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Peer support of teaching in college higher education, in the context of the Teaching Excellence Framework

Dan Amin

The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) is a government assessment of the quality of undergraduate teaching in universities and other higher education (HE) providers in England. The TEF rates institutions as gold, silver or bronze, in order of quality of teaching, with the first set of results being published in June 2017.

The introduction of the TEF has been seen by college higher education (CHE) providers as a real opportunity to showcase an area they claim to do well in: teaching (Evans, 2015). Furthermore, they will feel the need to ensure that their teaching is as good as possible in order to brandish a gold award alongside their logo, and use it to entice students to their institution at a time of ever-increasing competition for new undergraduates (Ratcliffe, 2015).

So, how do CHE providers actually ensure that teaching is excellent? There are several methods at an institution’s disposal, including sharing-of-best-practice forums, staff development sessions and professional development budgets. However, one area that is becoming ever more popular within CHE is peer support of teaching (PSoT) (Fidler, 2016).

PSoT has been utilised by universities for several years (Byrne, Brown and Challen, 2010), and colleges are starting to follow suit for their CHE provision. Traditionally, CHE practitioners had fallen under the management-led graded observations. Much has been written about the problems associated with this type of observation to the extent that Ofsted themselves have stopped grading individual tutors (Morrison, 2015). This has opened the door wider for CHE providers to adopt a peer observation process similar to that within many universities.

The conceptual underpinning of PSoT is that it should be non-threatening, collegiate and mutually beneficial, and is seen to lead to practitioner development (Hammersley-Fletcher and Orsmond, 2004), with most PSoT models following the format of find a peer, observe, meet to provide feedback, send paperwork to a central team, swap and repeat (Gosling, 2009). However, there are also several criticisms levelled at this model – one being that these types of models still tend to be just snapshots of a practitioners’ practice (ibid), without any real follow up-or focus on whether a practitioner has, in fact, developed their practice using the feedback. Other criticism has questioned how much value can actually be placed on the feedback of a ‘peer’, if the peer herself is not seen to be of a desired ‘level’ (ibid). This latter issue has resonance in CHE, particularly in contexts in which there are few HE-specific senior lecturers or HE-specific teaching enhancement specialists.

‘Does peer support of teaching, in its current guise, warrant a place within CHE, considering both criticisms of it and the potential impact that the TEF will have on colleges?’

This, therefore, raises the question: Does PSoT, in its current guise, warrant a place within CHE, considering the potential impact that the TEF will have on colleges? Questions may arise along the lines of, How can management truly know if teaching is improving, if those that are reviewing the teaching are potentially not of a desired quality to do so? It also might be asked, Is the model structured in a way that allows for meaningful development of academic staff? Could the substantive impact of the TEF give rise to CHE practitioners going back to being observed in a manner akin to their further education colleagues? These observations are, after all, also borne out of a need to ensure that practice meets external expectations (that is, OfSTED) as much as internal ones.

Even if a more developmental model of PSoT is to be considered, then the potential problem of the ‘value’ of the peer still needs to be addressed, and may advocate the need to fully utilise the role of senior lecturer or advanced HE teaching practitioners. In this way we should be able retain some of the conceptual ethos of the peer support model, while avoiding a return to an altogether different type of observation.


Byrne J, Brown B and Challen C (2010) ‘Peer development as an alternative to peer observation: a tool to enhance professional development’, International Journal for Academic Development 15(3): 15–28

Evans D (2015) ‘FE colleges top national student satisfaction survey’, Times Educational Supplement website, 12 August 2015. [accessed 20 January 2017]

Fidler D (2016) ‘What is the role of a HE peer review of teaching in FE colleges?’, Association of Colleges website, June 2016. [accessed 26 January 2017]

Gosling D (2009) ‘A new approach to peer review of teaching’, in Gosling D and Mason O’Connor K (eds) Beyond the peer observation of teaching, London: Staff and Educational Development Association. 7–15

Hammersley-Fletcher I and Orsmond P (2004) ‘Evaluating our peers: is peer observation a meaningful process?’, Studies in Higher Education 29(4): 489–503

Morrison N (2015) ‘Ofsted to scrap graded lesson observations in FE’, Times Educational Supplement online, 22 May 2015. [accessed 20 January 2017]

Ratcliffe R (2015) ‘Universities fight to woo students in run-up to A-level results’, Guardian, 8 August 2015. [accessed 24 January 2017]