Thoughtful heads and teachers are always involved in self-review. So when Pam Marston, head at Falconers Hill junior in Daventry, Northamptonshire, says: "We have a very mixed community here - a wide spread of ability, and some disaffected boys. What's fundamental is relationships - they hold us together," she's actually making a hugely important self-evaluative judgment.
All the key elements are there - it's clearly honest (what would be the point of anything else?) - you can be sure that Pam could produce evidence for what she says, and there are implicit pointers for further development.
Reflection of that kind goes on all the time, yet the idea that the best people to make perceptive judgments about schools are the people who work there has taken a long time to permeate into the consciousness of the policymakers. Now, though, we have a self-evaluative approach to Ofsted inspection and, coming soon from Becta, a very comprehensive self-evaluation framework that enables schools to measure the way they use ICT across the whole spectrum of their work.
As you'd expect, it's going to be online - on the Becta website - with all the flexibility and accessibility which that implies. The detail of the structure and content, and the ICT Mark award that's available for schools which measure up well on the framework, is dealt with elsewhere in this supplement (see pages 20-21, 23). What interested me at Falconers was how a pilot school had taken on the task of working with the framework and what, if anything, it might have done for them.
The early pilot version came as an emailed Word document. Printed, it was a salutary reminder of just how unwieldy such forms are starting to look when they're presented on paper. "My first reaction was to wonder why I'd volunteered," says Pam. "We were doing a number of other things at the time - applying for the Artsmark, getting ready for Ofsted - and there wasn't much time."
(Pilot schools received the document after the 2005 October half-term, to be completed by Christmas. Nobody was happy about this, given that the process was supposed to be reflective, inclusive of various points of view, and developmental.) Pam began by going - "wading" was the word she used - through the document herself, making quick judgments of how Falconers measured up. Then it was a matter of involving everyone else - staff, governors, pupils - with meetings and questionnaires. "If you weren't doing it as a pilot, you'd take longer over it," says Pam. "You'd pick one aspect and really get to grips with it."
The framework is very comprehensive and not all items are easily applicable to all schools. Pam and her team did discover some gaps in their practice, though. "One of the elements asks about the progress made by children who do not have ICT out of school," she says. "We'd never looked at that, so we went back and asked the children in more detail, not just whether they have computers at home but whether they're allowed to use them, whether they have access to the internet, and so on."
The clear lesson here is that it may not be enough simply to quote figures about the number of children who have computers at home. There are homes where children aren't allowed to use the computer, or where use is narrowly limited.
Falconers Hill staff also found an area of the framework where they apparently weren't doing as well as they thought. "Under summative assessment, we judged that we were operating at level four," says Pam. (The relevant rubric says, in part, "Attainment in ICT is reliably assessed and recorded across subjects and over time."
Pam felt that's what she and her colleagues were doing.) "We do assess,"
she says. "But the consultant who advised us in preparation for the ICT Mark said that we should use end-of-unit tests."
Perhaps, I suggested, if she was comfortable with her existing practice, she could have dug in her heels and stood by her professional judgment? "If I had been sure, then I'd have done that," she says. "But, actually, they were right. Tests would provide more information for parents and teachers, so we said fair enough, if it's going to improve practice, we'll move on it."
All in all, she found the pilot of Becta's Self Review Framework to be helpful. "It's not just a one-off exercise. It's surprising how often I've come back to it since we did it. It's a useful working document, helpful in developing the school improvement plan. It'll be even more useful online and if they manage to put in examples of good practice."
* For Pam Marston, ICT is just a resource, though an important one. "It's a very good tool for us," she says, pointing particularly to the way it motivates pupils. "It's seen as streetwise and cool. That's very powerful for us."
* That motivational power is more important than many people outside schools realise. At Falconers Hill, for example, it was the response of the children which speeded up early adoption of electronic whiteboards, ahead of the planned budgetary time scale. "We put them into one year group as a trial. The children thought they were wonderful. They ate them up, and that was before teachers were au fait with their interactive possibilities."
* This is not a whizzy school in terms of gadgets. The pupils use equipment on a day-to-day basis. They come in and borrow a digital camera, for example, to use in their work.
* ICT will not become a substitute for first-hand experience. Simulated science experiments are wonderful, for instance, but we do the real ones too. "We grow tomatoes so children can see what happens, that there's a reality where experiments go wrong."