OFSTED inspections are stressful enough without lurking doubts that all is not running as it should be. Yet one prominent head is claiming that failings in the inspection body's online data analysis tools may have caused some schools to lose out in their inspections.
In an influential paper on Ofsted's RAISEonline system, Peter Kent, of the Association of School and College Leaders warns that secondary schools have been "ambushed" by inspectors who are more familiar with the system than headteachers.
Launched this spring after severe teething troubles and widespread disillusionment among heads, the system a natural successor to Ofsted's Performance and Assessment reports (Panda) is intended to give heads the chance to analyse their school's performance in greater detail than ever before.
Interactivity is one of its key selling points, with school leaders able to specify which areas of performance they would like to investigate.
It is essential that heads get on top of the system to evaluate their school's effectiveness because their ability to do t
his is now central to inspection judgments.
And therein lies the problem. Dr Kent says that while the system is potentially powerful, the interactivity of the site means that data can be hidden from view. So unless heads ask precisely the right questions, they can miss important information, leaving them open to criticism from inspectors.
When a head asks for it, the system produces a "full report" on the school. But Dr Kent says that, in fact, several important aspects of data will be missing and only visible if the head asks specific questions.
In his article, Dr Kent, head of Lawrence Sheriff School, Rugby, writes: "It must be a matter of concern that since RAISEonline went live, a number of schools have been ambushed by inspectors.
"[They] have found aspects of data within the interactive reports, of which the schools themselves are unaware.
"If Ofsted wishes schools to make intelligent use of RAISEonline, they must respond to this concern.
"The database should be an aid to schools, not a convenient stick with which to beat them."
Among the hidden data is information on key stage 3 tests, detailing whether pupils achieved a high, medium or low score in each test level.
Such data can make a huge difference to the way a school's performance looks. If, for example, many of a school's pupils achieved high level 4s, just missing a level 5 in their English, maths and science tests, its performance could be quite different from a school where most achieved low level 4s.
Other information not available in the "full report" includes two sets of statistics analysing performance by gender. The ASCL is pressing Ofsted to make all the information that is available on the RAISEonline site easily accessible in the "full report".
In the meantime, Dr Kent advises schools to download and store all the information they can retrieve from the site's interactive section.
Professor David Jesson, a visiting professor at York University who has produced data analysis tools himself, says: "Potentially, RAISEonline is a very useful service for schools. But a degree of prior awareness of what it can offer is needed and that's not easily accessible until you become familiar with it."
A spokeswoman for Ofsted said: "Training and guidance for inspectors focuses on the use of the full RAISEonline report and inspectors are advised to avoid... using the interactive functionality.
"Schools may find the RAISEonline interactive functionality useful for investigating issues themselves as part of their own self-evaluation.
"Inspectors aim to reach an agreed position with the school about the interpretation of data at an early stage in the inspection."
Professor Jesson advises schools to make the most of other tools available to improve their understanding of pupils' performance.
This could be important, too, in providing an alternative view of a school's achievements to the picture painted by RAISEonline.
Prominent among these alternatives are analyses from the Fischer Family Trust, Durham University and a new system from the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust.
Costing pound;250 a year and available to affiliated schools, the latter provides online tutorials in statistical analysis. It also offers tools that predict pupils' exam performances, questions and answers, as well as other features.
Last year, Professor Jesson was among those who raised concern that Ofsted inspectors were basing their judgments solely on one particular statistical indicator: Contextual Value Added (CVA), which only classifies schools into three categories broadly better than average, average and below average making further analysis essential.
Yet CVA is central to RAISEonline and is fed into Ofsted's pre-inspection data.
Professor Jesson says that schools need to point out to inspectors that CVA and RAISEonline as a whole present only one view of performance.
Ofsted appears to have acknowledged this to some extent, advising its inspectors that CVA figures should not determine inspection verdicts. Christine Gilbert, Ofsted's chief inspector, has now asked Professor Jesson to work with senior inspectors to write a paper fleshing out this point.
He says: "It will be a user-friendly guide for schools and Ofsted inspectors, setting out how they need to be aware of the different kinds of evaluation available."
The key, it appears, is for heads to get as rich an insight as possible into their school's performance.
John Dunford, ASCL general secretary, said: "It's as important for inspectors as it is for school leaders not to rely on a single set of data but to consider different data in order to thoroughly evaluate performance."
In the Middle, page 29
NO ONE TOOL CONQUERS ALL
Andrew Sprakes (foreground), head of Campsmount Technology College in South Yorkshire, believes his school's use of data analysis is the key to its rapid recent improvement.
For the past six or seven years, the comprehensive has worked with Professor David Jesson, of York University, to assess what GCSE grades its pupils are likely to achieve.
Their key stage 2 test results are analysed. Then Professor Jesson's information on how 11-year-olds of a given KS2 level have gone on to fare at GCSE is used to group students.
The group with the best test results has the highest chance of doing well at 16 and so on. This can then be used to set realistic targets for pupils.
It also helps the school pinpoint subject areas in which it performs better or worse than expected.
This summer, 66 per cent of the pupils at Campsmount, which serves a former mining village outside Doncaster, achieved five or more GCSEs grades at A*-C. This compares with 25 per cent in 2001, and is well above Professor Jesson's prediction 52 per cent based on how pupils with similar KS2 results nationally have performed.
Tom Blair (background), deputy head, said different data systems had their strengths. For example, the Jesson information was useful for GCSE target setting and the Fischer Family Trust analysis was good for KS3. RAISEonline, by contrast, offered a chance to review results already achieved.
Mr Blair said: "RAISEonline is a vital tool. But no one element of data analysis works on its own you have to use them together."