Teachers have always discussed how their pupils are getting on, whether a topic works well or if examination results meet expectations. Heads, too, have often wondered whether their school is as good as they thought and how it compares with others. The same thing happens at authority and, indeed, at national level.
This process of questioning, observation, reflection and evaluation has been at the heart of recent initiatives in Scotland, such as the 5-14 programme. Its cycle of planning, teaching, recording, reporting and evaluating has been accepted in our schools as the essential basis of effective learning and teaching. Embracing and supporting this and other initiatives is school development planning, in which a similar process helps schools maintain and improve their performance.
How Good is Our School? Self-evaluation Using Performance Indicators builds on a whole series of publications which have encouraged teachers in this endeavour, from Effective Secondary Schools and Effective Primary Schools to Standards and Quality in Scottish Schools 1992-95. And it is the first publication within the Quality Initiative in Scottish Schools.
But How Good is Our School? has certain differences from earlier publications, starting with its appearance. On the cover, there are photographs of young people absorbed in and enjoying their learning - just to remind us what it's all about. And it's thinner, so forget heavy folders.
Improving schools through self-evaluation is Scotland's initiative. We're all trying to make it happen, not just the Scottish Office, or Aberdeen City or a single school. And because self-evaluation is Scotland's initiative, the pack is in Scotland's colours and sports its thistle.
To make it easy to use, we've made it looseleaf and photocopiable. You only need to refer to as much as you want. Most importantly, How Good is Our School? is for all teachers, whether in primary, secondary or special schools, no matter how experienced or inexperienced or what their place is in the school hierarchy.
The materials are designed to build on what teachers are already doing well and to be adapted to the needs of any school. We can sometimes get obsessed with formats - grids, checklists and evaluation sheets. This publication barely mentions them. Instead, it presents three questions: How are we doing? How do we know? What are we going to do now?
The order of these questions provides a sequence to follow during evaluation. You could think it all sounds suspiciously straightforward. But then, simple questions rarely have simple answers. Vague, and probably cosy, impressions are not enough. In order to be sure our judgments are accurate and, more importantly, to give ourselves the information we need to plan future progress, we need real evidence. To help us find this, we have 33 performance indicators - fewer than before. The same indicators are used by HMI in external inspections. Because we are all looking at the same things, it makes sense to use the same measures and the same language.
But indicators can be very broad and cover what seem to be enormous issues. Where do we start? With the school aims - because they tell us what to look for within our own schools and classrooms - and with recent guidance for subjects or stages: 5-14 Guidelines, Effective Learning and Teaching in Scottish Secondary Schools and Effective Provision for Special Educational Needs. But isn't it very time-consuming? Won't our teaching get lost in the middle?
It is certainly true that teachers have sometimes got bogged down in elaborate audits which are fine for enthusiasts but off-putting for everyone else. Learning and teaching shouldn't get lost: evaluation should come naturally.
First, we suggest you start small. Forget the clipboard. The performance indicators are there to be used selectively and flexibly and, as far as possible, as part of your normal teaching and management activities.
We suggest a two-stage process. Every so often, you can take a broad view, using a number of indicators, to assess how you are doing overall and what your major priorities should be. A closer look will be needed for some areas, choosing one or two indicators and turning the statements into questions to ask about what you see. The 5-14 Guidelines and other documents help you identify features of good practice. We don't claim this approach is new - it came from teachers. They worked with us to make this pack as helpful as possible.
As professionals we should be able to say how we are doing. The materials show how different groups can use the three questions mentioned above to take a closer look. We have used specific contexts - such as art and design in a primary school, partnership with parents in a special school - which are easy to adapt to your own situation. We wouldn't expect you to go hunting for all the features described: choose the most important.
Over a reasonable length of time, you will have evaluated all key areas and be able to sum up your findings in a report on standards and quality in your school - just as HMI do for the whole of Scotland and as officials, using information you give them, can do for the education authority. We will then be able to answer with confidence: How good is Scottish education? How good is education in our authority? How Good is Our School?
And if you are fortunate enough to welcome Her Majesty's Inspectors to your school, where better could they start than with your own report?
Elisabeth Sharp is adviser in secondary education, Aberdeen City Council, and led the team which produced How Good is Our School? Self-evaluation Using Performance Indicators, SOEID, HMSO, 1996. Price: Pounds 20, discounts available for orders of five or more copies. Contact: Lynn Henderson HMSO Print Centre, 21 South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh. Tel 0131 479 3248. Fax 0131 479 3331.