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The rebirth of trust

Pioneering new excellence award relies on heads' own judgements about schools. Martin Whittaker reports

Grimsargh St Michael's C of E primary is to get a big pat on the back thanks to an award which recognises good practice in school leadership.

Six years ago the school in Preston, Lancashire, was struggling when an inspection placed it in serious weaknesses.

With the arrival of new head Janet Butterworth, it set about tackling the problems and on reinspection in November 2000, Ofsted found it had made great progress, declaring it "an effective and happy school".

After identifying under-achieving children, the school introduced wider, less test-driven assessment and raised staff awareness of the need to cater to different learning styles, bringing an increase in the numbers reaching the expected level in national tests.

Ms Butterworth says she and her staff have done nothing innovative - many other primaries throughout the country will have done similar.

Nevertheless, as a winner of Lancashire local education authority's new Learning Excellence Award the school not only wins praise, it also gets to share its good practice with the county's other schools.

"The idea of having accreditation for what you're doing is good for the self-esteem of people who work in the school," she says. "For us it's a way of celebrating how far the school has come in the last five years."

The Learning Excellence Award scheme is officially launched on November 8, when Grimsargh St Michael's will be among the first seven winners.

Winners get a certificate, their case study appears in a Directory of Good Practice on a website and in hard copy, and they can have the award logo on stationery.

Feedback has been positive. A month before its launch a third of the county's schools had committed to the award scheme.

Stan Johnson, senior adviser at Lancashire LEA said the award was a way of monitoring schools' self-evaluation and getting them to share good practice, but without the jumping through the hoops so often associated with such awards. "We didn't want to produce tick lists, and we didn't really want them to produce a portfolio," he says. "In other schemes, there's a lot of work in putting things together. It could deter people from putting themselves forward for the award."

Any school wishing to apply for an award first has to commit to the excellence scheme, which is free of charge. They submit an application form which explains one aspect of their practice.

Awards in three categories - good practice, best practice (where good practice has been improved or embedded) or innovative practice. Schools are judged by accreditation panels of local heads, governors and business people.

The LEA is careful to avoid extra work. Schools are expected to have evidence to support their application, but this is only what they generate anyway through the work they are doing. And although schools are asked to state what their evidence is, they are not asked to submit it.

Mr Johnson says the LEA makes a point of trusting heads. "We have to get back to a time when there was professional trust - we have lost that partly through the inspection process, and partly through competition. Schools haven't wanted to share good practice.

"I had to challenge part of the panel when they said we're not sure if we've got the evidence for this. And I said... : 'Are you suggesting the head isn't telling the truth?"

The award has had some interest from other authorities, and Mr Johnson believes the model has great potential for developing good leadership.

"It's the simplicity of the process," he says. "In order to fill the application form in, you virtually have to have been through good practice in leadership and management because you have to say how you measured the impact on children, what the impact was and what your success criteria were.

"You could almost say that if a school could manage to fill in the application form, they must be going through at least some measure of good leadership and management practice."

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