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Self-evaluation: a shift in mindset

Patricia Denison answers your leadership questions

I am trying to get to grips with the school's self-evaluation form in preparation for Ofsted. I've put in a number of hours already with the senior management team, but we're not confident about our ability to grade the school in all the categories, neither are we sure how much to write or whether to play down or over-sell what we do. Where can I get hold of some useful guidance?

There is plenty of guidance available to help you fill in the school self-evaluation form. The Ofsted website contains many documents on the new inspection framework, new relationships with schools, guidance and tutorials on completing the form. There is also a technical helpdesk on 0870 124 6524. Once you access the form online, you are offered links to help you with queries.

Yet again, many heads and their leadership teams are less than confident about responding to a new initiative. They perceive that somewhere "out there" is a template or a right answer that, if accessed, would make the filling in of this weighty form a simple exercise, when what is really required is a shift in mindset.

First of all we need to fully embrace the spirit and the concept of self-evaluation as being totally different from the previous inspectorial model. That model was based on a set of judgements about the school's provision made externally, using criteria known by the school but identified and drawn up by those outside it. Inspectors gathered evidence about a range of aspects, fed it back to the school and produced a report that announced its strengths and told it what its "issues" were. The process itself was nerve-racking and disabling, doing for school improvement what saturated fat does for children's nutrition. This inspection model treated the school as a passive recipient, apprehensively dependent on a patriarchal acknowledgement (or not) of approval. That model is no longer appropriate.

The new relationship with schools described by the Department for Education and Skills is a real opportunity to be grasped. It centres on the notion of "intelligent accountability" - and we would do well to unpick the significance of that phrase. Accountability, of course, is about moral purpose - we have a pressing and pervading duty to provide an entitlement for every child. The "every child matters" agenda, with its five key rights for children, drives our direction and practice and provides a clear framework to underpin everything that we strive to do in our schools. The word "intelligent" signposts for school leaders an imperative to gather, create and use knowledge in the best interests of learners. Our organisations must be immersed in learning - we have to be alert and responsive to academic research, bringing it to bear on our own experience and understanding in order to build capability. Our need to know will increasingly shape the role. We will become tireless enquirers, continuously deepening awareness and understanding of the impact of our actions on learners.

Those deceptively simple questions "How good are we?" and "How do we know?"

are at the heart of self-evaluation. They involve us in a process of knowing outstanding practice when we see it, searching it out, taking it apart and making it explicit. They require the clearest measures of success - and we have some work to do in this area. How, for example, will we measure how safe children feel? How will we recognise "enjoyment" - what will pupils say and do to convince us? There is a real advantage in collaborating with our professional neighbours on this. A shared, agreed set of measures will help us feel confident and secure, and enable us, at last, to validate what we hold dear about the whole child's well-being in our schools.

Our experience of the defunct Ofsted model should give us sharp warning about how not to conduct the process of self-evaluation. It should not be done by some to others. The notion of intelligent accountability needs to be understood and accepted by every teacher, and the process of enquiry needs to be given significant weighting within their repertoire. Again, this can't happen overnight. For far too long, teachers have had a sense of being "done to". It will take some doing to convince them of their own power, to imbue them with the confidence and readiness to engage in open and transparent review of their own practice.

Use the SEF as a starting point. Invite staff, pupils, parents and governors to respond to its questions. They will doubtless contribute a wealth of anecdotal references about what the school does, and claims to do, in glowing terms. Gather it all in without judgement. Treat it as a celebration in itself and thank contributors for providing rich fodder for subsequent questions and hypotheses.

Now you can begin to interrogate. What impact has this action had? How do we know? What's the evidence and where will we find it? It is worth creating slim portfolios of evidence to illustrate impact. In instances where none exists, there should be clear pointers about what is needed. The form should be used as a living, growing map of development and review, to be shared, owned and constructed by a powerful community of learners. Treat it as a guide for the journey.

Patricia Denison is head of a village primary near Woking, Surrey. She has been in education for 25 years, 14 in headship, and is a facilitator with the National College for School Leadership's new visions programme for heads. Do you have a leadership question? Email pdenison@thevillageschool.

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