The driving force of a successful school improvement strategy is self-evaluation," said Professor Michael Barber at the launch of Kirklees local education authority's Proving improvement project earlier this year. It is a view that is gaining wide acceptance, for a number of reasons.
One is the assumption that school self-evaluation, carefully monitored at local and national levels, will ultimately provide an alternative to OFSTED's first-time-around, big-hit inspection programme. Another is that it gives local authorities a clear role in supporting and ensuring school development. And, thirdly, it is an idea whose time seems to have arrived, coming after a period when the purpose of local authorities, and even the survival of local democratic control of education, has seemed in doubt.
The title, Proving improvement, was chosen carefully. As Terry Piggott, Kirklees's advisory service manager, explains, the word "proving" is used precisely, "as in proving or testing with evidence".
"The emphasis therefore is on schools collecting and recording evidence, " he says, "in the first place by making more efficient use of information which they already possess.
"If schools could do that better, they could, for example, report more effectively to governors. By the same token, of course, they could also prove improvement to the local authority and to the government."
Credibility, though, demands that self-evaluation be moderated and checked. In Kirklees, this monitoring is provided by the authority's inspectors and advisers - for this purpose called "school contact officers". Project documents call them "critical friends", who will, among other things, "ensure that the process is thorough and rigorous so that it does not become too cosy or simply self-affirming rather than self-evaluative".
Phrases such as this reveal that although the initiative is supportive of schools, there is also a steely purpose to it. Terry Piggott talks of "eradicating complacency" and of the authority's duty to maintain minimum standards ("a floor but no ceiling") by being ready to intervene in schools that demonstrate what he calls "exceptional need", a term that he concedes is "a bit of a euphemism".
So much for the philosophy. What are the practicalities of Proving improvement? At its core is a "school self-evaluation pack", written by a team of Kirklees advisers, informed by consultation with heads, and based on a careful combing of the research. It is centred on the 11 "characteristics of effective schools" defined for Ofsted by the London Institute in 1995, each of which is divided into "facets" and then into bite-sized "examples of important evidence".
Thus, the characteristic "Purposeful teaching" is broken down into four facets: "efficient organisation", "clarity of purpose", "structured lessons" and "adaptive practice". Of these, "clarity of purpose", for instance, has ten "examples of important evidence", including "pupils are clear about what they are doing and why" and "differentiation is promoted by school policies and practices".
All of this material is supported by a section called "Toolkit", which suggests ways in which evidence can be gathered. It also gives advice on target setting and action planning, and provides draft questionnaires for staff, students and parents. Additionally, there are checklists that can be used for auditing and observation. These are available on floppy disk, so that a school can edit them to suit its own approach.
Together with support and training, the pack highlights that there is already detailed performance data available, if you look for it, and that this can be systematically recorded and used as evidence of progress.
Kirklees inspector Sue Mulvany, one of the authors of the project pack, says "it gives heads the tools with which to produce the evidence that they've improved and to set realistic and achievable targets for the future".
The project is at an early stage, according to Terry Piggott. "I don't want to pretend that we have a smooth, well-tried system running," he says, "but we do have a strategy and a lot of the components are in place."
Kirklees heads received their packs late last term, so their experience is limited. Nevertheless, Kel Greensides, headteacher at Outlane junior school in Huddersfield, is one of many who has welcomed the authority's initiative. Rather than adding to the workload, it has codified good existing practice and made it possible to present it clearly, he says. "IT reassures, and provides a structure if you need it. There are clear models that you can follow: agreed, shared targets."
Kel Greensides approves also of the way that Proving improvement encourages continuous monitoring and evaluation. "It gets people away from the idea that you can tick things off as complete. Too often we produce policies that are tablets of stone. In fact, in this job you never arrive; you are always on the journey."
The pack, he say, enables a school "to demonstrate to Ofsted, or anyone else, just where you are on the cycle of planning and development".
The school contact officer, too, is seen by headteachers as a valuable arbiter of standards; "a touchstone to check my perceptions" is how infant head Linda Russell, whose school helped to pilot the self-evaluation pack, describes her relationship with her own "critical friend", who happens to be Sue Mulvany.
Linda Russell says: "I agree on a focus for each of her visits based on the characteristics of effective schools. Sue then looks at work in the school and we have a follow-up discussion."
The first issue they tackled together was whether pupils are clear about what they are doing and why. "Quite challenging with four-year-olds!" Linda Russell says. "But it should be done, and we have to try to get it across."
After each visit the school gets a written report from Sue Mulvany. Linda Russell points out that, "It really helps with reporting to governors We can explain exactly how we are tackling and monitoring each area."
Kirklees teachers clearly feel they have a robust and workable mechanism which can not only check on schools and insert a performance "floor", but will also offer support for improvement. And, crucially, it provides the local authority with the tools to demonstrate to Ofsted that it is carrying out its own monitoring duties.
The authority is now examining ways of defining and measuring - "not always numerically", says Terry Piggott - a wider spectrum of school performance. Sue Mulvany, who speaks of "learning to measure the things we value as well as valuing the things we measure", says: "We know already that we can measure the effect of behaviour policies, for example, and there are other areas where we can set realistic targets that are achievable and that could lead to a dramatic improvement in effectiveness." Schools, she says, "want critical friends; they want trust, and they want criticism".
Proving improvement costs Pounds 44.50 from Kirklees Education Advisory Service, The Deighton Centre, Deighton Road, Huddersfield, 01484 225778