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How to stay ahead of the pack

Schools need help to make self-assessment more objective, Gerald Haigh reports. Schools' own assessments of their strengths and weaknesses could soon become part of the formal inspection process. Chris Woodhead, HM Chief Inspector of Schools, said recently: "The conclusions of the school's own evaluation ought to be built more formally into the inspection processII see no reason why the two approaches to school evaluation cannot be complementary. "

And Professor Michael Barber, who carried out an evaluation of the first phase of OFSTED inspections, suggested in his TESGreenwich lecture in May, that for most schools the inspection system should consist of a "validation check on their own self review".

John Wyatt, former head and inspector, now a consultant with Quernmore Education Developments, has a pragmatic view of self-review. "Any school that lays itself open to outside scrutiny by OFSTED before reviewing its own practice is simply not thinking clearly."

If self-review is to stand up to outside scrutiny, however, it clearly is not enough for the senior management team to make lists of good and bad points. It is not even enough for them to go out into the corridors and ask people what they think. The chances are they will be given the answers they want to hear.

What is actually required is an objective mechanism that reaches deep into the institution to ask its questions. Only then, will senior management stand a chance of finding out the most important thing of all - which is not whether the exam results in maths are better than those in history, but whether everyone has the same set of aims and values and is headed in more or less the same direction.

Brian Sherratt, head of Great Barr School, Birmingham its more than 2,200 pupils make it the biggest comprehensive in the country says that's the "fundamental point. If there's no consensus as to values, then there's little chance of a shared view of priorities for development."

How, though, is what Brian Sherratt calls "intelligence gathering" to be done?

Mr Sherratt himself, whose personal style is a deliberate challenge to those who think that the leader of a big school must inevitably be a remote figure, is not ready to dismiss the age-old technique of sniffing about. "I believe that a lot of heads don't know their schools because they don't get around them - meeting pupils and staff, talking to parents, dealing with the lady whose garden backs on to the playing field."

At the same time, though, he recognises that there is also a need for something that has more structure and will engage with staff in a professionally honest way. One answer, of course, is to engage a consultant - a cool outsider who can take confidences on board and distill them in an objective report for management. Many schools successfully use consultants in this way, although, as Mr Sherratt points out, the caveat is that the management team may receive the consultant's opinions rather than the opinions of those consulted.

Which is where the bought-in information-gathering pack of questions and review routines comes in - externally produced, but internally administered; a halfway house between the management team's own investigation and that of an outside consultant. As Brian Sherratt says: "Although it comes from outside, the real value lies in that it reveals what the institution is saying about itself and not what an outsider is saying about the institution."

Other heads take the same view. Derek Wise, of Cramlington Community High School, feels there are advantages in having it come from an external body. "If the senior management team suddenly produced it, the staff may have a very different perception." And Enid Norringon of Marldon Primary in Devon believes that it is sometimes good to have an outside view - "and it enables the staff to put down what they want to without fear".

Self-review packs are not new, of course, and there is a school of thought that believes OFSTED's own Inspection handbook itself to be one of the most effective. What we are seeing now, though, are products which take the most recent inspection requirements into account while claiming not to be limited by them.

Each of the heads quoted above has examined or piloted one of two such recent publications. One, School Performance Analysis from Quernmore Education Developments, has been used by Enid Norrington. It surveys staff anonymously with multiple-choice questionnaires covering every conceivable area of school life from "organisation and use of resources" to "school climate". The deal here - which will be attractive to many users - is that results are analysed centrally by QED, preserving confidentiality, and reported back to the school both statistically and in writing. Follow-up consultancy is available.

The pack used by Derek Wise is The Education Audit System which comes from Education Advisory Services Ltd. A hefty, ring-bound product, this has reporting schedules (with routines that preserve confidentiality) across every area of school life, at three levels - staff, middle and senior management. There are statements, again with multiple-choice response, summary sheets and action plans. Both these packs are available in primary and secondary versions.

Packs like these are potentially very cost-effective. A staff working party could easily slave for a year and come up with a way to examine staff beliefs and attitudes which, in the end, might be no better and probably rather worse than the method used by well-written and piloted self-review product.

Education Audit System, Pounds 155, primary pack Pounds 99, from Education Advisory services Ltd, Friar House, 63 Friar Street, Droitwich, Worcestershire WR9 8EQ. School Performance Analysis Pounds 200 plus Pounds 4 per questionnaire, plus VAT, Quernmore Education Developments Temple Bank, Church HIll, Arnside, Cumbria LA5 0DQ

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