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So you think you're great?

Phil Revell looks at the knotty problem of judging your own performance as part of the new Ofsted self-evaluations.

Everyone knows that the new Ofsted inspection process is built on self-evaluation. Ofsted is effectively inspecting the school's view of itself; all school leaders have to do is look in the mirror. And the new grading system is a cinch surely? With just four grades to choose from, what could be easier?

Quite a lot of things apparently. After just half a term of the new system heads are concerned about the new grades in particular. "We struggled with the scale," said Tony Shaw, head of Mary Hare grammar school in Newbury.

"To go from 'good' to 'outstanding' is a big step; simply in terms of semantics, 'outstanding' means you have to stand out."

And it matters. If a leadership team chooses the wrong grade that is evidence that they do not know their school as well as they should. The indications are that at least one of the schools that has gone into special measures since September graded itself over-optimistically.

"If you are in the happy position, as we were, that Ofsted finds you have applied the right standards in judging yourself - then the inspection will be a delight," said Mr Shaw who was confident enough to grade his school as "outstanding" in his self evaluation, and Ofsted agreed.

The new inspection regime was extensively piloted last year and Mary Hare - a selective special school for the hearing impaired - was one of the many involved.

The inspection process has been rejigged in two major ways in response to feedback from schools. They wanted inspection to be less of an ordeal. Some of the stress was caused by the long lead times between a school being notified of an inspection and the team's arrival. That criticism was accepted by Ofsted, whose inspectors now arrive within days of the telephone call giving notice of their visit.

The second change was a move towards self evaluation to give teachers and school leaders more ownership over the process and to ensure that inspections reflected where schools actually were in their development.

Instead of being measured against unrealistic national criteria, schools are now asked to define their priorities, strengths and weaknesses - and Ofsted comes in to moderate the process.

At the heart of this change was the school self-evaluation form, or SEF.

Schools receive their SEF as a blank proforma. It is in three parts: the self-evaluation itself; factual information about the school; and an assessment of the school's state of compliance with various laws and statutes. This final section covers such things as the religious act of worship, sex education, and compliance with disability discrimination and other laws. Schools must state whether each legal requirement is being fully or partly met.

The SEF guidance says that the form "is a summative document, intended to record the outcomes of your ongoing process of rigorous self-evaluation".

There is no fixed time by which it has to be completed, but Ofsted expects the finished evaluation to be available by email shortly after a school receives notice of an inspection.

Ofsted says that the inspection grades, which range from "outstanding" to "inadequate", are explained clearly in the inspection handbook, and that "outstanding" was chosen as a worthy foil to "inadequate" and a true recognition of some of what inspectors have seen in the past and expect to see in schools.

At Litherland high school in Sefton, Merseyside, head Jim Donnelly is mulling over what grade to give himself. Litherland was inspected in March 2004, so Ofsted is not expected to call. But the entire point of the new system is that no one can be sure. So the school's SEF is being drafted just in case.

"Words like 'outstanding' will lead to people using the middle two grades,"

he says. "People would use 'excellent' more readily, but there might be reluctance to use the word 'outstanding', which for most of us means the top 1 or 2 per cent."

But Mr Donnelly isn't going to lose any sleep over the decision.

"Who is going to read this stuff?," he asks. "It's the parents, and the parents aren't going to be critical of a school that describes itself as 'good'."

Ofsted would not be drawn on what percentage of schools were expected to be "outstanding" or "inadequate". There is no quota system, but in the first tranche of inspections this term 8 per cent were rated outstanding, 56 per cent good, 28 per cent satisfactory and 8 per cent inadequate.

Feedback from schools showed children's view of their schools is being taken very seriously by Ofsted. A head's ability to judge teaching quality is also examined. Heads have been asked to observe a lesson with an inspector and then talk to the inspector about the teacher's strengths and weaknesses.

Jack Hatch, head of successful St Bede's primary in Bolton, commented:

"I've been here since 1992 and if I haven't got it under my belt by now, I deserve to be kicked out."

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