Richard Cairns, Head Master of Brighton College (a fee-paying boarding and day school), recently called on the government to allow student evaluation to play a greater role in assessing the competence and performance of their teachers, arguing that it would help school leaders to deal more effectively with under-performing teachers. Unsurprisingly, Mr Cairns’ suggestion has provoked some angry responses among the teaching profession with many teachers questioning the legitimacy and usefulness of such an exercise. Nevertheless, it does beg the question as to whether this is a plausible proposal worth considering.
Student evaluation is not a new phenomenon. It has been an integral feature of many programmes of study across education sectors in the UK for some time. However, it strikes me that there are two aspects of Mr Cairns’ suggestion, in particular, that are markedly different to how student evaluations have been used to date. Firstly, there is the proposal that greater weighting should be given to such evaluations by linking them directly to the formal process of teacher appraisal. And secondly, it focuses specifically on teacher performance, singling this out as the key criterion on which judgements should be made about the quality of the learning experience at the exclusion of other key variables, notably the students themselves and their learning environment.
The idea that student feedback has an important role to play in the improvement of teaching and learning seems relatively straightforward and uncontested. What is less straightforward and more contested is how influential that role should be in evaluating classroom practice and what such feedback should ultimately be used for. Is it to inform collegial discussions around the student experience or simply to pass judgement on the performance of individual teachers? I think the reason why Mr Cairns’ comments have provoked such strength of feeling among teachers is that they seem to appeal more to the latter of these two roles, which inevitably enters a delicate and dangerous territory.
The fact that Mr Cairns presides over a fee-paying school should not go unnoticed as it suggests that he is perhaps predisposed to conceptualising students as ‘customers’. One of the dangers of this is that student voice can thus be attributed more credence and value than in reality it can claim to possess. Of course students should be given a platform to express their views about their learning experiences, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that they will somehow be able to produce a fair, valid and reliable assessment of the competence and performance of their teachers at the end of it. My own research into the use of lesson observation in the Further Education (FE) sector in England has highlighted how difficult this is even for the most highly experienced observers working with tried and tested assessment criteria over a sustained period of time. If we add to this the reliance on the reductive practice of graded lesson observations that has come to dominate teacher assessment in recent years, then we are in danger of repeating such flawed practice this time around but with students at the helm.
By all means, let’s embrace student evaluations as an important element in a diverse portfolio of evidence that we might use to inform discussions about the quality of teaching and learning, along with others like student achievement rates, peer review, self-evaluation etc. But let’s not repeat the same mistakes that have already been made in seeking to reduce the complex process of teacher appraisal to its lowest common denominator.
Dr Matt O’Leary is a principal lecturer and research fellow in post-compulsory education in the University of Wolverhampton’s Centre for Research and Development in Lifelong Education. He is the author of ‘Classroom observation: A Guide to the Effective Observation of Teaching and Learning’, recently published by Routledge: http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415525794/