On a mission not to explain

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Martin Titchmarsh asks why OFSTED is so secretive with its data. The recent government decision for targets to be set for all schools in order to improve examination performance will be cautiously welcomed by many schools. It appears the Government is acknowledging the concept of added value by giving schools benchmarks based on the performance of "schools of their type".

The contextual information to enable schools to be placed with others will be taken primarily from the Office for Standards in Education database (Times Educational Supplement, September 20). The body has now inspected three quarters of all secondary schools and has amassed a vast bank of information. It uses it primarily to provide Registered Inspectors with statistical information in a Pre-Inspection Context and School Indicator (PICSI) report which enables them to assess a school's performance.

Although OFSTED releases some national statistical information in its documents, or in the chief inspector of schools' Annual Report, it is holding on to a great deal of up-to-date, useful data. You may have seen some of this information when you were inspected, but at the moment you will have to wait at least another four years, or perhaps six, to be allowed to see up-to-date statistics.

I recently received a copy of a PICSI when my school was inspected. OFSTED is remarkably coy about the information. "This document is Crown Copyright. All information supplied in it is for use only in connection with the inspection at the Nobel School. It must not be used for any other purpose." Rather paradoxically in an accompanying letter I am also informed that I have received this information "as part of OFSTED's aim for greater openness in inspection". So what are these state secrets in the autumn term 1996 PICSI? What doesn't OFSTED want you to know?

There is a great deal of detailed data on public examinations which would help schools with a regular performance review. It would also be useful contextual information for a governor's annual reports to parents.

There are also national statistics taken from the headteacher's forms which schools are required to complete at the time of an inspection. Much of this practical management information is broken down into the relevant details for schools of different types and sizes.

By using the PICSI a school's pastoral team would, for example, be able to compare its incidence of permanent and fixed-period exclusions with the national picture and make comparisons with the national statistics for boys and girls and for pupils of different ethnic origin. A school could examine its attendance in the light of the national figures of authorised and unauthorised absence; which are broken down by types of schools, year group and specific terms in the school year.

Curriculum planners would be able to compare their school with the national picture on the length of the school week and the average amount of taught time nationally for each national curriculum subject. What is an average allocation of time for RE at key stage 4? The answer is in the PICSI along with every other subject. Worried about the decline in children taking two modern languages? You can use the PICSI to compare your boys' and girls' take-up with the national figures.

Governors and senior staff would find the information on school income and expenditure very useful. Unit costs per pupil are given for different types of schools and expenditure is given in percentage terms for items in school budgets including important ones such as teacher and support staff pay and learning structures. It also gives information that can measure support staff numbers and whether teachers are being asked to do too much.

OFSTED's retention of this information runs counter to national trends. Many schools are taking part in informal information exchanges. LEAs are providing statistics and encouraging schools to use benchmarking to assist their planning process. The Audit Commission has produced three booklets entitled Adding up the Sums and in the preface to one states: "Heads and governors can feel isolated while managing significant budgets. They do not routinely have access to data about similar schools and cannot compare their own school's managerial performance with others". The Department for Education and Employment has published as part of the Improving Schools Programme a document Benchmarking School Budgets ironically subtitled "Sharing Good Practice". In it the DFEE points to the importance of being able to compare a school's resource allocation and performance with other similar schools. All schools understand the importance of securing value for money. As budgets become tighter it will be more crucial to use comparative information and benchmarking to manage the margins.

Contemporary records tell us that in 1085 William the Conqueror had "very deep speech with his wise men about the land, how it was peopled and by what sort of men". He then sent his officers out to investigate. "So minutely did he cause it to be searched out that there was no one hide or yard of land, nor even (it is shameful to write of it, but he thought it not shameful to do it), an ox, or cow, or a swine that was not set down in his writ".

OFSTED has carried out its own Domesday survey. Its objective is "Improvement through Inspection". The body will release information to inspectors to help them inspect and to the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority to enable it to set schools targets, but will not provide schools with comparative information which would be of practical use in their planning, resource allocation and self-evaluation.

Some of the information that Ofsted holds can be found by scouring its, and other, publications, but isn't it time that OFSTED stopped this secretiveness and assisted the process of school improvement by publishing an annual digest of some of the most important pieces of comparative management information?

Martin Titchmarsh is headteacher of The Nobel School, Stevenage

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