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Know thyself;Book of the week

SCHOOLS MUST SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES: the case for school self-evaluation. By John MacBeath. Routledge in association with the National Union of Teachers pound;12.99.

School self-evaluation is the key to future regulation of standards, argues John Dunford. And John MacBeath's authoritative guide can help everyone committed to improvement put SSE at the core? School self-evaluation (SSE) is an idea whose time has come, and this book puts forward both an excellent rationale and a modus operandi. It is essential reading for all who are committed to school improvement - Government ministers and advisers, school inspectors, LEA staff, school managers at all levels, governors and all who are prepared to be self-critical about their work.

Its importance lies not only in its thoroughness and timeliness, but because it carries "health warnings" which remind those committed to SSE that this is not necessarily shared by those whose work is being evaluated.

In this book, a how-to manual for SSE, John MacBeath, director of the Quality in Education Centre at the University of Strathclyde, draws on his work for the National Union of Teachers in the early 1990s which resulted in the 1996 NUT report Schools Speak for Themselves. Its underlying assumption is that a healthy education system encourages discussion and sharing of good practice and should not rely exclusively on external policing. The Office for Standards in Education, MacBeath believes, should therefore be aiming to make itself as redundant as possible.

Those of us who have been advocating self-evaluation as an integral part of quality assurance in schools have never denied that external inspection has an important role, although some have chosen to misrepresent such a twin-track approach as a soft option. It is far from soft: in MacBeath's words, it is "a continuing and continually revealing process".

Eric Forth, an education junior minister in the last Conservative government, described the case for SSE as antithetical to the Government's aim to deal with "rotten teachers in rotten schools". David Blunkett and his schools minister Estelle Morris, on the other hand, have frequently affirmed their party's support for SSE as part of quality assurance: the Government maxims "schools improve schools" and "intervention in inverse proportion to success" are both consistent with MacBeath's thesis.

The optimum balance between external inspection and internal evaluation will vary from school to school, and a sensible national quality assurance system needs to take account of this spectrum. It also needs to recognise that in all schools "there are eddies of excellence and stagnant backwaters", and that the pattern of progress of a school - and of its pupils - varies over time.

Socio-economic factors, for example, can bring periods of consolidation and regression, just as they can stimulate spurts of achievement in both pupils individually and the school collectively. Schools do make a difference but, as MacBeath reminds us, they do not make all the difference. What happens outside school will always be the major influence. As the Israeli psychologist Reuven Feuerstein has pointed out, that's 85 per cent of a child's time.

The book outlines a framework for SSE - its over-arching philosophy, procedural guidelines, criteria and a toolkit for measuring performance. Again, the most important part is the health warning - hold fast to what is important and do not be tempted into measuring only what is easily measurable. Some of the least measurable but most important aims of the school can be evaluated qualitatively.

School leaders must resist the temptation to adopt an off-the-peg system of SSE. Schools are very different and SSE systems need to be adapted in order to be effective. MacBeath says schools first need to create a climate in which SSE will flourish, then agree a process from which the criteria for the evaluation will emerge. Only then should they plan how to do it, using the toolkit of techniques which MacBeath outlines, from the broad-brush to the specific focus.

Choosing the indicators against which to evaluate the school is not easy. Scottish Office researchers in a 1991 study were surprised by the importance pupils placed on toilets as a significant index of school culture.

The NUT project generated 1,743 criteria from surveys of pupils, teachers, parents, school managers, support staff and governors. The difference between perceptions revealed by these lists is as instructive as the common themes.

Without being over-prescriptive, MacBeath goes into the detail of a framework for SSE, using 10 potential indicators, such as school climate, relationships and home-school links. The chapter on using this framework would help any school embarking on such a programme.

MacBeath applauds the publication in early 1998 of OFSTED's guide to school self-evaluation, but criticises its emphasis on statistics at the expense of the subjective judgments which are crucial to an understanding of the central processes of teaching and learning. He outlines the self-evaluation frameworks in other countries, including Scotland where he has been influential in his work with the HMI Audit Unit.

The introduction of a differentiated system of school inspection in England, with perhaps one-third of schools initially having a light-touch inspection, gives grounds for optimism that the system will change for the better. When this proportion increases and the norm becomes light-touch, the main role of external inspection will surely be the validation of the school's processes for measuring its own success.

While this change is taking place, schools need to develop their processes for self-evaluation. In making the way clearer for schools, MacBeath's book will make a major contribution to quality assurance and hence to the development of a system for measuring improvement which works more in harmony with the profession.

John Dunford is general secretary of the Secondary Heads Associationl NUTmembers can order 'Schools Must Speak for Themselves' at a discount price of pound;7.99. For details tel: 0171 842 2324

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