How to tame performance reviews to make them fair and constructive

David Benson offers advice on how to ensure appraisals are neither bureaucratic nor meaningless but help everyone towards genuine improvement

David Benson offers advice on how to ensure appraisals are neither bureaucratic nor meaningless but help everyone towards genuine improvement

9 Oct 2023, 5:00

As half term approaches, teachers all over the country will be scrambling to complete their annual appraisal forms. Cue a chorus of groans.

Is there anything which varies between schools as much as performance review? If we talk about assessment, behaviour or safeguarding, most of us are on a similar page. Performance review can mean something wildly different, depending on the setting.

In some cases, it means nothing at all. As an NQT I remember listening to the grey beards in the staff room discuss their reviews. One proudly recounted that he had listed ‘lion taming’ as a CPD target for the last ten years, but SLT were yet to notice.

At the risk of generalising, I would say that reviews can fall into two categories. They are either an empty, bureaucratic exercise, with little consequence other than wasting time, or a blunt, results-driven tool, which ignores context and leaves people feeling threatened.    

Other options are available. In the best cases, staff will experience reviews as fair, constructive and motivating. Some helpful principles are:      

Be explicit about expectations

Think of the key attributes you want and list them as part of your guidance. Excellent teaching and results are important, but so is taking a full role in the pastoral and co-curricular life of the school. Staff should be reflective and focused on improvement, with high levels of personal responsibility.

Name the barriers to good

Be confident to spell out the ‘limiting behaviours’ you don’t want to see. These could include a lack of effort, disorganisation, defensiveness, sarcasm or any issues with attendance and punctuality. Having objective behaviours written down helps de-personalise any individual conversations.

Be on the employee’s side

When you set out an ambitious stall, people sometimes read this as aggressive (like you are asking them to be a cross between Einstein and Mother Theresa, or don’t understand the realities of the classroom). Take this head on. It’s not ‘anti-staff’ to have high expectations – on the contrary, where performance is lacking it is other staff who pick up the slack.

Link pay and performance

In any effective system, pay progression can’t be automatic and the highest paid staff must also be the highest performing. Imagine the opposite: everyone has the same increment, irrespective of performance, and people at the top are not pulling their weight – toxicity will soon follow. Having said this, we shouldn’t be quibbling small pay rises for those at the bottom of the scale. Take a differentiated approach, with greater scrutiny towards the middle and upper end.

Recognise diverse talent

Good performance comes in many forms, and there is a risk we value one type over another. Some people will be brilliant teachers, able to coach and develop those around them. Others will be skilled pastorally, always on the lookout for the student who needs extra support. For a handful of colleagues, it’s hard to articulate exactly what makes them so great, but we know it when we see it.

Be honesty and compassionate

Often leaders find themselves in difficult conversations where – on a human level – they have deep sympathy for the colleague in front of them. But on a work level, there remains an issue which must be addressed. These two things can be true at the same time, and often just acknowledging the tension is enough. 

Give staff a strong voice

From the very outset, staff need to know how they can appeal a review judgement they consider unfair. Without that, you are asking them to buy into a challenging, aspirational model with no protection. Be open to the idea that – as SLT – you are unlikely to have an exhaustive understanding of all the issues, and that an objective appeal system (ideally overseen by governors) is a right of the employee.

At their best, performance reviews are seen as an entitlement not an imposition, and leave staff energised for the year ahead. It can take time to build that culture, but each review is another brick in the wall.

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