An inconvenient truth? The surplus model of school improvement


Schools often seem to be run on a ‘deficit model‘: “this attributes scepticism or hostility to a lack of understanding, resulting from a lack of information. It is associated with a division between ‘experts’ (school leaders, Ofsted inspectors, consultants etc.) who have the information and non-experts (classroom teachers) who do not. The model implies that communication should focus on improving the transfer of information from experts to non-experts.” But what if we ran our schools on a surplus model? What if we assumed that teachers were basically trustworthy, hard-working, and knew what they were doing? What it were agreed that school leaders achieve their lofty positions not because they ‘know best’, but because their ambitions are different?

Ever since the ‘get rid of lesson grades’ band wagon began to gather momentum, there have been certain awkward lingering questions. These questions are usually to do with accountability, quality assurance, appraisal or performance related pay. It’s easy to take the purist’s view that school improvement should be focussed entirely on improving pupils’ outcomes and that anything that doesn’t support this grand plan can go whistle, but that leaves many school leaders feeling nervous and exposed.

It should go without question that a great school needs great systems. If you doubt this, read Tessa Matthew’s post on why every school needs a behaviour system. And read Harry Fletcher-Wood’s on creating a system for great CPD.

But in the end, the accountability question boils down, I think, to this: What do we do about  teachers who cannot or will not improve? As always, Dylan Wiliam is good for a quote: “Ask teachers if they have anything to learn. If they say yes, work with them. If they say no, fire them.”

The inconvenient truth is that there are ineffective teachers. They fall, broadly speaking, into three camps:

  1. Those who are desperately struggling but continue to be ineffective.
  2. Those who SLT believe to be ineffective but are actually pretty good.
  3. Those who couldn’t give a shit.

Lets deal with each group in turn:

1. Teachers who want to improve are a relatively simple nut to crack. Firstly, any school leader worth their salt already know who they are; there is nothing to be gained from making them even less effective by scrutinising them further. If we’re serious about helping them improve we should think about the following:

  • What are they best at? Most ‘support’ focuses on improving what a teacher is perceived to be bad at, and is consequently, pretty dispiriting. What if instead we started by focusing on and growing teachers’ individual ‘bright spots’ then we have a chance at getting them to believe they can be better.
  • Sort out the basics. If behaviour is a problem, take responsibility for the fact that children think it’s OK to misbehave in any lesson, no matter who the teacher is. In good school this doesn’t happen. Make sure groups are functional and that systems are in place to deal with problems; help teachers set up routines to ensure high expectations. Never ever tell a teacher that poor behaviour is their fault. While it’s true that a well-planned lesson can contribute to good behaviour, it is most certainly not true that good planning can solve behaviour problems.
  • We learn most by observing others and then having an opportunity to ask questions and discuss assumptions. If we want to help struggling teachers improve free them up to observe colleagues. Absolutely don’t expect them to do this in their PPA time – SLT should cover their lessons so that actual support is provided.
  • Use observations as an opportunity to explore mistakes. It’s right that we should have the highest expectations, but this doesn’t mean we should smash people when they fail to live up to them. We would never take this approach with children but it seems pretty standard with teachers. The message must be that it is OK to make mistakes. I’ve heard teaching described as being like air traffic control and that any mistake will cost lives. This is nonsense. We can all always try again and fail better next lesson. Supporting teachers with this message is more likely to lead to something sustainable rather than simply expecting them to get a ‘good’ at the end of a short term intention programme.

2. There are loads of teachers in schools who are misunderstood and unappreciated. Maybe they’re not able to ‘turn it on’ for a one-off observation. Maybe their methods are out of step with what the school views as the ‘best’ way to teach. Maybe their face just doesn’t fit. Ofsted’s recent pronouncements reiterating the fact that there is no right way to teach and that putting on a show will not work are good news for these teachers. Sadly, if you fit into this category it’s unlikely that any support will be useful if they see you as too quirky, too old-fashioned or just too long in the tooth. It is lamentably easy to destroy a good teacher through such ‘support’. Obviously though, we need someway to ensure that teachers really are effective, so what can we do? This is where we need robust performance management measures; not for the pupils’ benefit per se, but to ensure that we are right in our judgements. These measure might include the following:

  • Data – How well do pupils perform in internal and external tests? How well do pupils perform against other teachers’ classes? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, you’ve got a problem.
  • It’s absolutely reasonable that a school requires that certain standards are ‘non-negotiatiable’. Are they standards being met? How do you know? Formalised classroom observations and work scrutinies are mechanisms for ensuring these basics are in place with out the need for any clumsy grading, but in a good school, leaders will know these things because they are constantly out and about. They will know what different areas of the school ‘feel’ like and they will know who is on message and who isn’t. If a member of SLT is present in corridors and classrooms every lesson then there should be no surprises.
  • If it’s reasonable that every teacher should improve not because they’re rubbish but because they can be better, it must follow that every teacher is deliberately and visibly trying to improve. The oft cited research of Messrs Rivkin, Hanushek and Kain tells us that teachers tend to stop improving after the first three years. We settle for competence instead of striving for mastery. So appraisal should include targets that will require teachers to select and practice ares of practice that they wish to improve. To my mind, it doesn’t matter whether these efforts are successful in any measurable sense, it’s the fact that you’ve tried to do something different and difficult that counts.
  • I’m suspicious of Student Voice. Just asking kids whether or not they like a teacher is a ridiculously blunt instrument. But a well-designed questionnaire or interview may be able to capture something useful about pupils’ experience of lessons. Just because this is hard to do well is not a reason for not trying to do it at all. I’d really like to see some good examples of these, so if you have one, please get in touch.

3. There are teachers that couldn’t give a shit: I’ve met some. These individuals are toxic and give us all a bad name. They don’t mark their books, they resort of videos at the slightest provocation and they give kids a thoroughly raw deal. Thankfully they’re relatively rare, but I’m sure every school has one or two. And as with the other categories of teachers, everyone will know who they are. How you decide to deal with them is up to you. Is it worth the effort of trying to save them, or should they be fired as soon as is expedient? That’s a judgement call.

It’s also worth looking to those schools that have already taken the plunge, and seeing what they’re doing:

Chris Moyse: Professional Development at my academy – No Lesson grades EVER!
Liam Collins: Know your school by not grading lessons
John Tomsett: This much I know about…why we should never grade individual lessons again!
Tom Sherrington: Keeping up with OfSTED’s Goalposts. What SLTs should do.

But whatever we do in our efforts to improve schools, remember this: any policy or pronouncement that is predicated on the idea that teachers can or should work harder is bound to fail. Teachers already work hard and can’t reasonably work harder. If you want staff to do x, you need to take away y. As Alistair Smith says in High Performers: The Secrets of Successful Schools, the job of a school leader is to strip out every demand on classroom teachers save that they plan and teach to the best of their ability. There is always an opportunity cost. Anything you ask teachers to do just for the sake of accountability is time that cannot be spent doing something more worth while.

Related posts

What 3 things would you do to help a teacher improve?
Questions that matter: method vs practice
How can we make classroom observation more effective?


45 Responses to An inconvenient truth? The surplus model of school improvement

    • David,

      This is really interesting, and to a degree ties in with my fumbling initial explorations regarding the Conscious Competence Model of learning ( – is there not a band of teachers who are incompetent but unaware?

      Regarding Student Voice, I used to (very) occasionally use students as a backchannel in my lessons. I asked two children to write, rotating them often and they used the same Google doc, so I didn’t know who had written what. They were encouraged to be honest – which they were, quite brutally! The two biggest complaints were that I moved on too fast and I spoke too quickly. I found the feedback really useful, but key here was my willingness to both request it and take on board what they were saying.


  1. David,

    Shortly after becoming a HoD I came across the idea that giving people responsibility, rather than making them accountable, might be a more effective way to manage. This is something that, in my first three years of teaching, Had never occurred to me. As a result I struggled with many aspects, some bread and butter, that I now wouldn’t bat an eyelid at. And so I decided to give myself responsibility, as opposed to holding myself accountable or being held to account. I have certainly become a deeper thinker and and much more reflective practitioner due to this shift in outlook. Thus, I feel that I am a much better teacher and that my students perform better. Do I have the data to support this? Yes – for me.

    Perhaps the difficulty for SLTs is that because some do struggle, and because some don’t appear to teach to the school style (despite, perhaps, being great teachers), and because there are some who couldn’t give a damn the easier route for QA is to hold staff to account. I expect this appears to be a more easily measurable route, as well. But I also would suggest that, being humans with all our complexities, some would run with greater responsibility whilst others would just about tread water – and yes, some would sink, maybe happily.

    Having read and commented on Harry Fletcher-Wood’s CPD post earlier today it is clear that he is trying to give staff responsibility whilst also expecting them to act on their reflections. He is trying to strike the right balance because he has to try to measure the effectiveness. And, as you say, great schools have great systems.

    We often choose the easier way because it seems to benefit us in the short-term; as a history teacher this is one of the key recurring themes when studying the Cold War, for example. But the easier way, as I’m sure Aesop or Lao Tzu have said much more poetically than I, is rarely the most effective – especially in the long term. Though I’m not SLT I expect that it would be a brave AH to suggest such a paradigm shift. Chris Moyse is trying to do this but, as I’m sure he would agree, it has taken a lot of time and will continue to do so. But he’d also argue, correctly, that the opportunity cost for his staff and students is worth it in the long run.

    As for actual staff time, is more money the answer? Despite my own shift in focus I certainly couldn’t spare any more time than I already have.


    • David Didau says:

      That’s very well put: I like the idea of responsibility instead of accountability. And time is definitely (part) of the answer. Those who teach least observe most – SLT should use their time to facilitate lesson study & other reciprocal, non-hierarchical observation.

      Thanks, DD

  2. […] Ever since the ‘get rid of lesson grades’ band wagon began to gather momentum, there have been certain awkward lingering questions. These questions are usually to do with accountability, quality assurance, appraisal or performance related pay. It’s easy to take the purist’s view that school improvement should be focussed entirely on improving pupils’ outcomes and  […]

  3. Neil Williams says:

    I really like this, there’s definitely enough substance to develop a great system. However, for it to be successful, I think there is another assumption to add to the teachers are generally hard working etc. That SLT are generally trust worthy, hard-working, know what they’re doing, and want the best for staff and for students. Mutual trust I guess…

    Thanks, Neil

  4. 4c3d says:

    How about a 4th – those who think they are brilliant but are actually inhibiting learning by wanting to be “center stage”? The type that spends most of the lesson talking or directing and not actually “teaching”.

    In respect of responsibilities in school one of the problems I met was the inability of SLT to recognise, as I see it, their key role – that of protecting the teacher/learner relationship, of providing and maintaining a learning environment where responsibility are understood and protected from anything that threatens. You can find my “Responsibility diagram” here:

    As I see it there should be a passing of responsibility from the teacher to the learner over time. Unfortunately, having a distorted sense of accountability, some teachers take back the responsibility when under pressure to achieve results or to “perform”. Pressure often imposed by SLT when seeking to improve teaching and learning using “blunt methods”. This inhibits a steady transfer and instead sets up a “saw tooth” pattern where many learners learn to sit back knowing the teacher will step in. Students learn this lesson all too easily and it is a disaster for the school, the teacher and the learner alike.


  5. […] An inconvenient truth? The surplus model of school improvement […]

  6. Debaser says:

    Brilliant post.

    ‘the job of a school leader is to strip out every demand on classroom teachers save that they plan and teach to the best of their ability.’

    Nail on the head. One might also extend this to every Secretary of State for Education.

  7. Terry Pearson says:

    David, I think you have put forward a very interesting take on how to deal with individual teachers who show no signs of improving what goes on in their classrooms. When reading it, I can’t help myself being reminded of Douglas McGregor’s XY theory of management and William Ouchi’s Z theory. A brief introduction to them can be found here

    For me there remain two unanswered questions about dealing with ineffectiveness in the classroom. These are in essence concerned with:

    1. The extent to which effectiveness and improvement are a function of the person, and
    2. The extent to which effectiveness and improvement are a function of the practice.

    Put simply, are certain types of people more likely and able to be effective, for example people who are hard working, trustworthy and ambitious and if so what can be done about people who do not naturally possess these qualities or attributes? Or, are certain practices more likely to be effective in the classroom for example particular approaches to giving feedback, collaborative learning and peer tutoring in which case is it possible that all teachers can become more effective if they develop their skills in using these approaches?

    It may be that effectiveness proves to be a combination of both but until then it is not prudent to be speaking of teaching effectiveness rather than teacher effectiveness?

    • David Didau says:

      Call me optimistic, but I think the great majority can improve greatly if the conditions are favourable. And I’m not so worried by the 2nd point: you reveal your preferences when you cite “collaborative learning” – you see, I don’t agree that that’s ‘more likely to be effective’ so I’d not encourage it. But one of us is at least a little bit wrong. And while we’re arguing about it, teachers will do what they’re most comfortable doing.

      • Terry Pearson says:

        Nothing wrong with optimism in my book, and my experience has led me to be more convinced than sceptical that in the right conditions all teachers can improve what they do. Nevertheless, it is difficult to find credible research to support this standpoint. Most of the research, especially from the US points towards firing incompetent teachers at the first opportunity, a rather sad stance in my view.

        I hope my previous comment didn’t suggest I was not in favour of the line you are taking in this discussion. I wanted to point out the current dilemma in identifying what contributes most to effectiveness in the classroom. Is it more to do with who the teacher is or is more aligned with what the teacher does?
        There is plenty of research concerned with the latter, but very little investigations into the former. This makes the US stance all the more dubious.

        By the way, collaborative learning was cited as a possible approach in the classroom which may be effective not as a personal preference but because it features as a highly effective approach in a meta study conducted by the Education Endowment Fund.

  8. SCG-S says:

    Unfortunately, I have experienced another category; those teachers whom SLT believe to be fantastic (maybe because they used to be, I’m not sure, I’ve always been pretty mystified as to why this happens with some teachers) but are actually pretty ineffective when you scrutinise data/work sample. In my experience they too can become toxic influences but are placed on a pedestal and nobody dares address the issues around them.

  9. This is a very good post (there have been many such from you very recently). Once Ofsted has ceased to be the driving force in our schools (and note that they have claimed that is not the case, and never has been), then the space should open for the next step, which is effective CPD. Your outline of this above has legs, I think. However, it might not yet be time to switch the focus back onto teachers. Given the battering that SLT have received to deliver, they will need time to readjust to their real responsibility – ensuring that their staff are appropriately supported to deliver what the students require. I think that changing the focus for SLT will take some time. I also think that SLT are the key to effectiveness – they can empower or hinder.

    • David Didau says:

      You’re right – Headteachers have the power to make or break a school. So, what you’re suggesting is that we have to tighten up before we can loosen up?

    • adampjacob says:

      A very interesting point and I think a very perceptive one. I really support the idea that SLT’s main (maybe only) job is to support staff to deliver to students. I have seen this somewhere else but can’t remember where I’m afraid (apologies to that person). Unfortunately I think there are many SLTs who do not realise or agree with this and instead want to make the difference on their own (no names no pack drill).

  10. jameswilding says:

    The buy-in to autonomy, mastery and purpose is required by teachers in schools. What the big-macification of education has done in core disciplines is take away from the middle years teacher responsibility for understanding how children learn. Neither do good schools permit education to become a correspondence course by worksheets at early secondary school. Reserving time for teachers to work together is hard when they take their rights to autonomy so seriously they won’t play for the team. Mastery of what needs to be identified too; despite best intentions, it is easier to manage the trivial and appear busy and useful.
    The wide ranging debate on identifying effective teaching is inspiring. What concerns me is the disconnect between each year. Children can have 5 years of primary education with admired teachers in each year. Their whole experience is more than this some of parts. School leadership is not about the never ending scrubbing up of staff, but the creation of possibilities beyond the normal. I have just read an email from my head of PE who has rearranged over 50 fixtures lost last half, involving 8 other willing schools ready to add to already busy schedules. The lift in student spirits when they see all has not been lost is terrific and will impact upon their other lessons. I have just come back from Berlin with the GCSE historians and their teachers, and the subjects of Nazism/cold war are now so much more alive. Bright, energetic, leading of learning has many faces and ages and needs to impact in multiple directions.
    Most school improvement happens because of what happens in classrooms. Graham Nuthall pointed out a decade ago that the teacher knows far less then they think. Leadership can make huge differences, for example implementing Google apps to enable major improvements in collaboration. Which directly impacts upon classroom practice and directs mastery at specific practice.

  11. thom says:

    Thanks for another great post David. As a member of an SLT I have been in the position of dealing with ‘ineffective’ teachers. I have had to, on occasion, take the awful decision to tell somebody it is time to move on. It’s never easy and we have always started from a position of trying to support the teacher concerned. In one case we offer support for more than a year, hoping the teacher would be able to turn it around but none of the team (four of us in support) could see progress we let the teacher go. And it was no surprise to anybody – sadly the teacher had been given a free ride for many years.

    Your point about the second group of teachers is very pertinent to my experiences too. I have had HoDs come to me and say this or that teacher is ineffective or toxic and when we have really sat down to discuss it you realise that it is a personality clash or just a teacher who has their own mind. I can think of a case right now where I was asked repeatedly to move somebody on and I wouldn’t do it because what I saw in the classroom was a hardworking, dedicated teacher who had enough common sense to ask ‘why?’ when she felt it necessary. I spent a year working with the teacher’s department, in part just to see what made her tick. She still is a tough taskmaster for SLT and often she sends me emails Sunday night with thoughts about this or that issue at school, but I see it as a positive.

    You talked quite rightly about judgement calls and what I have learned is that the first judgement we should make as a leader is ‘What can I do to make this work?’. We don’t have the right to judge without first thinking damn hard about our part in the process.

  12. thom says:

    David, just saw your point about student perception surveys!

    There is quite a lot of data and research on this with the MET project, as part of their ‘idealised’ model of appraisal. They used a number of different systems (all US based) and plumped in the end for the Tripod Project ( The best thing about Tripod is that there is a simple free version that you can use in classrooms. Unfortunately their version for the KS1 is not free but there are versions that look effective for upper primary and secondary classes. Tripod is pretty good at avoiding the pitfalls of popularity contests.

    I am doing some more personal research into pupil perception surveys at the moment and hopefully next term I will be able to find a few staff willing to try them out. Where I differ from the MET project is that I would rather see them as tools for personal PD than line managed appraisal. I think it would be interesting to give them to teachers to use on their own, sorting the data themselves and using the conclusions to help them refine where they can improve.

  13. David Didau says:

    Excellently put! Thank you

  14. “I’m suspicious of Student Voice. … I’d really like to see some good examples of these, so if you have one, please get in touch.”

    Have you seen the MET tripod survey? We’ve adapted it and currently piloting its use within peer coaching (i.e. to help identify teacher strengths and areas for development – not accountability!).

    According to the MET research, teacher rankings on the survey appear to correlate reasonably well with student outcomes – and the Sutton Trust reported that its reliability was significantly better than observation. So far, with a volunteer sample, teachers have enjoyed getting the feedback and frequently asked for a follow up (e.g. 3 months later) so they can see whether changes are reflected by student ratings in the survey. It’s all kept within the confidentiality of a coaching partnership – but obviously the teachers can share it with whom they like (e.g. their students, as evidence, etc.). Summarised and anonymous data can be shared with SLT to help give a snap shot of where CPD might be needed and as evidence of where it might be paying off.

  15. Terry Pearson says:

    Can you give directions to the Sutton Trust report for the tripod survey?

  16. Terry Pearson says:

    Thank you for posting the link. I have this one already and I thought you were referring to something specifically devoted to the survey. Nevertheless I believe the Sutton Trust has produced some very useful documentation and I recommend this to anyone with an interest in appraisal. The document I mentioned in an earlier post, the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, is available on the following link:

    To pick up on a point I have raised previously, in the opening paragraph of this document is the statement “There is now widespread acceptance among researchers within the UK and internationally that good teaching is at the heart of good schools, …”, yet the report constantly makes reference to “good teachers”, “teacher evaluation” and “rewarding the best teachers”. So which is the most important, good teaching or good teachers? I know this may sound a little semantic but it is important that we know which is the most crucial. If the opening paragraph is accurate then it is about practice not people and this has major implications for how we address poor practice in the classroom.

    • It specifically talks about the MET Tripod survey (e.g. p22, p24) but yes, it’s reporting the results of the MET evaluation rather than specifically devoted to it.

      I agree with your distinction – the difference between talking about ‘good teaching’ and ‘good teachers’ is more than a semantic quibble. It’s an important distinction.

      Like David, I quite like the Wiliam quote “Ask teachers if they have anything to learn …” – to identify the latter. Though, after years of gimmicky, guru/management led, compliance enforcing strategies thrust on teachers – it is perhaps no wonder some teachers become apathetic and suspicious of all change.

      Developing ‘good teaching’ is all about self-directed improvement, in my view. We want teachers who drive themselves to extend and develop their practice (it won’t happen through fear or for more money). David’s ‘surplus model’ is bang on the nail! We should extend trust and encourage autonomy. Developing ‘good teaching’ is all about self-directed improvement – overbearing accountability systems just get in the way.

      • Terry Pearson says:

        Interesting points, and pleased you appreciate the significance of the distinction between referring to good teaching and good teachers.

        But what if we take the distinction a little further? If we should be concerned more with evaluating teaching rather than evaluating teachers, ie the focus is on practice rather than people, then should appraisal be practice focussed instead of people focussed? Should the starting point for appraisal be identifying practice which should be appraised in place of identifying people who should be appraised? And if so, what would that mean for current appraisal systems in schools?

        • I agree, we should be evaluating practice not people. In the same way our behaviour management systems talk about ‘bad behaviour’ not ‘bad children’ – it’s counterproductive to make judgements of teachers as rather than their current practice. Given the subjectivity (and thus poor reliability) involved in such judgements, it would seem highly unethical even if it were effective at raising performance (which I don’t think it is!).

          At the start of my career, “appraisal” almost entirely focused upon a formative self-assessment of my performance – where are things going well? – what areas do I need to develop? – what do I plan to do next to improve my practice? A teacher ‘worth their salt’ should be able to engage with those questions for themselves (as the Wiliam quote implies).

          Useful appraisal, therefore, involves a teacher and a critical friend sitting down to explore these questions – with a view to identifying any external training, coaching or resources that will be required to take the next step. Top-down, superficial judgements of whether a teacher is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ only undermine professionalism.

  17. […] Schools often seem to be run on a ‘deficit model‘: “this attributes scepticism or hostility to a lack of understanding, resulting from a lack of information. It is associated with a division between ‘experts’ (school leaders, Ofsted inspectors, consultants etc.) who have the information and non-experts (classroom teachers) who do not. The model implies that communication  […]

  18. mrbenney says:

    I have been “grappling” with this post for a few days now and in particular your group 3 teachers combined with not grading lessons. Fortunately I don’t believe there are any group 3 teachers where I work. However, if there were I have always felt that grading lesson observations would give more evidence to “move” them on from the school in a way that non graded observations couldn’t. However, the more I have reflected it seems reasonable that many group 3 teachers could “pull it out of the bag” for observed lessons but default back to apathy for the rest of the time. These positive observation grades would actually make moving the teacher even more difficult. As you alluded, group 3 are often not incompetent but just completely apathetic to the job.
    As ever, lots to think about David. Thank you.

    • David Didau says:

      Yes, this is a good point – an I’ve actually seen that happen. I made the point to my head at the time that a one off performance was irrelevant and that disciplinary was a better route than capability. But to no avail. Frustrating.

  19. […] like to pick up on something David Didau posted on his BLOG recently. I think it’s really important for two reasons. Firstly, because […]

  20. […] The Cult of Outstanding™: the problem with ‘outstanding’ lessons A tale of two lessons: further thoughts on the Cult of Outstanding An inconvenient truth? A surplus model of school improvement  […]

  21. adampjacob says:

    I think this is possibly the BEST writing I have read about improving T&L. Thank you David.

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