Give us the data and the power to change

20th October 1995 at 01:00
A focus of the School Effectiveness Conference, "Learning from Each Other" at the London Institute of Education (TES, October 6) was how we ought to measure improvement. This led, naturally, to much detailed analysis of "value added", and the role of the Office for Standards in Education.

OFSTED, it is widely conceded, has a major role to play in the area of benchmarking. But is it doing so? Apparently, officials now possess a database of more than 300,000 lessons and access to the most sophisticated breakdown imaginable of exam results - by gender, size and type of school, and by socio-economic area. However, only a small amount of this vast information base is shared with schools.

Those lucky enough to have their inspection sooner rather than later receive two documents, the PICSI (Pre-Inspection Context and School Information report) and the PICSI Annex. The first is tailored specifically to the school and is an attempt to put that one institution into a proper context. As such, it is a laudable idea, though the practice falls well short of the idea since the information is often out of date or just plain wrong. It ought to be a benchmarker's paradise and every school ought to get one (and be able to amend it) within the next six months. If that happened we would all have important information, and could also ensure that more accurate judgments were made by inspectors and politicians alike.

The other document is the Annex, extremely detailed and giving a good deal of sophisticated analysis of recent exam data. It allows schools to begin to compare like with like. It isn't a "value- added" survey, but at least it breaks down the raw data into meaningful sections.

Some inspectors complain that the Annex, too, has an alarming number of errors (it is shocking to recount, for example, that the national survey of group sizes is based on the arbitrary and often misleading snapshot in Form 7). However, if all school had access to it, we would all be able to voice that objection. Information is power, and it seems to me unacceptable that so many inaccurate, sloppy and offensive judgments are made about examination results on the basis of crude data, when much more differentiated data is available.

If all schools had the Annex, then some of these views could be challenged and many schools would feel more encouraged.

Benchmarking seems to me a very valuable way of charting a school's progress by comparing it with its peers.

It can be done in a number of ways, but it will only work if schools have the information. OFSTED does have it and should share it with us.

ROGER HALE Head designate Caistor Grammar School Caistor Lincolnshire

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