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Don't take Pandas on a witchhunt

Answers your leadership questions

Our school's Performance and Assessment report for 2003 has just arrived.

An initial reading suggests that one subject department is underachieving.

How should I proceed?

The short answer to this is "with caution". As you know, the Panda report is designed to help schools and inspectors see how effective a school is in comparison with other schools. The intention here is that schools will use the report, just as you propose to do, in order to:

* conduct a school self-evaluation;

* celebrate successes;

* identify areas for development;

* raise standards.

Some of the report compares the attainment of your pupils with that of pupils in similar schools. These similar school comparisons use the autumn package benchmarks, grouping schools together by the prior attainment of pupils and by the proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals.

Only part of your report concentrates on an analysis of the pupils'

progress at your school. Therefore this data should be used in conjunction with other sources of information about the progress of the pupils in your school. This must be handled sensitively and with accurate information. The first job then is to check to see that the data contained in the report are accurate before any conclusions are reached. Mistakes can be made, even by the Office for Standards in Education.

The data in the report are sometimes not easy to interpret, and even more difficult to translate into appropriate action. It can be useful, therefore , to talk through your findings with your leadership or senior management team. Check to see if they have arrived at the same conclusion as you. If they have, is it on the basis of the same evidence? Do you have any other evidence from within school or other sources that supports this conclusion with regard to this department? Be sure of your ground before you move on.

If you have corroborating evidence and your leadership team also suspects that this department is underachieving, then the next step must be to share this information with the subject team leader and ask why it appears to be happening. The onus should be placed on the team leader and his or her team to produce an explanation, not excuses, or denial, for this situation.

Engage the leader fully in the investigation as doing so will facilitate improvement later. If it is presented as a joint investigative inquiry, it helps to remove any feeling of blame and avoids the impression of an us-and-them witch-hunt. Pandas take no account of personalities. This is where your skill as a manager of people becomes critical. Your knowledge of your staff and how they are likely to react in such a situation will be invaluable. By inviting them to join in this inquiry you are not laying blame at their door but rather engaging them professionally in the quest for ways in which improvements can be made by them, supported by you and the leadership team. Data appear to be impersonal but don't let the interpretation of it become personal. In order to move people on, their dignity must be respected and protected.

However, action must follow information of this order. What action to take depends on the outcome of the investigation. It is important to take time to ensure that the diagnosis is correct before you launch into responses that may be irrelevant or, even worse, compound the situation further.

Although this subject team may be part of the problem, if they are to improve it is imperative that they perceive themselves as part of the solution. The Panda is a tool. Used well it can enhance the good work that is already going on with regard to improvement in your school. Misuse it and the consequences may be with you for a long time. These statistics contained in this report are about people, and the management of people is not an exact science, but more of an art. Proceed with caution, but proceed you must.

Pat McDermott is head of St Joseph's Catholic college in Bradford. Do you have a leadership question? Email

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