework, reviewers could use the skills of a specialist coach and, for example, “observe, analyse and reflect upon the professional learner’s practice and make this explicit.”

Instead of participants feeling “done to” and working within an imposed system, they could work within a professional relationship in which coaches: “use open questions to raise awareness, explore beliefs, encourage professional learners to arrive at their own plans, understand consequences and develop solutions.”

To me, this would achieve the aims of a PM system and support teachers and support staff to own what they wanted to achieve and be supported by a professional colleague to achieve these goals. Te National Framework is also clear that a coach should “tailor activities in partnership with the professional learner” and “facilitate growing independence in professional learning from the outset”.

If we were able to underpin PM with such facilitation we could move from reviewees being passive recipients to active participants driving their own learning and that of the school forward.

Coaching does require an investment of time from both partners and the top reason given by leaders for not engaging in, or encouraging, coaching is time. Clutterbuck and Megginson (2005b) argue that modern organisations are ruled by e-mails and the need for immediate action.

Time for reflection is not valued and therefore people continue to work in a reactive rather than reflective manner.

In many schools PM is characterised by a reactive approach and the setting the kind of narrow tasks. In a PM process that has a coaching discussion at its heart, colleagues can work in partnership to reflect, to challenge, to investigate, to enquire and to improve the quality of their own practice and the learning of children. Coaching can also support collaboration and increase levels of trust and respect amongst staff. There are, of course, development needs for both partners in such a coaching relationship and I would prefer to see coaching skills on the agenda for reviewers rather than imparting information on the school’s procedural structure for PM.

Leadership commitment to coaching

The other key imperative is that all senior and middle leaders need to demonstrate commitment and model a coaching style. As Clutterbuck and Megginson (2005b) state, ‘People pay far more attention to what leaders do in practice than they do to what leaders say they want to happen’. Peter’s article does still seem to focus on quite a narrow view of what objectives are for and I would want to take Peter’s approach a little further.

The main problem of the current approach to PM, for me, is that it encourages schools and school leaders to focus on what the adults do (their task) rather than on the difference the adults want to make for the children. At LCLL we work with schools to develop a PM focus that has improvement to children’s learning and experience at the heart and then we ask what the adult needs to refine or improve to achieve this.

It is good to hear from Peter Taylor (2008) in his article in this edition that there are imaginative headteachers and schools who see the power of coaching within a flexible approach to PM and are fnding ways to release this power.

I fully support Peter’s approach to embedding coaching skills in PM and clearly staff working in Worth School feel very supported professionally, as well as being stretched and challenged. Peter maintains that “Performance coaching still holds pupil progress at its heart” but if pupil progress is seen only as a numerical statement the change in learning needed to improve attainment becomes a minor consideration to hitting the target. Increased attainment should be seen as the evidence that a coaching approach to PM has improved specific and agreed aspects of learning rather than as the end in itself. PM is then attuned to the aspirations for children as opposed to the needs of the organisation or the adult.

Brampton Manor, Newham, is one of the schools that worked with LCLL to develop a performance management and when I spoke to staff after they had implemented a more motivational approach it was clear to me that the focus on learning for adults as well as pupils had brought about quite a remarkable change within colleagues’ perceptions of what PM can achieve. Te clarity with which the school is now working towards that aim has enabled them to put PM at the heart of school improvement and ensure that professional development really makes a difference.

For details of LCLL’s approach to performance management please see

Vivienne Porritt is Head of CPD at the London Centre or Leadership in Learning, Institute of Education. She is a consultant to DCSF for Chartered London Teacher status and Project Director of two national programmes or the TDA. She was previously headteacher of Thamesmead School in Surrey.


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