Peer review and its role in school improvement

As we navigate our way through further pandemic restrictions, Dr David Godfrey, Editor of  School Peer Review for Educational Improvement and Accountability, distills his thoughts on the school system and explains why his book is more valid in these times than ever before.

Three views have come to underpin my thinking about the school system. These were formed while working as an assistant director and teacher at a large sixth form college* in the south of England and then later during my doctoral research at UCL. You should see the relevance to this book as you read them and why I think it is so important and timely.

First – much of the professional development I received as a teacher had little or no impact on my practice, or my students’ learning. I can still recall listening to one outside expert who came to our college to talk to teaching staff about ‘emotional leadership’. He showed us a lively, amusing, but rather banal video on the topic and presented several unsubstantiated claims about this subject. Many fellow teachers enjoyed the session, and it made some general sense. But in response to some of our more specific, probing questions, he clearly lacked the important knowledge about our educational phase to give an informed answer. As an aside, I also distinctly remember that all the senior leaders were absent from this training – no doubt too busy to lose half a day learning about emotional leadership! The disconnect between leadership, professional learning and school improvement was thus complete. 

 Secondly – many ideas circulating about teaching and learning were not informed by research. Rather, these were based on claims from popular books that promoted ‘learning styles’ and ‘brain gym’ with scant evidence to back their claims. In tandem with this, subject meetings were often focused on the microscopic examination of students’ progress and attainment data and how we, as teachers, should be held accountable for the underperformance of some students to senior management, and try harder. We rarely addressed the root concern – how to actually improve learning – certainly not informed by a good reading of the academic literature. 

Thirdly – the accountability dog wagged its tail far too often. This became all too clear to me during my doctoral research. Interviewing a teacher in a school with a strong reputation for its professional development, I asked a teacher in her first year to describe what made it so excellent – her reply: “because it’s so Ofsted -ocused”. The language of the inspectorate has become internalised in teachers and school leaders, becoming a form of continual self-monitoring and surveillance. This dominant discourse is evident in the ubiquitous use of the word ‘outstanding’ to describe not just high quality schools** but also to grade individual teachers’ performance. Over the last few years working as an academic, I have had the joy of speaking to colleagues working in education across the globe. Only in England is the name of the external evaluator synonymous with the inspection process as it is in the passive verb to be Ofsteded***. This tells me that the teaching profession has become infantilised. Without its own strong, unified professional voice, it leaves the judgement of high-quality education to the regulators (the parents), lacking the confidence and autonomy to proclaim these elements itself.  

In short, the vehicles and arbiters of school improvement, professional development and school quality have been wrongly configured as I see it – left to uninformed outsiders, not informed by a critical reading of the educational research literature and led by inspectors rather than school leaders and the teaching profession.  

However, I was also lucky enough during my time at the college to have had some positive experiences that suggested how things could work for the better. One was participating and leading in peer reviews. Visiting other colleges, I learned how to evaluate practices in other settings. I had strong professional discussions with other colleagues working in the same field. I also experienced the best leadership development I’d had by far; the exercise of drawing conclusions based on specific evidence gathered in these visits was powerful, and knowing I had to speak to the Principal of the host college at the end of day two helped focus my mind on this task! For once this was professional learning that felt empowering rather than enervating. I also saw how different peer review was from an inspection or consultancy – a visiting reviewer may have credibility, experience and advice to offer, but it was not like bringing in a ‘guru’ and neither was it primarily focused on passing judgement. Peer review is powerful precisely because we speak to our equals and recognise a shared practice and joint expertise. Accountability is not to an external agent with the aim of demonstrating compliance, but to a fellow professional and for a common moral purpose.  

The second powerful experience in my career was leading the college’s research-engagement strategy. In the early days, this was small scale and involved mentoring half a dozen teaching staff to conduct their own action research projects. This blossomed into a journal, an annual conference and the college was the first to gain the research-engagement award by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Learning through enquiry is a mode of professionalism that leads to much deeper understanding of issues and also promotes engagement with academic research. Years later and having completed my thesis on ‘research-engaged schools’ and now in an academic post at the Institute of Education in London, I have combined both interests – the process of enquiry and research with the power of peers reviewing each other’s practices. 

England is a pioneer of school peer review at scale. Organisations such as Challenge Partners (the first programme to base school improvement on peer review) and later the Schools Partnership Programme, have become big players, with many hundreds of schools involved. The school leaders and teachers who take part are trained in review, they improve their evaluation literacy, learn how to form enquiry questions, and they learn how to lead change. Increasingly, peer reviewers encourage the sharing of what is already known from the educational research base to avoid learning through anecdote and the recirculation of ineffective practices. For lead reviewers, I would argue that peer review is becoming what Lee Shulman has called a ‘signature pedagogy’ for school leaders, in which the deep and surface structures of this process are akin to ‘doing the rounds’ in medical practice or to case study in the legal profession.

Peer review is emerging in new countries. This book looks at the diverse contexts of Chile, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Australia and Wales, in addition to England. Very little research has been conducted or published on school peer review, and in particular there has been nothing that analyses school peer review models conceptually. This volume brings this all together in one place, addressing different models and contexts for peer review, along with the barriers for its expansion. Some of these: the need for supporting policy, alignment with institutional and professional structures, a significant commitment to the training and review process, and an understanding accountability framework, are substantial. 

This book has come at the right time. As the cloud of the current pandemic blows away, schools will, more than ever, seek effective forms of collaboration that address urgently the needs of their students, of society and the planet. Done in the right way, the case studies in this edition show how peer review and collaborative enquiry can underpin school improvement, enhance professional accountability and develop the leaders of the future. 

*The upper secondary sector in England. Students are 16-18 years old and mostly study for university entrance exams (A levels)

**Outstanding is the top grade that OFSTED gives to a school overall in its inspection reports and many schools have banners proclaiming this to passers-by. OFSTED never grades individual teachers as outstanding, good or otherwise. 

***Office for Standards in Education (OFSTED) is the English schools’ inspectorate, so ‘to be Ofsteded’ means to have been through an inspection. 


David Godfrey is an Associate Professor in Education, Leadership and Management at UCL Institute of Education in London and the programme leader for the MA Educational Leadership. He was co-director of the Centre for Educational Evaluation and Accountability until 2018 and was a lead inspector for the Independent Schools Inspectorate. An advocate of research-informed practice in education, his projects and publications include research-engaged schools, school peer review, inspection systems and lesson study. In July 2017, David was acknowledged in the Oxford Review of Education as one of the best new educational researchers in the UK. Prior to this David worked for many years as a teacher at home and abroad, including at a large sixth form college where he taught Psychology and was an Assistant Director of Teaching and Learning (Research-Engagement). 

For details on obtaining a copy of School Peer Review for Educational Improvement and Accountability, click here