Whether it's a spirit of co-operation or just the spectre of cost-cutting, the new Office for Standards in Education inspection framework is very keen on school self-evaluation.
Memorably titled S4, the self-evaluation form filled in before Ofsted arrives is designed to focus on weaknesses. But it may be a weakness of S4 itself that it is a one-off, rather than part of a rolling programme of self-examination and improvement.
Buckinghamshire county council has launched a long-life version which could be taken up by schools across the country.
Nick Waldron, headteacher of Manor Farm junior school in Hazlemere, believes the tool, based on the S4 form, could streamline school improvement planning.
"I am always a little sceptical when I receive anything from the education authority - especially something that is billed to be useful, have an impact on school improvement and save time. However, the Buckinghamshire tool has proved to be just that," he says.
The system operates as a workbook in Microsoft Excel, familiar to many heads, staff and governors. It allows schools to consider key questions and make judgments based on evidence.
"The system has many advantages over other supported school self-evaluation (SSSE) tools that I have used," says Mr Waldron. "By working through this framework, a school is in effect maintaining a rolling S4. It does not allow a school to make bland, descriptive comments and pass them off as self-evaluation. The challenging questions demand a level of self-evaluation that quantifies the impact on standards that our actions have.
"It encourages governors and staff to make thoughtful, evidence-backed evaluative statements and to quantify judgments on an Ofsted-style seven-point scale." These "number judgments" are then averaged to produce an evaluation summary that gives a score for each key area judged by Ofsted.
"Unusually, and helpfully, this score is given as a decimal allowing schools to demonstrate progress within a category (for example from 3.7 to 3.1 within "good") as well as across categories by improving a single aspect of that area.
"The tool's links to reporting and school improvement planning appeal to me as a headteacher who spends a great deal of time rewriting one document to fulfil another requirement. As part of the tool, a school can set a threshold whereby any area falling below a required level (for most schools this would be anything less than satisfactory but for good schools, a higher threshold would be more appropriate) will automatically be identified as an area for development on a separate report, perhaps for governors. This in turn will feed directly into school improvement planning.
"Conversely, a report is also available for areas identified as strengths.
This gives the school opportunities to celebrate what it does well," he says.
Heather Clements, the county's senior adviser on school improvement, says benchmarking is an important part of the tool. Schools will have a clearer idea of how they compare with other schools.
"One of the key issues for schools in the past has been in knowing how well they are doing when compared to other schools," says Mr Clements.
"Many highly-effective schools have felt that they were only satisfactory in some aspects of their work while other schools that have significant development needs have thought they were satisfactory. The new framework provides a clear benchmark in every aspect of the work of the school and requires schools to back up their judgments with evidence."
The Bucks tool varies from the S4 in that each key question is broken down into a series of questions covering each element. This should make it easier for schools to direct their efforts at improvement.
"The current model already produces a first stage of the improvement plan but we hope to develop this further so that it produces a three-year plan and action plan sheets automatically," says Ms Clements, who trains governors to use the Bucks tool.
"The tool links to school improvement planning, supports preparation for Ofsted, enables in-depth research, provides reports for governors, and forms the framework for the annual cycle of adviser visits.
"We had overwhelmingly positive feedback from the pilot.
"By allowing schools to determine the focus for their work with link advisers we are in effect putting them in the driving seat - in line with Ofsted guidance.
"We have already been approached by other LEAs who are interested in the model."
THE TREND IN BUCKS
What does it look like?
* Based on revised Ofsted framework for inspection
* Uses a series of prompt questions
* Requires schools to write evaluative comments and grades using seven-point Ofsted scale
* Provides exemplars for primary and secondary (what a grade12 looks like)
* Suggests sources of evidence
How does it work?
* An Excel notebook document
* Provides cumulative grade for each section
* Summarises strengths and weaknesses
* Drops weaknesses into an improvement planning model
* Produces reports for governors
* Gives a clear role for the link adviser to monitor and evaluate the work of the school against Ofsted criteria
* Ensures that both the school and the LEA evaluate on a cyclical basis.
* Prepares for Ofsted